Vinnie Vitale found a home at Milford Ice Pavilion

Hockey players, figure skaters, public skaters alike, of all ages and abilities, have gone through the doors of Milford Ice Pavilion, laced ’em up and taken advantage of the smooth ice surface for decades.

None of this activity would be possible without the ice grooming machine or its lead driver, Vinnie Vitale, who has worked at the rink since 1976, the year after it opened.

Vitale, who grew up just down the street from Milford Ice Pavilion, didn’t know four decades ago that when he walked in to find a job that it would be one he’d probably hold for his career.

“I just lived in the neighborhood. It was one of my first jobs,” said Vitale, who was a teenager at the time and is now 59.

Vitale remains a fixture at Milford Ice Pavilion as much as the skating surface itself. He cleans the ice between periods of and after games and lessons, clinics, open skates, pickup hockey and practices at the rink.

When he isn’t on the ice, he’s busy doing everything from sharpening skates to replacing missing screws in player helmets just in time for the opening faceoff.

Skating rinks work on unusual schedules and are quite versatile, and Vitale is very much the same. He’s opened the snack bar before games, prepared the ice as early as 6 in the morning or after midnight for the later crowds.

Milford Ice Pavilion is home to youth and high school teams and programs throughout the area, as well as college hockey and recreational adult leagues,

Vitale said his bosses, rink owners Marty and Perry Roos, who are a father-son team, as well as John Lasher, along with the people he meets and interact with at the rink — or even outside of Milford Ice Pavilion for that matter — are what make the job rewarding.

“The people are good. It’s like a family. Everybody takes care of everybody,” Vitale said. “I’m used to being in here. It’s always different, between the parents, the kids. That’s what keeps you going. I can go anywhere in the state and people that have been here know me. They say ‘why aren’t you working?’”

Vitale rides both a Zamboni and Olympian at Milford Ice Pavilion. He said the original one he used back in the middle 1970s was built on a Jeep body and had paddles that threw the snow.

Operating the Zamboni isn’t as cut and dry as it may seem.

“There’s quite a bit to it. You’ve got all the different levers you have to use,” Vitale said. “The ice machines have blades that cut the ice, hot water to melt the surface and smooth out the cracks, pumps to pick up the water and conveyors to pick up the snow buildup. The snow is collected in a tank. Then what you have to do is take it outside and you drop it.”

Easy enough, right?

Except in the winter months when the snow doesn’t melt. The mounds of snow can get pretty big when it’s cold out. “You start to run out of space when you go to dump it out because it lines the whole building,” Vitale said.

Part of the job includes maintenance of the Zamboni or Olympian, including changing the blades sometimes more than once each week in the extremely busy winter months. The rink is bustling during the colder months but remains busy all summer long as well.

Vitale circles around the rink, amassing who knows how many laps throughout the years. But to give an idea, new ice is made approximately every hour and a half, 8 to 10 times a daily, almost every day of the year.

There are other employees who man the ice cleaning machines, but Vitale is by for the longest tenured in that role at Milford Ice Pavilion. The rink is a chilly place to work. It’s about 55 degrees in the summer and can be down in the teens in the winter.

“He’s been here since I was five years old,” said New Haven’s Todd Healey, 34, now an adult hockey league player. “He’s literally been here forever. The guy’s a great guy. He puts everything into it.”

And stands to continue to do so for a long time — “As long as I can,” Vitale said.