“It’s funny, but it’s not uncommon for people to stop me on vacation in Florida and say ‘hey, that’s the Zam guy,” Richard Pickens says with a smile. “Of course, they never know my name but that’s OK with me.”
Known simply as a legend to Alaska’s hockey players, Pickens has been the man behind the Zamboni at the Sullivan Arena for the last 34 years.
The 65-year-old Pickens got his start as a Zamboni driver in 1967 when he would care for the Anchorage Sports Arena. The arena has since been replaced by an Arctic Office Supply. When the Ben Boeke Ice Arena opened in 1974, Pickens took over the job of keeping the ice until he moved across the parking lot to the Sullivan Arena.
“I started at the Sullivan Arena in 1982 but we officially opened our doors with a Willie Nelson concert in 1983,” recalled Pickens. “A lot of people don’t know it but I am also in charge of maintenance at the rink. Driving the Zamboni for games is just the fun part of the job.”
A career spent maintaining the ice for hockey players seems to have been a natural fit for Pickens, who was a hockey player himself.
“If you like to watch hockey, Zamboni driving isn’t a bad job,” says Pickens who grew up watching hockey games with his father. “As a little boy, my Dad would take me to the sports arena and I would watch the teams called the Rockets and the Grizzlies. Then later on there was the Texaco Chiefs, the First National Bank Blades, and Alaska Methodist University. That’s when guys like Brush Christiansen played.”
Pickens’ steely blue eyes glow as he recounts the countless legendary Alaska born players he watched play over the years, many of whom went on to coach the next generation of up-and-coming players.
“When the Anchorage Aces started in 1995, it was all the guys that had played for UAA and I was closer to them because this was their home rink and they were here all the time,” said Pickens. “Some of the guys you couldn’t stand, like Keith Street because he played for the Fairbanks Goldkings. But man, once he came playing for us, he was my hero! So, to watch it all develop over the years was something special.”
Despite 50 years of driving a Zamboni, one particular night will always stand out in Pickens’ mind.
“When the community found out that [former Anchorage Aces player] Stevie MacSwain’s son had Leukemia, they promised to throw money on the ice at the first game if Keith Street would come back and play another season,” said Pickens. “So, on his first game back, it starts raining money over the sides of the arena. You’d be picking up money and then look behind you and it was as if you hadn’t even done anything. I think they raised something like $9,000 that night. That’s what it has always been like at Aces games. It’s a family.”
As the Alaska Aces franchise came to an end on Saturday, April 8 at 9:55pm, Pickens quietly walked to a backroom of the Sullivan Arena and took a seat on a worn metal chair.
“I am going to miss the energy. The cowbells. All the people you see every weekend. I am not kidding you, it’s like when you graduate from high school and you realize it’s the last time you are all going to be together again,” said Pickens as he slowly wrung his hands. “I’ve been doing this so long I’ve seen parents hold up their babies as the Zamboni goes by and I always waved. Then before I know it, I see those same babies all grown up and holding their own children. That’s what I am going to miss.”
*Originally published by the Anchorage Press