Winter sports fans drive their favorite contraption at 'Zamboni school'

It's big, it's clunky but it seems to turn on a dime, as those in the Gardens Ice House Zamboni class found out

December 31, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

Rick Platte's eyes went narrow as he steered the 3-ton contraption down a hallway inside the skating rink, then went wide as a child's as he rolled it onto the ice.

In his seat 8 feet in the air, Platte, 44, a contractor from West Laurel, spun the wheel of the Zamboni a bit too sharply, slid it into a fishtail, then straightened things out in time to complete a smooth turn and continue along the boards.

Not bad for a first time on the resurfacing machine of his dreams.

"That's exhilarating," said Platte, one of seven people who went to the Gardens Ice House in Laurel this week for a class on all things Zamboni, including time at the helm of the ice-making wonder. "It's like nothing you've ever done, I'll tell you that."

From public-session skaters to cocoa-sipping hockey moms, just about everyone familiar with winter sports knows the Zamboni, the boxlike apparatus on wheels that emerges periodically from the bowels of a rink, lays down a fresh surface in a pattern of ever-narrowing ovals, then returns from whence it came.

For a vehicle with an esoteric function, one that was invented in an obscure California industrial park decades ago, the Zamboni — not unlike the Philly Fanatic or the Pet Rock — enjoys a resonance in the public mind far out of proportion to its literal function.

"The thing is just so big. The idea of controlling something that massive and powerful is irresistible," said class member Susan Costenbader, 46, of Laurel, after completing her drive.

Platte called it "an awesome machine."

No less an eminence than Charlie Brown has weighed in with a comment.

"There are three things in life that people like to stare at," the "Peanuts" cartoon character once said in the strip. "One is a rippling stream, another a fire in a fireplace and the other is the Zamboni going around and around and around."

To Tom Hendrix, co-owner and general manager of the Gardens Ice House, the allure borders on sorcery.

"It takes something that's rough, travels across it and leaves something behind that's as smooth as silk," said Hendrix, who was teaching the class for the third time in the past two years. (The next one has yet to be scheduled.) "You see that and you want to know, 'How did they do that?' It's the magical side of life."

A handful of rinks in the Mid-Atlantic, including the Herbert Wells Ice Rink in College Park, have offered similar classes, but Hendrix decided to harness the magic two years ago as a way of promoting his favorite sport. Attendees pay $200 apiece, with all proceeds going to a program he runs in which kids new to hockey can try the game at little cost.

Unlike most conjurers, Hendrix enjoys sharing trade secrets. A self-described rink rat from upstate New York, he spent a half-hour teaching Zamboni history and mechanics.

"Ages ago, when I was a kid, do you know what ice-cleaning equipment usually was? It was a few guys with shovels, another few guys with 55-gallon drums of water," said Hendrix, a former minor league hockey player.

They hadn't gotten the news: A son of Italian immigrants named Frank Joseph Zamboni had already found a better way, and it was taking hold.

Back in the 1920s, Zamboni was in the block-ice business in Hynes, Calif., now part of the town of Paramount near Los Angeles. When it later became clear that electrical refrigeration was the wave of the future, he shut down his operations, built a new ice rink and put his cooling machinery to work.

He soon saw, though, that resurfacing ice by hand took far too long. Zamboni built a wood-framed vehicle that could scrape the surface of a rink; in 1949, he patented the device and mounted it on a jeep chassis. By the mid-1950s, the Zamboni Ice Resurfacer was essentially born. It turned a 90-minute job into a 10-minute task and has been the industry standard ever since.

The design basics haven't changed much. Hendrix dissected them as a hockey coach might his team's power play.

The most important component is the conditioner, he said, a steel box mounted on the rear that drags the ice, the driver lowering and raising it by lever as needed.

The lower front edge of that unit is a giant razor, a six-foot-wide, 80-pound stainless steel blade that rests on the ice. As the driver proceeds, it shaves bout an eighth of an inch from the top of the ice surface, removing chips and piled-up snow.

But that's just part of its job, Hendrix said. "Once Zamboni figured out how to do that, the question became, 'What do we do with all that [shaved] ice?' " The answer involved a series of interlocking innovations.

First, he explained, the inventor placed an auger inside the conditioner, the same kind of oversized screw that carries grain from farm machinery into bins. He lay it flat on the ice, perpendicular to the Zamboni's path.

But it was a special configuration. Zamboni created two half-augers, each one directing the ice shavings toward the center. There, a vertical auger scooped them up, bearing them into an upright chute.

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