Ex-Red Wings Zamboni driver Sobotka files lawsuit, reveals reason for firing

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Longtime Red Wings Zamboni driver Al Sobotka has filed an age and disability discrimination lawsuit against Olympia Entertainment after his termination earlier this year.

According to the Tuesday filing in Wayne County Circuit Court seeking compensatory damages, Sobotka admitted to urinating Feb. 2 into one of the arena's drains that leads into a sewer designed to handle ice runoff from Zamboni machines. That incident was reported to management, which prompted a series of meetings that led to his dismissal.

Building Manager Al Sobotka twirls an octopus tossed onto the ice at the beginning of a playoff game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 18, 2009.

Sobotka has been the popular Zamboni driver at Little Caesars Arena, Joe Louis Arena and the Olympia, having worked with the Red Wings for five decades before being fired in February.

MORE: Red Wings terminate longtime operations manager Al Sobotka

Sobotka told WDIV-Channel 4 he was "shocked, in disbelief" when told he was terminated.

“Heartbroken, very much, yes," Sobotka said. "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.”

After 51 years of going to work with the Wings, Sobotka said his days are now upside down.

"It’s like a bomb dropped on you that every morning you get up, you have nowhere to go now," Sobotka said. "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.”

Sobotka said he admitted to urinating in the drain and told Olympia Entertainment human resources it was due to his medical condition. 

“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.”

The person who turned him in, Sobotka said, is the new Zamboni driver.

Sobotka's week-long suspension would eventually turn into 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.”

Sobotka said he's heard from "a couple of my regular guys have contacted me and different things, you know, I’ve spoke to (Red Wings forward Dylan) Larkin, (head coach Jeff) Blashill and (former goaltender) Chris Osgood."

Sobotka has not heard from any members of the Ilitch family, but doesn't think this current situation would be unfolding if Mike Ilitch were still alive.

“I don’t believe so,” he said. “Mike called me for all kinds of things, even when, with the octopus (issue during the playoffs) in ‘95 when it really hit. He was so proud of me doing it and kept pushing me, ‘Keep doing it, keep doing it.’”

Going out his daily life, said Sobotka, has been a struggle.

“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?," Sobotka said.

Sobotka is thinking about attending Saturday's final home game of the season at LCA, and is thankful of the support he's received.

“Yes, it’s all here (in his heart), you know,” Sobotka said. “I’d like to thank all the fans for all the support that they’ve given me over the years, and even now, too.”

"Al Sobotka worked for the Ilitch organization 51 years; he started at the age of 17," said Deborah Gordon, a Bloomfield Hills-based civil rights lawyer representing Sobotka. "He missed exactly one game to a false-positive COVID test. He was unceremoniously fired because he urinated into a drain behind the Zamboni machine (leading) from the Zamboni garage.

"Somebody (a fellow worker) was there and saw him and reported him. He (Sobotka) thought no one was in the building.

"He (Sobotka) was given no warning, no second chance."

In the lawsuit, the garage was described as not being open to the public and access was limited to the ice crew, all of whom were male. 

"The plaintiff suddenly experienced an uncontrollable urge to urinate due to his BPH (benign prostatic hypertrophy) condition," the document stated. "To access a rest room, plaintiff would have had to exit the garage and walk 60-70 feet to a public rest room. Instead, standing behind two Zambonis and seeing no one around, he urinated into the pit, which contained water to be drained."

Sobotka has been diagnosed with benign prostatic hypertrophy, said Gordon, which causes a frequent and uncontrollable need to urinate. Gordon said Sobotka had made Olympia officials aware of the condition.

"He has a prostate problem, which is in the complaint, and he has a problem with frequent need to urinate," Gordon said. "He made them aware of it, and they still fired him."

Olympia Entertainment, the Ilitch family-owned sports and entertainment company tied to the Red Wings, responded Wednesday, saying: "We do not comment on pending litigation." Sobotka did not respond to The Detroit News for comment.

Sobotka said he was interviewed as part of the investigation by his superiors about the incident, and never saw investigative results, according to the complaint.

Sobotka said he was called into a meeting with his supervisor and a human resources representative two days after the incident. Sobotka was terminated Feb. 17 after first being suspended.

"I have a hard time believing this was a terminable offense in anyone's world," Gordon said. "You could have simply have given him a warning, or told him not to do it again. This is needless and we believe there's more to it than this and they wanted him gone because of his age (67)."

In late January, Sobotka said he was on a Zoom meeting with Tim Padgett, vice president of venue operations at Olympia, who is alleged to have said Sobotka was "getting old," according to the complaint processed Wednesday by the circuit court.

Sobotka also said he was given a "confidential" agreement to sign, which included a small payment, and a non-disparagement provision. Sobotka declined the offer.

Sobotka is said to have received "glowing" remarks and was rated as "exceeds expectations". It's stated in the complaint that Sobotka was interviewed as part of the investigation by his superiors about the incident but never saw investigative results.

Sobotka "has suffered and continues to suffer harm, including but not limited to: lost earnings and earning capacity, lost career opportunities, lost benefits, and other financial loss as well as humiliation, embarrassment, emotional and physical distress, mental anguish, loss of professional reputation and loss of the everyday pleasures of everyday life, including the right to pursue gainful employment of his choice," according to the complaint.

Sobotka was long known for twirling an octopus and igniting the crowds at Joe Louis Arena and Little Caesars Arena, specifically during the playoffs.

The entire tradition of the octopus twirling dates to the 1950s, but Sobotka raised the popularity of it in the early 1990s during a playoff series against Chicago when he picked up an octopus and gave it a little twirl over his head.

In a story on the closing of Joe Louis Arena in 2017, Sobotka said he was encouraged by late owner Mike Ilitch to have fun and keep doing it because fans enjoyed the ritual.

“I do it because the fans seem to like it," Sobotka said.

Gordon said Sobotka is appreciative of the fans, coaches and players he came in contact with over the five decades.

"He wants to express his appreciation to the fans, coaches, and players, he loved everybody and he felt this was his family," Gordon said. "For him to be fired in this way, for this reason, after 51 years, was a just a major blow to him."


Twitter: @tkulfan