Detroit Red Wings, longtime Zamboni driver Al Sobotka part ways

Detroit Free Press

Al Sobotka, who maintained the ice, drove the Zamboni, twirled octopi over his head and was a master of the barbeques for the Detroit Red Wings, is no longer with the organization.

A source confirmed to the Free Press on Wednesday that Sobotka and the Wings have parted ways. A team spokesman declined to comment. Don McLean, a representative for Sobotka, sent an email to the Free Press with a statement from Sobotka: “I loved my 51 years with the Detroit Red Wings, and would have been happy to stay 51 more.” 

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Sobotka, 68, had been a Wings employee since 1971, 11 years before Bruce Norris sold the team to Mike and Marian Ilitch. Sobotka attended Detroit Northwestern and graduated from Denby High. After high school, neighborhood friends helped him get hired at Olympia Stadium, where he worked on the cleanup crew. He started on the midnight shift and moved to the day shift, and worked his way up to building operations manager at Cobo Hall. Sobotka eventually moved into an office in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena, from where he oversaw a crew of about 70 people.

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Sobotka gained fame in the 1990s when he added a twist to picking up the octopi fans would hurl onto the ice during the playoffs: Sobotka would pick one up and twirl it overhead as fans cheered. When the Wings debuted a purple octopus as their mascot in the ’95 playoffs, they named it Al the Octopus, after Sobotka.

For years, a lucky fan would get to ride with Sobotka as he steered the Zamboni around the ice during intermissions. One of those who rode along was former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

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Behind the scenes, players came to rely on Sobotka for his barbecues. Multiple times a season, he’d fire up a grill inside the Joe and grill ribs, burgers, anything the players wanted. When smoke from the barbecue started wafting onto the ice, then-coach Scotty Bowman fumed. From then on, Sobotka moved his grill into a nook outside.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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