DETROIT – Former Detroit Red Wings Zamboni driver Al Sobotka spoke one-on-one with Local 4 about the urinating incident, being fired by the team, his current mental state and whether he would go back to his old job, if asked.
According to a lawsuit filed by his attorney, Debra Gordon, Sobotka was fired by the Red Wings after 51 years because he urinated in a drain due to a health condition, benign prostatic hypertrophy.
“It wasn’t between the Zambonis, it was in front of the one on the left where nobody -- if it was in between, people would see me,” Sobotka said. “The one on the left, if anybody walks by that room, they would not see me, so that should be clarified.
“It was not (during a game). It was morning, 10 a.m., there’s nobody there. There was three other guys there. Two went on break and the one stayed back and he was peeking around the corner or something and saw me and turned me in.”
Sobotka said the person who turned him in is the new Zamboni driver.
The lawsuit alleges Sobotka was discriminated against because of his age and medical condition.
“In a discussion with Al, it became obvious that his age was definitely a factor in the termination, as was the fact that he has this particular medical condition,” Gordon said. “It’s very disappointing that the Ilitch Organization decided to handle this matter this way after 51 years of dedicated, loyal service.”
Sobotka said he admitted to urinating in the drain and told human resources it was because of his medical condition. At first, he was simply suspended for a week, but that ultimately gave way to his termination.
“When I first heard about it, it was that I was being disciplined for one week, with pay, and then when I called back on Friday, the lady told me that, ‘We’re still investigating, and we will contact you back,’” Sobotka said. “So I said, ‘I already admitted to it. I did it. What else is there to investigate, you know, except for that?’ Then that’s when I told her that I had a prostate issue. She said, ‘I will pass it along to the higher-ups,’ and then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday goes by. Thursday afternoon, I get a phone call and they said that I’m being terminated for improper conduct.”
Reaction to firing
Sobotka was visibly upset when talking about his firing.
“I was shocked, in disbelief,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say. Heartbroken, very much, yes.
“It’s blowing my mind. It’s, like, continually just keeps going and going over in my head and I can’t tune it out.”
He said the only indication he had from superiors that they considered him too old was during a Zoom call in January with Tim Padgett, the vice president of venue operations. That call is referenced in the lawsuit.
“There was a comment made on a Zoom call about Jan. 29 or 30 that I was getting old, or I was old,” Sobotka said. “It kind of went over (my head), but I remembered it when it all started coming back that he said it.”
“Based on my experience, it does happen in corporate America that somebody decides that you’ve aged out, or they’ve got somebody they prefer, and that’s OK, but the way this was done -- if somebody thought Al, you know, let’s get the next guy going, or whatever, let him have a victory lap, literally and figuratively,” Gordon said. “Say goodbye to the fans. Say goodbye to the team in a nice dignified way that Al could have felt like, ‘Hey, it’s been a great run.’ But no, this has been humiliating, it’s been needlessly humiliating.”
Sobotka doesn’t think this would have happened if Mike Ilitch was still alive.
“I don’t believe so,” he said. “Mike called me for all kinds of things, even when, with the octopus in ‘95 when it really hit. He was so proud of me doing it and kept pushing me, ‘Keep doing it, keep doing it.’”
Does he want his job back?
At the end of the lawsuit, one of the requests is that Sobotka be returned to his old position. He and Gordon confirmed Wednesday that he would like to return to the Red Wings.
“Before we filed this lawsuit, I contacted the Ilitches, I contacted the organization, and I asked, ‘Listen, Al’s been great. He will be great. What about taking him back? This’ll never happen again,’” Gordon said. “(They said) no. Flat out, no. ‘That ship has sailed.’”
Gordon said based on her experience, it doesn’t make sense that someone with Sobotka’s track record of service would be fired for this offense.
“Usually, in a big organization, you at least get a warning, especially when there’s no harm done,” Gordon said. “You might get a written reprimand. Just this immediate termination for someone that’s an icon, like Al, it’s unheard of. So I know there’s more behind it than him urinating in a drain behind a Zamboni.”
Local 4′s Bernie Smilovitz asked Sobotka if he would return to the Red Wings if they called him.
“I’d go back, without any hesitation,” Sobotka said.
Current mental state
Sobotka said day-to-day life has been difficult since he was fired.
“I am crushed,” he said. “It’s like a bomb dropped on you that every morning you get up, you have nowhere to go now. Before, you get there by 8, or before, or 6 on different days, or whatever it was. Now, it’s just like, mope around the house and getting tired of watching TV, tried to ride the bike a little bit, work a little bit.”
He hasn’t heard from any of the Ilitches, including owner Chris Ilitch, but others have reached out to him.
“A couple of my regular guys have contacted me and different things, you know, I’ve spoke to (Dylan) Larkin, (Jeff) Blashill and Chris Osgood,” Sobotka said.
He said it’s still been a difficult adjustment, though.
“Sometimes you wake up at 2 in the morning after lying down for a couple of hours and you can’t go back to sleep,” he said. “It’s how it is.
“It’s hard going out in public now. People look at you funny or somebody gives you a thumb’s up or shakes your hand and, ‘Everything’ll be OK,’ or whatever, you know?”
Was he considering retiring?
Bernie asked Sobotka if he was considering retirement at the end of this season or in the near future.
“No, not anytime soon,” Sobotka said. “I always worked these hours, was used to working seven days a week and 12, 14, 15, around the clock, whatever it was, that’s what I worked.”
He said he still watches Red Wings games and appreciates the fans who have supported him.
“Yes, it’s all here (in his heart), you know,” Sobotka said. “Actually, I might be going Saturday to the game.
“I’d like to thank all the fans for all the support that they’ve given me over the years, and even now, too.”