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Zamboni was inquisitive, high school dropout

Tuesday, 11.24.2009 / 1:32 PM / U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

How amazing is it that a high-school dropout would have the ingenuity and foresight to invent the coolest and most important piece of machinery the sport of ice hockey ever has seen?

So goes the story of Frank Zamboni, the kid raised in Pocatello, Idaho, who was so sick and tired of watching workers manually resurface the ice with shovels and squeegees that he set out to do something about it.

It wasn't long after he opened an outdoor skating rink in Paramount, Calif., in 1940 that Zamboni began designing a machine that would turn a three-man, 90-minute endeavor into a one-man, 10-minute job.

In 1949, he got his first single-operator resurfacer working and was granted a patent based on the design of the Model A, the world's first self-propelled ice resurfacing machine. The unit never was used on any ice surface other than his skating rink at Paramount's Iceland.

The first sale was made for $5,000 to the Pasadena Winter Garden in 1950. The second was made for Norwegian Olympic figure skater and film actress Sonia Henie, for her Hollywood on Ice Review. Frank, in fact, drove the parts to Chicago where it was assembled for Henie.

"He took all the parts on a U-Haul trailer and left for Chicago," Frank's son, Rich Zamboni, told NHL.com. "That's where he assembled (the Model B). I was in high school at the time and flew in to see the machine put together. Sonia bought No. 2 and she also bought machine No. 3, as well."

A fourth machine -- now at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn. -- was sold to the Ice Capades in 1952.

Some 60 years after the first unit was produced, the famous Zamboni today is sleeker and more efficient than ever before -- the 500 Series introduced in 1978 offers a liquid-cooled engine and battery technology.

"Dad just had a mechanical way of looking at things," Rich Zamboni said. "Raised on a farm in (Lava Hot Springs) Idaho, I think he got used to mechanical stuff and that was it. When he came to Southern California (in 1920) and got into the electrical business, he studied and developed a great knowledge of engineering. It wasn't book-learned knowledge, but he'd just go to people who knew things and would ask a ton of questions. He just had that ability to look at things and try to make it work. If it didn't, he'd try something else."

On Dec. 1 Frank Zamboni, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help his father on the family farm and work as a mechanic, will be posthumously inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. Rich, 77, will accept the honor on his father's behalf at a ceremony to be held at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel.

"I want dad to be remembered as a fine person who had the gift of design and was very dedicated at doing it," he said. "I don't think he could have ever imagined the influence and name recognition he'd receive. It was pretty amazing how he came to be better known and made the best use of his ability to serve the ice skating and hockey industry."

From 1950-54, Zamboni built 15 machines -- each unique in its own way.

Rich even had the opportunity to help his father construct the Model E in '54, which was Zamboni's first standardized design that could be mass produced. Zamboni sold 20 of those models between 1954 and '55.

"I don't remember anything specific about working with dad other than the fact he was such a wonderfully warm individual and family was always very important to him," Rich said.

He built 10 machines in '54, including those for Boston Garden, Boston Arena (at Northeastern University), Worcester Arena and the Providence Arena. The first Zamboni used by an NHL team was in the fall of 1954, when the Boston Bruins not only ordered a machine for their use, but requested that the vintage Model E 21 be fully restored by the Zamboni Company and turned over to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto during an ice ceremony at Boston Garden.

In '56, Frank redesigned his machine using a stripped Jeep chassis to allow for more water and snow space. At around this same time, Rich returned home from his military obligation in the Air Force and became more involved in the operation of Frank J. Zamboni & Co. In 1960, the Zambonis took six machines to Squaw Valley, Calif., marking the first time in history that ice resurfacing machines were utilized at the Winter Olympics.

The Zamboni company produces 200-250 machines each year and has totaled more than 9,500 since the Model A first was introduced in 1949. While each machine has a relative life expectancy of 10-20 years, some still are operating after 50 years. As the sizes and options of Zamboni machines vary, so does the price. The Model 100 could be at least $10,000 and the 500 Series and Model 700 (which is used for large surfaces, such as speed-skating rinks) can cost in the low six figures.

"My dad was never satisfied," Rich said. "It's nice to see the industry change and improve and it's nice that my father will gain the recognition for his efforts."

Frank put the finishing touches on his invention in 1983 when he added an automatic edger -- mounted on the conditioner of the machine -- that trimmed ice buildup around the edges of rinks.

Frank Zamboni was inducted into the Ice Skating Institute of America -- of which he was a charter member and founder -- in 1965, the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000, the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in '06 and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in '07. Perhaps his proudest moment came in 1988, just four months before his death at the age of 87, when he received an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.

"Receiving that doctorate was his crowning moment -- he was so proud," said Rich Zamboni, who now resides in Huntington Beach, Calif., with his wife of 55 years, Alice. "He would relish that moment until the day he died. It's amazing because my dad could hardly draw a straight line, but boy did he know how to weld and engineer one of the most important machines you'll ever know."

There are two Zamboni manufacturing facilities, located in Paramount, California, and Brantford, Ontario, as well as a branch sales office in Zurich, Switzerland. The company also has distributors around the world.

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com
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