Park City Ice Arena Zamboni driver will polish Olympic ice in Pyeongchang
It’s hard to tell where life will take you. Just ask Mike Diersen. For years he was a carpenter, following work around the country, but through an improbable turn of events, he has been hired by South Korea to drive the ice resurfacer, better known as a Zamboni, for the hockey games at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
He said it was a dream he never thought he would experience.
“You want to go to the Olympics, but I never knew how to get there,” he said. “I mean, hockey was an avenue, but I’m only 5-foot-8. I’m good but not that good. And then skiing and all that stuff, but I’m not that good at that either. Then this door opened and it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m not in it, but I’m in it.’ That’s the way I’m looking at it. It’s the back door.”
Diersen was born in Illinois and grew up in several places around the U.S. Until about a decade ago, he made his living working as a carpenter in California. Then his uncle introduced him to a friend who was building houses in Park City, and recommended Diersen come see what was going on.
The day he arrived in Park City, it was dumping snow.
“That pretty much sucked me in,” he said.
He worked as a framer and carpenter and played pickup hockey at the Park City Ice Arena after it opened in 2006.
“I was (at the arena) all the time, and the (operations) manager at the time saw me coming in a lot and offered me a job,” Diersen said.
The offer was timely. It was 2008, and the housing market had just crashed, leaving Diersen out of work. He took the job.
“And I just sharpened skates; that’s all I did when I first got here,” he said. “I sharpened skates for eight hours a day, three days a week, for almost two months. It was skates, skates, skates, skates, skates.”
Then a job as the Zamboni driver opened up, which he took. According to Amanda Angevine, the general manager at Park City Ice Arena, Diersen also started working custodial duties to become a full-time employee.
Since then, Diersen has spent his time learning the art of refrigeration — “keeping the ice, maintaining the ice, for right around eight years now,” he said.
“But the city in itself has sent me off to San Jose; Detroit; Columbus, Ohio, to this organization called NARCE (The North American Rink Conference and Expo), and all these ice minds come together for a week and teach you how to run refrigeration, proper maintenance on machines, how to maintain the ice,” Diersen said. “So the city has actually paid me to leave and learn all the skills I need to, in my opinion, pretty much have the best ice in Utah.”
Then there were several additional twists of fate. First, the National Hockey League decided not to go to the Olympics, which meant the South Korean government would have to find an alternate ice maintenance crew. Then, Diersen’s friend, Brandon Klement of Complete Ice Arena Services, was selected as the assistant chief ice maker for the hockey venues in Pyeongchang.
He, in turn, recommended Diersen to be one of the Zamboni drivers.
“This is the main reason Mike was chosen,” Klement wrote via email. “He is a very experienced person in the industry and is self-motivated; however, he is a person that is enthusiastic and easy to work with, which is the main reason he was one of the top choices. We will be together for almost two months and we wanted to assemble a staff that you know will be easy to work with and will take charge if you are not present, and that is Mike.”
While in South Korea, Diersen will perform duties similar to his job at Park City Ice Arena — driving the Zamboni between hockey games and practices, and maintaining the ice arena’s glass, boards and ice — but he will also train Korean Zamboni drivers so they can take care of their arena once he leaves.
Klement said that Diersen would also be the only one of eight drivers to remain after the Olympics and help prepare the Gangnueng Hockey Center and its practice rink for the Paralympics in March.
“His knowledge and ambition will greatly be relied on during this time,” Klement said.
Thrilled with the opportunity, Diersen told Angevine as soon as he knew it was a possibility, but the details of just how long he would be gone were unclear for months.
Eventually, his trip length was settled on — a full 50 days.
“In my mind, there’s not much of a difference between six weeks and, like, three months,” Angevine said. “We’re going to have to be self-sustaining either way, but I think the guys here are totally ready and capable to do it.”
Angevine said that, from the outset, she didn’t want to get in the way of Diersen’s opportunity, and her coworkers felt the same way.
“Everyone is willing to step up and is excited to see him go,” she said.
Over his trip, Diersen said his main goals are to see some of South Korea, practice jiu-jitsu and hockey, and, of course, drive the Zamboni at a gold-medal hockey game.
“I’m going to be in a facility with 10,000 people,” he said. “It’s not that they are there to see me at all. There won’t be many — if anyone — paying attention while I’m out there, but just the fact that I was out there making the sheet for the gold medal game would be pretty cool.”
Reflecting on his circumstances, he said there was no way he could have predicted going to the Winter Games.
“Don’t know how or why it’s happened, but it’s an experience and opportunity that doesn’t happen to a lot of people,” he said. “I’m pretty honored to be able to do it. I called my mom and dad and told them I was going. They couldn’t believe it. No one’s been able to believe it, really.”
Nevertheless, it’s real, and all that had to happen was a chance meeting, a powder day, an economic downturn, a job opening, a city willing to train its ice rink employees, and a friend that valued Diersen’s appreciation for smoothing the ice.
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