Faces behind the machine
Even keeping the ice clean and fast is a family affair in the NHL.
Hockey always has prided itself on being the world's fastest sport. Players fly all over the rink, digging their razor sharp skate blades into the ice to pick up speed while spraying fresh shaven snow everywhere when they slam on the brakes.
After 20 minutes of such intense play, the ice can be a real mess and without Frank Zamboni and his family, getting things into shape would likely be a long, drawn-out process.
In 1940, Frank Zamboni's immediate concern wasn't getting NHL players back on the ice in a more timely fashion. Rather, when he opened his skating rink in Paramount, California, he soon discovered that it was taking much too much time to get the ice back in shape after it had become gouged and snow covered by the leisurely laps of recreational skaters.
"My dad found that the ice-making procedure was a difficult job and that it took a lot of people a very long time to do it,” said Richard F. Zamboni, Frank's son and the current president of Frank J. Zamboni & Co., Inc. "It was taking three to five people an hour and a half to clean the ice. They could make a beautiful sheet of ice, but it was just taking too long to do it."
So, just how did Zamboni's need for speedier ice maintenance morph into a machine that today bears his name and is as widely recognized at arenas throughout the world as players named Lemieux or Kovalchuk, especially when he never envisioned anyone but himself using it on his own rink?
"It was the necessity of the thing and he was making it strictly for himself," Richard Zamboni said. "I don't think at that point that he had any imagining that it was going to be a product that others would buy. There was the need for the machine, but my dad never sat still and he knew it could always be built better and he kept that same notion right up until the end of his life in 1988."
Frank J. Zamboni wasn't wrong about the need for his ice resurfacing machine, but he was incorrect when he thought it would be something only he had a use for. Now, over 50 years later, the Zamboni is as well known at NHL arenas as the players.
In 1949, Zamboni designed a unit that allowed one person to do in 15 minutes what used to take a crew of people over an hour. The Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine was here to stay.
Then, in 1950, a world famous celebrity skater took note of this unique four-wheeled contraption and decided it was just what she needed for her world touring show.
"Sonja Heine, the figure skating star, was practicing with her tour at his rink in Paramount and when she saw it, she said she wanted one as well," Richard Zamboni said. "My Dad was supposed to meet her in St. Louis with the machine, but by the time he got to St. Louis, the troupe had already moved on and he had to make the delivery at Chicago Stadium. He built another for her for a different show of hers and then he also sold one to the Ice Capades, so now he had three ice shows showing off the machine and that helped a great deal in getting people acquainted with it."
"In 1996, for FANtasy, the NHL wanted to borrow a machine from us for an event at a small rink," Richard Zamboni recalls. "A few years earlier we had rebuilt the first machine that went to Boston Garden and it was on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame. We said why not just bring that one down? They shipped it from the Hall of Fame to our plant in Brantford, Ontario and we made sure all was in working order and we used it at that event and it made a fine sheet of ice."
And it was in Boston that folks took note that the machine had a following of fans all its own.
"When the machine wasn't out resurfacing the ice at that event it was parked over to the side and it was there that people began to come over and ask all sorts of questions about the machine," Zamboni recalled. "The next year, in 1997, the game was played in San Jose and we found out that people liked to have their pictures taken sitting up on the machine."
So, why the love affair between the fans of a chaotic, quick-paced action sport like hockey and the slow-moving machine that could easily be beat in a race by even the most sluggish of skaters?
"Fans old or young, it doesn't matter which, even the little kids, just recognize something they've seen before and it's almost mesmerizing."
And after all these years the leisurely pace of the Zamboni allows the fastest game on earth to continue at a torrid pace.