Sunday is the final skating show where Zamboni driver Ray Diabo will be behind the wheel keeping the ice smooth for the skaters. Thus ends a 33-year career at the Sports Complex. (Daniel J Rowe, The Eastern Door)
When Ray Diabo joined Frank “Putsky” Rice, Kenny Kane and the late Roger “Choo Choo” Goodleaf at the Kahnawake Sports Complex to work in 1986, things were a touch different. No one had a cell phone (let alone one without a cord), the Montreal Canadiens were Stanley Cup champions and Joe Norton was MCK grand chief.
(Well, some things are the same, I suppose).
Kane and Rice will enter May as the last two of those who worked the first shifts at the Sports Complex.
The 71-year-old maintenance man Diabo will clear the ice Sunday at the Kahnawake Figure Skating Club’s 25th anniversary, and it will be the last time Diabo will do so, as he will retire at the end of the month.
“I thought about it for a good six months, and I came in one day and just thought, ‘that’s it,” said Diabo.
A health scare helped Diabo make his decision.
“I had a slight stroke in January,” he said. “It wasn’t bad, but it was a wake up call.”
Diabo spoke about it with his wife Irene and children Ray Jr., Rachel and Gina, and will move on from clearing the skate marks and scuffs made by the thousands of Kahnawa’kehró:non and other athletes who have used the complex over the decades.
“I watched so many people come and go from this building,” said Diabo. “A lot of them were this high (gestures to about two feet off the ground), and now they’re off doing a job somewhere, and their kids are here. It’s nice to see a lot of people come and go.”
Throughout the years, he saw the building improved with a new refrigeration system and seating where bleachers once were.
“There was not really anything crazy that went on aside from some fights that happened in hockey and lacrosse games,” said Diabo.
There is one part of the Complex he regrets had to go.
“It was nice when they had the bar,” he said. “It was making good money, but then a handful of people, they closed us down. It was making really good revenue. People didn’t understand it at all.”
Working maintenance at the Sports Complex is no 9-5 bank job, and Diabo admitted that it took some getting used to.
“You start about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and you’re out of here at the latest maybe 12-1 a.m., and we have weekends,” he said.
Over the years, Diabo said he was blessed to meet not just those from the community, but the many who utilize the facility from out of town.
“I got to know a lot of the people here,” he said. “Eighty per cent of the clientele are from out of town, and I know them all. They’re all my friends.”
Some of the biggest events he remembers were when the facility was graced with legends of pro hockey years past.
“When they had the Boston alumni or Canadiens alumni game here it was crazy packed, but it was nice,” said Diabo, who sides with the team in red.
Before picking up the Zamboni keys at the Sports Complex, Diabo drove a truck for the town garage for five years, mostly in a seasonal capacity. He was an ironworker beforehand.
He plans on staying busy and going back to the trade he enjoys.
“I’m going to drive a truck in town here, locally. I was thinking about maybe starting my own taxi run – day shifts only, no nights,” said Diabo with a laugh.
He said he will miss the building and it seems unlikely that he will be a complete stranger to those who still work there.
“The people here, the building itself. This is like my home. I’m here almost every day. I don’t have to be here, but I come every day. Just as an excuse, ‘I’ve got to check the schedule or check something,’” he said.
“I’m going to miss the people that work here.”