"Never Have Too Much Fun."

You could be forgiven for believing that Minnesotans had something to do with inventing the Zamboni. But the celebrated Dr. Seussian vehicle wasn’t invented in the back of an Iron Range machine shop, nor in a Twin Cities garage. Your second guess—somewhere in Canada, right?—would be wrong, too. The home of this icon of winter sports isn’t in the frozen northland at all. To see where Frank Zamboni dreamed up his world-famous ice resurfacer, you’d want to put on some shorts and sunglasses and fly to sunny Paramount, California, just south of Los Angeles.

What? Zambonis are from Southern California?

I double-checked the address because when I got there all I found were warehouse buildings along a bumpy little side street of Paramount. Where was this Wonka factory of the winter-loving world? Given the huge popularity of ice hockey and figure skating in recent years, I half expected to see lines of hardcore fans and toothless hockey players and Michelle Kwan banging on some gilded gate to get a peek at the machines and the people who make them. But the streets were empty, and the buildings were all nondescript industrial fortresses.

Then a couple of young Hispanic workers materialized out of nowhere. They hung several freshly painted blue and white hulks of sheet metal on hooks. As I came around the corner, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds and smiled on three shiny, partially assembled Zambonis. They were lined up and being readied for shipment to China, Austria, and Nebraska.

Richard Zamboni, the son of the founder, gave me the VIP tour of the Zamboni factory. (Perhaps all visiting Minnesotans get the treatment, I thought.) It all began sixty-five years ago, at a skating rink just a few blocks away known as Iceland. Richard’s father, Frank Zamboni, was a refrigeration expert. In 1940, he was thinking big thoughts for a cooling guy: He had a dream to create an enormous open-air rink in Paramount. The tropical sun and dry winds fast proved that Southern California was no place for outdoor ice skating. The short-term solution, Richard recalled, was to skate at night. “Iceland was covered in canvas during the day, and then they’d pull it off at night and we’d all go skating.” The rink surface was cooled by machinery at a huge refrigeration plant across the street, which also stored locally grown carrots and rhubarb.

Richard said that ammonia, the main chemical coolant in the antique system, was run in lines under the streets. “Back then you could do anything and get away with it,” he said. Resurfacing Iceland’s rink the traditional way—with a leaky barrel of hot water, shovels, and mops—cut down on precious ice time. It was a problem at ice sheets everywhere, but especially in the warm Southern California night; even the most devout hockey player or fan would be hard pressed to wait an hour between periods while the ice was cleaned, flooded, and refrozen.

In 1942, Frank rigged up a little tractor with a trailer that smoothed the ice and scooped up the shavings. The prototype machine hardly worked at all, and Zamboni was eager to perfect his brainchild. But with the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December, and America gone to war, ice resurfacing was not exactly a national priority. Zamboni redirected his work, but the idea to finish his ice-making machine was never far from his mind.

Richard said his dad never would have finished the project if people hadn’t told him it was impossible. When the war ended, army surplus offered plenty of cheap parts—especially sheet metal and Jeep components—to complete what became the world’s first working Zamboni. But in some ways, the Zamboni was never complete because Frank never stopped working on it. “He was a dedicated smoker and he’d go outside and just look at the machine,” Richard said. “My dad drove me crazy because he’d change the design each time we had a new machine. He didn’t get past the ninth grade, and he thought he was educationally challenged. But he was really a genius at design.”

Basically, Jeep chassis were stripped and built back up. The job of a Zamboni is to shave the ice to a depth of one-sixteenth of an inch with a stainless steel blade. The shavings are then gathered to the middle with huge augers. From there, the snow is conveyed by little paddles on a chain up into the holding tank—the sort of whale’s head that dominates the machine. Directly behind the blades and augurs, water heated to 180 degrees is sprinkled onto the ice surface. A chamois distributes the water evenly behind the machine, and the rink’s refrigeration coils freeze the water within minutes. Pointing to the wheels of a classic Model J Zamboni from the late 1960s, Richard said, “We took the Jeep tires over to a shop and they scarfed off all the good tread. Then we put crushed walnut shells on the tires to make them grip the ice.”

As a self-styled Renaissance man of automotive machines, Frank Zamboni didn’t limit his creativity to ice resurfacing; he branched out into many less well-known Zamboni vehicles. The Zamboni Gopher Digger dug trenches, the Zamboni Track Dryer mopped up after a rain on running tracks, and the Astro Zamboni laid down Astroturf in domed stadiums. Richard remembered testing the Astro Zamboni by turning the streets next to the factory into plush, green, temporary lawns. The company also produced the Zamboni Vault Carrier, which lugged concrete cemetery vaults and dropped them in the ground, and “the Black Widow,” which was designed to push dirt into the grave.

Many of these side projects were abandoned, though, when it became clear that the Zamboni name would forever be associated intimately with the ice rink. In 1950, Norwegian figure-skating champion Sonja Henie bought two Zambonis, which went on tour with her ice skating revue.

The Number Four Zamboni had an even more eventful career. First it traveled with Ice Capades in the fifties, and then, at the height of the Cold War, it was sold to Los Alamos National Laboratory to keep our atomic scientists happy and healthy on their days off. In February 1973, the Los Alamos rink caught fire, and the firemen were going to let Number Four burn with it. A Zamboni driver named Ted Dunn doused himself with water, entered the burning building, and threw a wet blanket over the Zamboni. He tightened the battery terminals, revved the Zamboni engine, and burst through the burning doors at the vehicle’s top speed of nine miles per hour. Years later, the machine was restored and placed in a museum where it can still be seen today—at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota.

Since the birth of the Model A Zamboni in 1949, eight thousand of the machines have been hand-built at the factory by about thirty employees. Richard showed me a photo of the celebration the employees had earlier this year for number 8,000—a landmark Zamboni 540 that went to a special team. Earlier this fall, it arrived at Mariucci Arena, home of the University of Minnesota Gophers.

The eight-thousandth Zamboni is, of course, a radical upgrade from the Model A. Zamboni engines today are either electric or gas-powered. Electric engines are a bit more expensive, but they don’t spew the toxic exhaust created by the gas-burning machines. Zambonis today are four-wheel drive and have studded tires for traction around those breakneck curves. Despite being in the business for sixty-five years, Zamboni has never seen the need to sully the dashboard with an odometer or even a speedometer. A standard gas-burning Zamboni runs about fifty-thousand dollars—odometer and speedometer not an option. The Zamboni company does have one minor corporate rival. A company called Olympia sells its machines with a GM chassis at a slightly lower cost. Naturally, Richard feels the quality doesn’t come close to the real Zamboni.

Resurfacing the ice takes less than fifteen minutes, depending on the prowess of the Zamboni driver. Three basic patterns are followed by Zamboni operators: the common double outside loop, the less common figure eight, and the rarely seen crosscut. The hockey world stood aghast as the Minnesota North Stars took the bold step of introducing two Zambonis to resurface one sheet of ice back in the 1970s. The fans were perched on the edges of their seats awaiting a low-speed Zamboni crash on the blue line that never materialized. Today, dueling Zambonis are standard at all pro hockey games. Why? To allow more ice time for those between-period shenanigans.

The Minnesota connection with Zamboni runs deep. Through the mouthpiece of Charlie Brown, St. Paul native Charles Schulz professed in Peanuts, “There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire, and a Zamboni clearing the ice.” Schulz’s use of “Zamboni” as the punch line in so many Peanuts strips popularized the ice resurfacer like no big-budget advertising campaign could ever have done. Richard Zamboni remembered how people in Northern California, where Schulz lived, would ask him, “What the heck is a Zamboni?” Schulz missed the ice rinks back in Minnesota, so he donated an indoor ice arena to his adopted hometown of Santa Rosa—along with its very own Zamboni.

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