By Zachary Pearce
“Welcome to my office.” Dennis Flavin, hair pulled back in a ponytail below a baseball hat punctuated by a fading block U, smiles. The hulking, dormant zamboni sits to his left, now retired for the season. Rolls of hockey tape hang from the walls while a hockey stick rests against a cabinet. Dennis’s office, tucked away in the back of Messa Rink, is anything but conspicuous. Yet it seems as if this is the very core of the facility—attracting players, coaches and passersby who constantly flow in and out. At first glance, it seems an odd choice for the veritable nerve center of the rink. But when the man behind the desk begins to talk, it becomes clear that the room itself has nothing to do with its appeal.
“You know, I’ve always wanted to drive a zamboni,” I say sheepishly, hoping to launch into conversation with the 27-year veteran of the college—23 of which have been served as zamboni driver. “The keys are in it! Take it for a spin,” he laughs. “They’ve got an opening here.” There is no sense of regret in Dennis’s voice.
Rather, as he playfully recounts his most poignant memories of the last two decades at the heart of Union athletics, he seems content with his decision to retire. “It’s time for somebody else to have some fun. If I get homesick, I’ll come back and visit, but I will not do a guest appearance. I’ll go out a winner, and keep it that way.”
Dennis is not just retiring from his post as zamboni driver and chief object of affection of both the men and women’s hockey teams; he is leaving the east coast entirely. Dennis and his family will relocate to Elko, Nevada, a small city in view of the majestic Ruby Mountains.
“I’m going to become a pig farmer and an Angus beef steerer—a rancher,” he says proudly. “It’s now or never. It’s so relaxing, there’s no rush. The nearest neighbor is 11 miles away. Quiet, just what I need.”
It will undoubtedly be a change for the native upstate New Yorker, although he looks forward to avoiding the ice—the nearest rink, by Dennis’s admission, is in Las Vegas. This will not be the first drastic career change Flavin has undertaken. Before sizing his driving gloves, Dennis spent the first few years of his Union tenure working in the Dutch Hollow Pub in the basement of the previous incarnation of the Reamer Campus Center, formerly dubbed Carnegie Hall. Dennis reflected on his career as a chef at the pub and later at the Rathskellar. “It was getting harder and harder, [and the zamboni job] opened up. You get burned out. It’s a tough business. Now I’ve got a family. I can’t just think about myself.”
Hired by former head coach Bruce Delventhal in September of 1988, Dennis assumed his future position under uncertain circumstances.
“The reason I got the job,” he recalls fondly, “[was] because I knew how to run a saw… And this is the God’s honest truth, they told me [the zamboni] was an ice machine. I thought it was an ice cube machine. I had no idea. I never saw a hockey game in my life [in person] until I came here.”
Now, more than two decades later, Dennis remains more than an integral part of the Union hockey legacy: he, in many ways, is the enduring face of a program that has undergone massive changes—and improvement—since its fledgling days in the late 1980s.
Still, Dennis retains his patented brand of optimism and steadfast support of both the men and women’s hockey teams. “We’re Cleary Cup champions, you can’t take that away. That’s a banner that’s going to go up in the rafters. I thought I’d never see the day: another banner go up [for] Union hockey?” He knows that it will not be too long until the women’s team reaches the same heights as the men’s squad: “It’s going to take time, [but] their heads are up. Dania Simmonds will make a great captain. It’s the baby steps you have to take. They’ll be there.”
When asked to recall his most enduring memories of his time at Union, Dennis reaches back to the not-too-distant past. “One is for the guys winning the Clearly Cup,” he beams. “The atmosphere in this building [was] indescribable. And to be in that locker room after the game with the guys, was an honorable moment, almost tear-jerking.” The other? “The standing ovation, the farewell.”
During the same game Union clinched the Cleary Cup, and the final game of the men’s regular season, the fans were alerted that this would be Dennis’s final season. During the second intermission, fans stood and chanted “one more year” as Dennis made his rounds on the zamboni. “I didn’t even know what they were doing until I drove by one of the guys moving the nets…and he said, ‘you gotta wave to them.’ I go, ‘wave to what?’ ‘They made an announcement,’ he replied. ‘They’re cheering for you!’” As the goal horn blew, Dennis stepped onto the ice, saluting the roaring crowd.
The man who has buoyed the spirits of all those who have entered his office, of all those on any sports team, was suddenly through the looking glass. It was as if all those he has encouraged, joked with, and cheered for over the past two decades were suddenly adopting his patented role. They were cheering for him.