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Behind the wheel of a Zamboni: GRCC student Maggie Voelkel navigates life and ice while completing her education

March 14, 2023, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Maggie Voelkel is at Van Andel Arena on a Saturday afternoon, and she is on the move.

Although puck drop for the Grand Rapids Griffins isn’t for another two hours, she’s walking with a purpose through the ground-level labyrinth on the building’s south side, headed toward her favorite of the two Zambonis that are used to make the ice right for the home squad.

There are propane tanks to be checked, water levels that need to be ascertained, maybe a tire or two that needs topping off and, in general, a thorough walk-around to make sure “the Zam” is ready to roll.

She’s one of two drivers at the arena, and on Griffins game nights, the first of her three passes takes place at roughly 6:48 p.m., after both teams have their pre-game warmup, with one more after each of the first two periods. And for Voelkel, a Grand Rapids Community College student on track to graduate in August 2023, nothing is left to chance.

“Driving the Zam is a little like driving a car,” she said with a big smile. “Except it’s a really expensive car. So, you definitely want to double-check and triple-check everything.”

Voelkel first took the wheel of a Zamboni in 2014 when she was hired to keep the ice clean – among many other sundry duties – at Griff’s Icehouse in Grand Rapids. That apprenticeship, of sorts, led to a call-up to the big leagues five years ago when she was hired to do the job at Van Andel Arena.

A new Zamboni runs around $200,000 and, according to the Zamboni website, there are only 12,000 or so in the world. The machines, named after inventor Frank J. Zamboni, resurface the arena’s ice.

The two Zambonis at Van Andel Arena are similar but with some small, subtle differences, and Voelkel prefers driving the Meijer Jolly Green Giant. By now, she said, it fits her like a glove. But she still recalls her maiden voyage on a machine that weighs almost 10,000 pounds when filled with water.

“Oh my gosh,” she said. “I was so nervous. It was a Saturday night, and there was a huge crowd. My hands were shaking.”

But just like a player making his professional debut with the Griffins, Voelkel had to trust her training and lean on the fundamentals of her craft.

“I had to remind myself that the rink here is the same size as at Griff’s,” she said. “And the Zamboni is basically the same Zamboni. Once I settled down a little, I was fine.”

In fact, the arena staff gave her a puck from that game, just like a player might get a puck for his first game or first goal.

“I have it in a case by my nightstand,” she said with a laugh. “I’m such a hockey nerd.”

Voelkel comes by it honestly. She grew up playing hockey, still plays in various leagues around town and her husband, Zach Feldt, is a manager and adult hockey league coordinator at Patterson Ice Arena (where Voelkel is an on-call, emergency Zam driver).

She calls driving the Zamboni her dream job, and she gets to live out that dream in five-hour increments 40 nights a year at Griffins home games, plus at other events in the arena as needed.

But she also works full time at HearUSA, a hearing aid center on the north side of Grand Rapids, and she is back at GRCC, taking a class a semester as she works her way toward a degree in Exercise Science.

Like many GRCC students, Voelkel’s higher education path has not been a straight line from her 2014 Northview High School graduation. She first went to Ferris State University with an eye toward a degree and a career in athletic training, but it didn’t work out as she had hoped, with cost being a major factor.

Then came her first pass at GRCC, but she ended up leaving the college four credits short of an associate degree in Exercise Science. Being so close nagged at her, like a little strip of missed ice in the middle of a freshly cleaned sheet – the bane of Zamboni drivers around the world.

So last summer, she returned to the classes and labs of a college campus for the third time. And now she is on track to graduate this year with that degree in Health and Exercise Science. She said she wants to make a difference in the world in whatever ways, big and small, that she can.

“Doing something with physical therapy or occupational therapy would be my dream,” she said. “With my current job, I can make a small difference. But I think it would be extremely rewarding to work with people in a physical therapy session and help them get to where they’re trying to go.”

GRCC has helped her see that her dreams are possible, she said.

“A lot of my favorite classes are the ones pertaining to my degree,” she said. “All of my professors are so passionate about teaching and make sure to let us know that they are available to help. It is nice seeing how they not only care about what they are teaching, but also making sure we succeed as students.”

Her own personal journey and growth has also contributed to her continued success as a student.

“When I first started at GRCC, I was in a toxic relationship,” she said. “My focus was not fully there, and I also worked a lot at that time as well. My focus began to fade, and I had to take time off and build myself back up. Being 26 now, I have gone through and have overcome many life obstacles.”

Voelkel also credits her mom and many other women in her extended family for her growing sense of self and her quiet independence.

“I do not have to work as much as I do, but I do like to make sure money is saved just in case,” she said. “My mom is strong and had to go through a lot. I work as much as I do and want to develop my career, so my life doesn't have to be as much of a struggle as what she went through.”

Top speed on a Zamboni is just under 10 mph, and it takes time – almost 10 minutes of more or less going in circles for one machine to resurface a typical ice rink. But at the end of those 10 minutes, hacked-up, snowy ice has been turned into a smooth, glistening sheet that’s perfect for skating.

There’s another thing too. When you drive the Zam, Voelkel said, you can’t exactly see where you’re going.

“You really can’t see over the front of it at all,” she said with a laugh. “People don’t realize that.”

Instead, you navigate by looking off to the side, to your left, using little navigational guides like the lines on the Zam and the boards and other visual aids that come to be part of your toolkit over time.

Voelkel said her higher education journey has been a little like that. Though it might appear she has been going in circles, she’s making progress and her degree is in sight. The view out front has often been imperfect, but leaning on the little things in her life that stay constant has helped her understand that she’s making progress, going in the right direction and getting to where she needs to be.

That it took a community college to make it happen is something she wishes she had known more about a decade ago.

“A four-year degree is not something everybody needs to do,” she said as she watched the Griffins warm up just a few feet away. “It’s not for everybody. GRCC has been great for me. It’s maybe taken me a little longer to get to where I want to be, but I’m getting there.”

Like a fresh sheet of ice, her future awaits.

This story was reported by Phil de Haan.

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