Five decades of smooth skating


Zamboni: The National Hockey League is celebrating its 50-year partnership with the ice resurfacer that has attained a cult following in its years of service.

April 26, 1999|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

The man who came up with the verity "Necessity is the mother of invention" was thinking of situations like Frank Zamboni's.

Zamboni: recognize the word?

It's an uncommon name -- not one Zamboni family is listed in the Greater Baltimore Metropolitan Area phone book. Nor for Washington or Richmond.

Frank Zamboni doesn't rank with Ben Franklin, Tom Edison or Sam Morse as an inventor. But if he hadn't been inspired and ingenious enough in the 1940s, shudder to think where the game of hockey and the other sports involving skates would be today.

Zamboni is the man who, exasperated by how long it took a half-dozen men to "clean" a sheet of ice after skaters had hacked it up for an hour, reasoned that there had to be a better way.

That search involved years of tinkering, a war-surplus jeep engine, the front end of two automobiles (Dodges), a series of pulleys and a large wooden box to catch ice shavings. "It was a most unusual device, but it did the job," Zamboni said of his original prototype.

Birth of an icon

The ice resurfacer was born in 1947, about eight years after Zamboni opened an ice-skating rink in Paramount, Calif. Before that, he had owned an ice-delivery service until the refrigerator came along and made his business obsolete.

In two years -- after the inventor had improved upon his machine to the point where it scraped the ice, gathered up the shavings, washed the ice, then put down a coat of fresh hot water -- the Zamboni became a full-time participant at all National Hockey League games. The NHL is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its illustrious partner this season.

For his innovation, Frank Zamboni, who died in his hometown of Paramount in 1988 at age 87, was inducted into the U.S. Hockey and the Ice Skating Institute of America halls of fame. Along the way, he picked up an honorary doctor of engineering degree from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.

His contraption and its scores of drivers picked up a cult following. Fan clubs sprang up all over the place.

In Boston, where hockey runs second only to the Red Sox in sports popularity and reverence, Lito Grasso used to scrape the ice between periods at Bruins games at the late Boston Garden, waving all the while as he tooled around the ice. When finished, he would stand up and, with great flourish, bow to thunderous applause as if he had just conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra through a two-hour concert at the Esplanade on the Fourth of July.

For years, the Zamboni has been prominently featured in the "Peanuts" cartoon strips -- a miniature version driven by a bird tidies Snoopy's frozen water dish. Cartoonist Charles Schulz explained that he had been a hockey fan since birth.

One of the best-selling popular license-plate holders year after year is the one that proclaims, "My other car is a Zamboni."

A proficient operator

That became true for Ray Windsor. About three decades ago he would find himself, three or four times a week, driving his sons to hockey practice or games at the Orchard Ice Rink on Joppa Road. "I figured as long as I'm going to be spending half my life there, I might as well be doing something," he recalls.

From odd jobs, Windsor progressed to Zamboni operator. Over the years, he became so proficient with the sometimes cantankerous machine that he was hired to handle the chore downtown at the Baltimore Arena about a dozen years ago.

He became familiar with the four-cylinder, Volkswagen-powered Zambonis on Baltimore Street and the machines that surface the ice at other city-owned facilities, such as in Patterson Park and at Rash Field, and privately run rinks throughout the area.

Naturally, things did not go smoothly every time an event or a game was staged at the arena. Fans on hand for a Baltimore Skipjacks American Hockey League game early in the decade aren't apt to forget the night the Zamboni broke down about halfway through its 15-minute resurfacing of the ice.

"It's no simple matter when things go wrong," says Windsor, now semiretired. "You have to turn off the water quickly and bypass the hydraulic pump on the back that powers about 75 percent of the operations the machine does. Otherwise, you'll just leave a big puddle out there. That night, I could have taken my time because the tractor they sent out to tow the Zamboni off the ice broke down, too."

The arena ice was taking on the appearance of an impounding lot until a crew put shoulder to the two heaps and pushed them off.

"Lately," Windsor says, "Zambonis have become much better than the old farm-tractor thing they started out with. There's a much bigger tank and the wheelbase is wider so you can clean a surface in fewer swings. It's much easier to drive and more responsive, too."

5,000 sold

After his humble beginning with one machine servicing the ice in one rink, inventor Zamboni soon became industrialist Zamboni. Over the decades, the Frank J. Zamboni Co. has produced about 5,000 Zambonis and they have found their way into rinks and arenas in more than 50 countries.

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