Laying Ice: Inside the Legendary Legacy of the Zamboni
Richard Zamboni walks around the first ice-surfacing machine his father built seven decades ago. The 88-year-old is taking his time to remember.
“We’re using the same framework today, basically, that [my dad] came up with,” he says, his hands on the wood-paneled machine.
It’s late February 2020. Fifteen miles south of downtown Los Angeles, in Paramount, California, Zamboni is giving a tour of the family’s factory as well as one of the oldest operating ice skating rinks in the country, Iceland. In a corner of Iceland is the Model A. First built in 1949, it’s the original Zamboni, a name that’s become indistinguishable from the thing itself, like Xerox, Kleenex, or Google.
From an amateur’s eye, this large, wooden, double-decked Rube Goldberg–type contraption looks a whole lot different from the smooth, slick, boxy modern Zamboni that’s resurfacing ice rinks today. Yes, the engine is much more powerful now, Zamboni explains. Components have shifted, and the water tank is much larger.
“But it’s the same process it’s been for years,” says Zamboni. “Shave, pick up ice, dump, put down water.”
Keeping Cool in Sunny California
Today, Zamboni is one of the most iconic brands in sports.
There are racing leagues, Zamboni-themed weddings, homemade kid-friendly versions, slow-moving Hollywood chase scenes, and real-life underdog stories that are made-for-film gold.
“As long as I’ve been around hockey, everyone loves the Zamboni,” professional Zamboni driver Tom Miracle told Popular Mechanics back in 2016. “Everyone wants to watch it, wave to it… people throw it kisses. I don’t understand why. Honestly.”
When asked why something as potentially mundane as an ice resurfacing machine has achieved such cultural resonance, Zamboni shrugs.
“We got a funny name. You know, my dad was going to name it Paramount Engineering,” Zamboni says. “[Zamboni] is like Smith over in Italy. He never envisioned what the name would become.”
It’s strange that sunny Southern California would be the birthplace of an ice resurfacing machine. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Frank Zamboni dropped out of school to fix tractors on his parents’ Idaho farm. In 1920, the family moved to California to join Frank’s older brother George Angelo, who was operating an auto garage. A few years later, after returning from trade school in Chicago, Frank started an electrical business with his other brother, Lawrence. They named the company the Zamboni Bros. Co.
In 1925, Zamboni filed his first patent for an “adjustable reactor resistance.” It was the first of 15 patents he would receive over his lifetime. Over the next decade, the brothers used their electrical know-how to open a refrigeration business, catering to the local dairy industry. Then they moved to making blocks of ice for shipping the region’s produce around the country.
But the ice block business was only a temporary industry. As refrigeration units became cheaper and more consumer-friendly in the 1930s, the Zamboni brothers’ ice enterprise melted fast. So they sold the business, kept the equipment and patents, and moved on to the next idea.
At the time, Southern California was dotted with windmills and dairy farms, a hub for thousands of Dutch immigrants who’d left Europe after World War II.
At its peak in the early 1950s, Southern California’s Dutch community topped 100,000, according to the Los Angeles Times. Ice skating had been a way of life for those recent transplants, but sunny California offered no frozen ponds like the ones they’d skated on back in the Netherlands. The Zamboni brothers sensed an opportunity.
With their ice making expertise, the brothers opened Iceland in January 1940. It had more than 20,000 square feet of frozen floor space, making it one of the largest ice rinks in the country.
The rink used sheet metal and a circulating system of tubes that moved cooled brine below the freezing surface. A few months later, to help prevent melting during a typical warm California day, a dome was added over the rink.
In those early years, some 150,000 skaters a year glided around Iceland, but ice maintenance continued to be challenged by inefficiencies. According to a published book about the company, a tractor equipped with a giant blade would roll onto the ice to scrape the top layer. Then a “gang of shovelers” would come to pick up the ice. This was followed by “some poor soul” who would pour barrels of boiling water over the ice and wait for it to freeze. The whole process could take up to an hour and a half and needed as many as a half dozen men to complete.
Frank Zamboni knew there had to be a better way.
Made in the U.S.A.
The look of the Zamboni factory’s outside facade, with its low-slung roof and California mid-century architecture, can make visitors feel a bit like they’re jumping into a time warp back to the 1960s.
The family-owned company moved into this block-long facility in 1967. Business was booming, buoyed by its partnership with the Olympics. Inside, it looks much like an auto assembly line. Engines, chassis, wrenches, and wheels dot the assembly floor. Everything seems systematic, and employees are sectioned off, adding their own specific know-how to each machine.
But Derrick Gunn, Zamboni’s vice president of operations, is careful to say that the operation is not the same as your typical automotive plant. For one, the company isn’t producing even close to the number of machines a modestly sized automobile factory would. Rather, they turn out about one machine every two days from this facility. That’s fewer than 200 Zambonis a year.
“We don’t have any one-minute cycle time,” Gunn says. “Each of our employees has a varied skill set and could build the machine on their own.”
Zamboni has two principal production facilities; the other is in much snowier Brantford, Ontario, strategically located for Canadian customers. There’s also a facility in Sweden that has minimal production.
In total, Gunn says, Zamboni produces just under 350 machines a year. The company estimates that the total output of ice resurfacing machines worldwide is about 600. That would mean Zamboni out-manufactures all of its competitors combined.
A Hockey Legend Is Born
Back at Iceland, Richard Zamboni is in the office recounting long-ago conversations with his dad.
“He would always ask ‘How can we make things better?” he says.
It’s a typical warm day in Southern California as the sun seeps through the windows at the 80-year-old rink. It’s a day that undoubtedly would have melted ice outside pretty quick, leaving Frank Zamboni scrambling for a solution.
He looked to build an all-in-one machine that could resurface the ice quickly and efficiently. The first experiment was with a Ford-Ferguson tractor with an attached blade built onto a sled—but it left divots.
“He scavenged around,” says Zamboni. “He would go through junkyards, looking for things. He didn’t have a lot of money.”
After World War II, there were plenty of surplus military parts lying unused. The original Zamboni was essentially cobbled together pieces of trash: a Jeep chassis, axles from an old Dodge, rails from an oil rig, steel blades, and a hydraulic cylinder from a Douglas bomber. Frank topped it off with a large wooden box.
He constructed the machine in his backyard, and many didn’t understand what he was doing, including his son.
“I was a teenager and he would drive me up the wall,” says Richard Zamboni, making it sound like inventing the Zamboni was as easy as stacking Legos. “He just got parts and put them together.”
The elder Zamboni filed his patent for an “ice rink resurfacing machine” in May 1949. It says the machine’s primary purpose is “refinishing the ice to a smooth, unblemished surface in the very minimum of time and with a minimum of labor.”
The model A wasn’t perfect. The machine had too much water capacity and not enough snow capacity. The seat was too low to the ice, and it was top-heavy.
“We were having problems with the back axles breaking because we would put so much weight on them,” says Zamboni, so Frank just custom-built his own chassis.
But the Model A did exactly what the patent promised it would do. It revolutionized the ice skating business, turning a multi-person, 90-minute job into one person working for 10 minutes.
“He was curious about things and had a problem that needed to be solved,” Zamboni says.
As the years went on, the Zamboni improved. It became standardized, easier to steer, more efficient, and faster. But the basic design has remained the same, even today, as one can see sitting in a corner of Iceland.
What Makes a Zamboni?
The company says it is constantly striving toward the same goal: To make the job of resurfacing ice faster and easier. But some customers look to achieve this goal in slightly different ways, and that’s why every Zamboni is customized. Some have laser ice leveling; others have an integrated auger washout system.
“A lot of the parts we put on the machine are custom parts,” says Gunn, as the beeping of a reversing forklift threatens to drown out his voice. “We don’t purchase them off the shelf. It’s a custom part based on a drawing produced at Zamboni.”
And the machine needs to withstand environments that are constantly cold and wet.
“You basically have to build it like a submarine, because it’s going to be living around water,” says Paula Cooney, who’s worked at the company for 23 years in a variety of roles. She’s now the brand manager and may know more about Zambonis than anyone besides the family members themselves. “Cold temperatures, indoor, outdoor, people are climbing on the machines…it really takes a beating.”
And Zambonis are known to last. With proper maintenance, a Zamboni can keep going for decades. The company says there are some that remain out in the frozen wild that date back to the 1970s. Most facilities and NHL teams (the company has a contract with 26 out of the 31 teams) replace Zambonis every 10 to 15 years.
There’s a loud clang off to the side. “Watch behind you,” Gunn says, gesturing.
A chassis hits the factory floor with a metallic thud. While this metal frame may look like the starting point for the build-out, construction begins way before. The key to their efficiency, notes Gunn, is subassembly, building out components separate from the main frame.
“We sub-assemble the engine, transmission, hydraulic fluid parts, and axles,” says Gunn. “We are trying to feed the production area one at a time.”
Onto the chassis, all of that will be added, plus hoses and electrical. Plus the conditioner, which rinses the ice. “It’s really the heart and soul of the machine,” says Cooney.
Prior to the dumper being installed, each machine is taken for a test drive up and down the residential streets of quiet Paramount. “We have some forgiving local authorities,” Cooney says, grinning.
In all, it takes 80 to 100 hours to make a Zamboni. Zambonis in varying stages of assembly dot the concrete floor. Some, like the one nearby, are just chassis. Others are nearly complete. Soon the machines will be sent off to resurface ice in Sweden, China, Abu Dhabi, and Michigan. As a physical reminder of Zamboni’s international popularity, the machines’ safety and information labels are translated into 17 different languages.
Off in the distance, an engine roars, likely a Zamboni being taken for a test run on the hot asphalt streets of Paramount, California.
Same as It Ever Was
Back at Iceland, Richard Zamboini peers up at the Model A built by his father more than seven decades ago. He’s asked how he feels to have his family’s name attached to the machine that’s still resurfacing ice all of these years later.
“It’s just been gratitude for how this has all developed,” he says. “And I’m just along for the ride.”
Hearing everyone explain in detail how a Zamboni is built and works—a feathered edge there, a tapered blade added here, a rubber squeegee underneath, a paddle that compacts the snow at the top, and so forth—it becomes increasingly clear. The tools may be different, but the sum of the parts add up to the same thing.
“It’s the same basic principles: washing the ice, shaving the ice, conveying the snow, and laying down fresh water,” Cooney says. “It’s just how you get it done better, faster, and more efficiently.”
Published at Sun, 09 May 2021 13:00:00 +0000
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