Fans crowd into Lynah Rink each weekend during hockey season, knowing two things are for certain. There will always be a great — or sometimes not so great — game of hockey, and “Zamboni Dave” will be dressed in something that is sure to make everyone laugh. While his costumes are as legendary as some of the players who have graced Lynah’s ice, there is more to Dave Nulle that last Saturday night’s Caesar outfit.
Nulle has officially worked for Cornell since 1971; however, he said that he has actually worked for the University longer than that.
“I just happened here on the right date,” he said. “If they were hiring chicken farmers, my life would have been totally different.”
For most of his more than 40 years as the driver of Lynah Rink’s ice resurfacer, Nulle has worn costumes during the games — a tradition which has made him well-known among student fans. The Faithful may have a thief to thank for the tradition.
“I was driving [the Zamboni] out there and I was wearing this hat and it was sort of one of those Russian trooper hats — big thing with flaps that you can tie up on top — and someone reached over and grabbed it off my head and the whole rink began chanting ‘Give it back! Give it back!’” Nulle laughed. “I think that sort of gave this idea to the person from the Student Agencies who was there and he came down afterwards and said ‘If we lent you a tuxedo for the Harvard game, would you wear it?’”
Nulle said he soon realized that he could use costumes to promote the ballroom dance class that he was teaching at the time in Willard Straight Hall.
“I thought ‘Well, a good way to publicize [my class] is to wear something like this, and that’s what I wore,” Nulle said, pointing at an old photo of himself that he clipped from The Sun. “It’s sort of a royal robe and I think it’s a black … trooper’s hat. They said it was a medieval costume — The Sun. They didn’t quite know what it was either, but it was my way of publicizing it. … The fans liked it and I enjoyed it, so I began wearing stuff.”
Nulle began accumulating new outfits everywhere he went, and says he now owns over 300 hats, which he mixes and matches with different costumes to create new looks. He bought some costumes at a local costume shop on Stewart Ave. that has since gone out of business. He said that many of the hats have stories behind them, like the matador hat that he bought in Plaza Mayor in Madrid, and a hat he bought at an Afghan shop on Luquer Street in New York City.
“[The hat from the Afghan shop] was one of my most expensive hats, but I broke [it,]” Nulle said. “It was a hat worn by a male at Turkestan while he was dancing at a wedding in Turkestan. So when this couple came back — he was teaching in one of the Gulf states and he had gotten married the day before he left and so when he came back I had the hat and I said ‘Okay, you’re going to wear this.’ So he was the first one to wear it while we danced, and we did sort of a … Kurdish dance … I was the second person to wear it.”
However, Nulle is not only defined by his legendary costumes and a Zamboni. An experienced dancer and widely traveled man, Nulle has a plethora of unique experiences to share.
“There’s more to me than just the ice man,” he said.
From getting an invitation to dinner with President George W. Bush to dancing at the foot of the Great Pyramid, Nulle leads an interesting life.
“I gave [Bush] some advice … One of the things that I remember was how to deal with the media in a way that wasn’t … whining. To deal with it in a way that says ‘Look, the press has a responsibility, and the American people are the ones who really lose when the press doesn’t report the things,’” Nulle said. “In that particular campaign [in 2000] I was able to call right through to the National Republican Committee … They were the only persons who ever really listened to me.”
As a thank you for his help, Nulle received an invitation to 2001’s “The President’s Dinner, A Congressional Salute” — a black tie and black boots event. Although Nulle could not attend, he still received Christmas cards from George and Laura Bush every year for the rest of Bush’s presidency.
“I would have loved to have gone, but I had an operation at that time,” he said. “I did have the black tie and the boots. It would have been fun.”
Even though he never had the opportunity to meet Bush in person, Nulle has plenty of other tales to tell. He has visited about 25 countries and has stories from all of them.
On one particular trip, Nulle went to Israel, before spending time in Egypt. While in Egypt, he stayed at the famous Mena House near the Great Pyramid — a hotel frequented by visiting dignitaries.
“I was in Egypt on the Feast of Eid al-Fitr, which is the end of Ramadan,” he said. “People can start eating at night, and the next day Ramadan’s over so they don’t have to fast during the day, so everyone was out. I went walking that night. This woman whose father worked at the hotel, we were talking and I was singing a little bit and she encouraged me to dance. … The people were sitting on the lower stones of the Great Pyramid began getting into it — clapping and singing — and I was dancing. It was really a high point of the trip.”
However, during his stay in Egypt, Nulle became sick and returned to Israel.
“I ended up back in Israel on their Independence Day, which was really nice,” he recalled. “It felt like going home. It felt like the Fourth of July.”
From Israel, he traveled to Greece using money he raised by collecting cans.
“I probably never would have gotten to Greece but I lost this job teaching — I used to teach skating,” Nulle said. “So I began collecting cans. You know, five cents each. And that was the difference between being able to extend my trip to go to Greece. If I hadn’t collected those cans, I wouldn’t have gotten to Greece.”
Though he is a world-traveled man, not all of Nulle’s adventures took place abroad. Some occurred much closer to Ithaca, where he grew up.
“There was this opera place in New York City. It wasn’t quite on the northwest corner of 110th and Broadway, but it was the next shop up,” Nulle said. “It was a combination of a local bar and a world famous place where opera singers came. They had this woman that used to play for Joseph Stalin and then she came over here and lived an entirely different life. So one time I asked the impresario, I said, ‘You know, I’ve got a pretty good voice, not a great voice,’ but he actually put me on and I got up and sang. It was really great. I sang this song called ‘Fields of Athenry,’ which is one of my favorite songs that I sing at a lot of places. … I love to sing.”
In 2009, Nulle accepted the University’s retirement package; however, he has since continued to drive the ice resurfacing machine — which is not actually a Zamboni, but rather made by Zamboni’s rival, Olympia. Officially, he is now a temporary University employee, according to associate athletic director Anita Brenner. According to Nulle, he has since begun working almost a full-time schedule again, filling in after another rink employee left.
“[When he retired] I probably said something like ‘I would hope we could find ways to keep him around driving the Zamboni because he added so much to the atmosphere in the rink,’” said Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73.
Nulle was markedly absent at hockey games this past fall semester, as he was unable to drive the Zamboni after injuring himself in a fall at Lynah Rink. When he returned for the first game of the spring semester against Dartmouth on Jan. 20, the Lynah Faithful greeted Nulle with a loud ovation.
“That was a very nice welcome back,” Nulle said. “When they reacted like that, that was nice, very nice. Very much appreciated by me.”
Original Author: Joseph Niczky