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One Cool Contraption

Invention of Zamboni Revolutionized Hockey 50 Years Ago

June 14, 1999|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1949, a 48-year-old would-be electrician in Paramount made a contraption out of a hydraulic cylinder from an A-20 attack plane, a chassis from an oil derrick and a Jeep engine.

You know, of course, what happened next. Yes, that contraption revolutionized hockey.

The machine was the Zamboni, named after its creator--Frank J. Zamboni--and what it did was scrape off a layer of scruffy, icky ice, at the same time flooding the area with hot water that froze into a smooth and shiny sheet of nice ice.

So when the NHL finals resume Tuesday night, professional hockey will be marking the 50th anniversary of the birth of the greatest invention in the history of ice . . . with the possible exception of the ice cube tray.

Half a century of Zambonis. Frank Zamboni would have been so proud, says his son, Richard.

"He would have really been surprised and pleased," said Richard, 66, who has served as head ice-maker at the Frank J. Zamboni Co., since his father's death at 87 in 1988.

And, although now there are rivals, the Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine remains unique. Besides Zamboni, there are only a few products known by their actual names--Jacuzzi . . . Hoover . . . Cher. . . .

The patriarch of the Zamboni empire had no more than a ninth-grade education, but when it came to ice, he was Phi Beta Kappa. He just loved the stuff. Frank, his brother Lawrence and a cousin built Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount soon after their business of delivering block ice fizzled out because of something called the refrigerator.

Keeping the ice surface suitable for skating was tricky in those days and the slow process of filling in all the cracks and holes by hand, well, it frosted Frank. It took about an hour and a half for five workers to scrape off the ice with shovels and then form a new layer by pouring water from buckets onto the surface.

Frank had a better idea and the motorized vehicle that did the same thing faster and better was born, popping out of the freezer like a runaway Popsicle.

Today, the Frank J. Zamboni Co. employs 65 workers at factories in Paramount and Brantford, Canada, where another Frank Zamboni, Richard's son, runs the show. The factories produce as many as 150 machines a year in seven models that range in price from $6,000-$7,000 to as high as $80,000.

The first Zamboni used in the NHL, old No. 21, glided upon the ice at Boston Garden in 1954. Its current home is the NHL Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Newer Zambonis, the ones you see at NHL rinks, are in the $60,000-range. Each rink must have a two-Zamboni garage because the NHL requires each team to keep two ice resurfacing machines on hand.

As it turns out, the ice resurfacing trade is a cold, cold business. It's probably a tribute to the success of the Zamboni that there are 13 rival companies out there, eight in Canada and five in the U.S. The Mighty Ducks use Zambonis, but the Kings use Olympias.

However, there's nothing like the original, says Richard Zamboni.

"We've been out there the longest and we feel strongly that we're the best," he said.

They've got to be the most diversified. For instance, what other ice resurfacing machine company has its own Web site--http://www.zamboni.com? That's where you can read up on the history of the Zamboni, cast your vote for your favorite Zamboni driver, buy Zamboni caps and Zamboni kid clothes, send somebody a Zamboni greeting card or even surf (skate?) to related sites through Zamboni's "Ice Cool Links."

Sounds pretty cool. So it's probably a good thing that Frank Zamboni didn't wind up naming his new company what he'd originally wanted to. Lucky for him, Paramount Engineering was already taken.

"He figured Zamboni would still be available," Richard Zamboni said.

In the end, the inventor became famous too. Frank changed Paramount from a city that once billed itself as "the hay capital of the world" to something like Zamboniland. He was inducted into the Ice Skating Institute of America, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and even received an honorary doctorate of engineering from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.

Meanwhile, his invention achieved great heights of popularity, even for an ice-resurfacing machine.

Cartoonist Charles Schultz bought two Zambonis for his rink and he often uses one Zamboni in his "Peanuts" strip. On the TV show "Cheers," Carla's husband Eddie Lebec was killed when he was run over by a Zamboni. A group called the Gear Daddies had a cult hit with a song that had the refrain "I wanna drive the Zamboni." During the Christmas season, Santa often drives a Zamboni at NHL rinks.

At top speed, the Zamboni travels at 9 mph. And even at that speed, in 50 years, the Zamboni sure has covered a lot of ice.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Zamboni

How the Zamboni resurfaces ice in a rink.

1. SHAVING: A blade shaves ice off the surface

2. COLLECTING THE SHAVING: A screw conveyor system propels shavings into snow collection tank. Shavings are later dumped away from ice surface.

3. WASHING THE ICE: Water is fed to the ice washing system and flushes dirt from grooves in ice. Dirty water is vacuumed up, filtered and returned to water tank.

4. RENEWING THE ICE: A towel spreads a thin coat of fresh hot water onto the ice.

Source: Zamboni USA

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