John Connor is a rockstar on and off the ice. When he’s not running the National Gallery of Art’s ice rink in their beautiful Sculpture Garden, he’s a volunteer coach at Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club. When he’s not teaching kids how to skate, he’s touring Europe with his band Dog Eat Dog. From the delicate process of building ice to playing rowdy clubs Austria, Connor does it all with the goal of making someone else’s day better. His job at the rink, his job in the band and his job at the hockey club are continuations on a theme, he wants to help people have a good time.
And he really wants to drive the Zamboni. While a tour related injury has mostly kept him away from his favorite toy at the rink this season, Connor sounded excited to be back in D.C. when we chatted in late November. The rink had been open for a little over a week and things were going as smoothly as their perfectly built ice. While we talked about his music, what makes NGA’s ice so good and how it feels to ride that Zamboni, Connor jumped from topic to topic with the same amount of exuberance. He loves singing as much as he loves coaching. He loves coaching as much as he loves running around NGA’s rink. It’s all his family, it’s all his home.
What was your first job?
My first job was delivering newspapers! I was probably between the ages of 10 and 12 years old. Back in Northern New Jersey, where I grew up, kids were paper carriers. That was my entry point into the working world.
What was the paper?
The Bergen Record… And then we had a once a week paper called The Suburbanite. It was a fun job. I could get out on my bike and ride around. It was something to do and a way to get a little income for stuff kids want. I wasn’t so good at collecting the money, so my dad had my older sister manage me from time to time.
From delivering newspapers you’ve become the ice rink manager at the Sculpture Garden. How did you start working there?
I had moved to D.C. and was looking for something to do part time. I like to say I was looking for a disposable job. At the time, and still today, I have a band that I’ve been in for 30 years. I knew we had some touring commitments, spring and summer is always the busiest time for us because we do a lot of work in Europe.
I was looking for a job that fall of 2001 and a buddy of mine had worked down here as a rink guard. Coincidentally, I had just started to play ice hockey again after a pretty long break. He was like, “You’re looking for a job and you just started skating? Maybe you should go down to the Sculpture Garden.” I thought that was a perfect idea. It was funny, I had just come down here and the rink wasn’t even built yet. I was like, “Where’s this ice rink you’re talking about? There’s only a fountain!” They told me to come back and sure enough I did. I came down and told them I was willing to do anything, but you have to teach me how to drive that Zamboni. That’s been a lifelong dream of mine.
How far in advance do you start planning to open the rink?
Fortunately, for someone like myself and most of my team, we’ve been here for a long time and we have the experience. We know what we’re getting into on a seasonal basis. We’re also lucky that the National Gallery of Art does most of the work for us. They transform the fountain, they build the structures, they put up the boards and all of the equipment for the rink and then we come in and assemble the inside of our skate shed and get all the skates prepared with fresh laces and sharpening. Usually, if we open around the middle of November, November 1 is when we get on site and start doing our thing. Generally before we end the season in March, we have an opening day set up for the forthcoming season.
I know building up the ice is incredibly weather dependent, who do you trust when it comes to a weather forecast?
Everybody on my team and the management here have their own sources for weather and we just compare notes. For me, managing outdoor recreation sites for the better part of the last 15 years or so, I keep an eye on the weather daily. My source is generally Weather.com. I’ve been using it for so long I know when they say 40% or 60%, I actually know what that means. I try to stick with the same weather source as my main, but we go to Capital Weather Gang, Weather Underground.
Aside from the weather, one of he big things people might not think about when making ice is the way the trees are. Because of climate change, there are a lot more leaves on the trees than there used to be. Traditionally, the trees were in their final stages and most of the leaves were falling off, and now sitting here in the wonderful Pavilion Cafe, I’m seeing so many leaves that are still green. In a way that’s helped us, because the leaves are on the trees longer and there’s less of a chance they’re going to end up in the ice surface as we try and build it up. That’s one thing we want to try and avoid and keep the ice debris free as we bring it up to the proper depth.
Have you noticed any changes in the kind of people who come to the ring? Has the age range changed? More people, less people?
I wouldn’t say the demographics have changed too much. We have a mix of locals who know about this place and return year after year and the tourists who stumble upon the place, or tourists who come here specifically. We have tons of people who come and can’t believe there’s an open air ice rink in the middle of the National Mall.
One thing that has changed quite a bit over time is the offerings. In 2001, there were just a few outdoor ice rinks in the DMV and now there’s probably 10 or 12. One advantage that we have on our competition, besides a wonderful location, is we have fantastic equipment. The refrigeration equipment is top of the line. I learned from some great mentors on how to make and maintain great ice and we put a lot of effort into making sure our outdoor ice is the standard in this area.
Last year we had Cirque du Soleil come down here and the performers gave me a really nice compliment. They said our outdoor ice was better than a lot of the surfaces they’ve been on indoors. That made me feel really proud of our work. It makes your day when people recognize your good work, all of those days you come in early or stay late to make sure the ice is perfect all pays off.
Speaking on that, what’s the hallmark of good ice? How do you know when you enter a rink if the ice is good or not?
Generally you want it to be firm. You don’t want soft ice, or something that feels soft to you. You want to have a nice and smooth glide… If you go out on a frozen pond, you’re going to see cracks and divots and you’re going to have snow built up on it and your glide is not going to be as good. If you’re out there and you take a few pushes, you have a nice glide, you’re not feeling any drag, you’re not feeling any unevenness or a change in texture, those are the things you look at when you’re comparing ice.
For me, when I go out and check out the competition and look at some of the area rinks, a lot of times what happens is they get weather and they’re not able to remove it and bring that ice level down, so it builds up over time. When you have rain, snow and sleet, even humidity will affect your ice. Unless you’re constantly working on that ice and trying to keep a depth of one inch, when it gets higher than that, your refrigeration equipment is working harder to keep that frozen. Outdoors, you have UV rays and sunlight that’s going to affect it. It really comes down to rolling up your sleeves and making sure that anything that comes out of the sky over the course of the night when you’re gone is removed as quickly as possible.
So I’d guess the busiest time of your day is in the morning?
That’s when I can get the most work done. We’re dealing with a facility where we don’t own this property, We’re concessionaires, we’re guests here, contractors. So we have to work within the confines of what the National Gallery wants and what they consider safe. I can’t come here in the middle of the night, for instance, and do work unless it’s been pre-approved. And I’ve done that before. I’ve been here during snow storms, like when we had the Snowmageddon years ago. I spent 20 hours at the rink. I’ll stay overnight if I have to, to keep up with snow and not let things sit on the ice… If you would have told me when I was 10 or 12, or even 16, that I’d be driving a Zamboni in the middle of a snowstorm in downtown D.C., I would have thought that was pretty cool. Most people run from snow storms and things like that, but I get ready and go to work.
Speaking of this beautiful Zamboni, can you tell me about the model you have?
The Gallery picked up a new machine for us four years ago, so it’s still pretty brand new. We’re an outdoor rink and we have one of the few gas powered Zambonis. At the time they bought it, I think someone at NGA told me there were only four to six produced that whole year.
It’s a pretty unique machine. I like this one. Unfortunately, the thing about this one is it’s a little more modern. The older one was like a tank, it wasn’t one of these engines that was attached to computers and sensors, it was just an old Volvo engine. I could run it eight hours at a time during snow storms and things like that. The one I have now is a little bit more temperamental. You need to give it more breaks because it’s not air cooled like the one we had previously, it’s a water cooled machine and it has a radiator.
They’re very simple machines in what they do. I know they fascinate people. It’s just a part of culture that’s still a mystery to some people. It never gets old. Even now when we have big crowds around the holidays, when the Zamboni comes out people break out there cameras. They might be walking around, appreciating all the sculptures in the garden, but when you fire up the machine people stop and stare. It hasn’t lost its shine at all for me.
What do you do in the summer when you’re not riding that Zamboni? I’ve heard you’re in a band.
Basically, I’ve been a fan of music ever since I was in grammar school, a teenager. I love the energy of all music really. I was interested in music in high school and I had buddies who played guitar, bass and drums and things. They were like, “You know all these words, why don’t you come be our singing?” And I was like, “I can’t sing! I don’t know how to do this.” Anyway, they talked me into it and the rest is history.
I had some buddies that were in a band and they had traveled a little bit internationally. When they decided they were going to start a new project, they asked me if I wanted to sing and it was a natural fit. We were all friends anyway and we were very liked minded on what type of music we wanted to do and what type of band we wanted to be. The band started in 1990 and we had our first record come out in 1994. Fortunately for us, our record label was based in Europe and we had an opportunity to go on tour as a support band and things just took off. We got our video on some specialty shows in MTV in Europe and then we started getting regular play on MTV with our first album. Within a year, we had won an MTV Award in Europe for Best New Artist and we started travelling Internationally and doing that full time.
We had a blast from ’94 to probably 2001. Things changed after 9/11, as far as travelling and opportunities for us. Over the course of time, the music business became less fun and more business oriented. I started putting my energy into work here at the ice rink and I also found a passion for coaching. I’ve been with the same club, the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club in Southeast. They’ve been going for 40 years now and I’ve been with them for 17 seasons. We’ve gained a lot of notoriety locally, nationally and internationally as being the first minority run hockey program in North America. Our founder, Neal Henderson, is going to be inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s the first African American inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame here, so it’s a big deal. It’s a volunteer thing, so I found something I’m passionate about, it’s a good cause and I’ve been able to impact the lives of many kids in the area. It’s done a lot for me as well… Like the band, it’s a family.
What I’ve been able to do with the band, like I said, the music business kind of became a bummer because of the business side of it. We learned how to downsize the business, we broke up with our management, we broke up with our record company, we just found a way to make it fun and that meant making it smaller. The last 15 years I’ve been able to balance having a normal career and also doing the music thing. I’ve been real fortunate that Guest Services Inc. has allowed me to pursue that passion and find that balance.
To combine all of your interests… What do you think is the best music to skate to?
You need a beat. Some sort of thing to keep you moving. You have to have some sort of drive. Even though the Pavilion Cafe is here and they’re known for their jazz, I always try to change the music because that’s not a great thing to skate to. Some people love waltzes, some people love pop.
One thing I’ve learned in 18 years of working here is you can’t please everybody all the time with the music. We try to create a variety. Funny enough, I love the Christmas season and Christmas songs, but I have a knack for finding Christmas songs that are non-traditional. I love finding Christmas songs in reggae style or funk style or whatever it is. Just something that’s a little bit of a juxtaposition. I can’t say it’s the best music to skate to, but I think something that drives the legs, keeps people moving and maybe catches their ear.