"Never Have Too Much Fun."

The other Minnesotan who has cemented the Zamboni’s image in the public consciousness is singer-songwriter Martin Zellar. When he was still the leader of the Austin, Minnesota, roots-rock band the Gear Daddies, Zellar wrote the whimsical “Zamboni Song” about every boy’s dream to smooth that ice like a pro in front of thousands of adoring rink rats.


Well I went down to the local arena

Asked to see the manager man

He came from his office, said, “Son, can I help you?”

I looked at him and said, “Yes, you can …”

I want to drive the Zamboni … hey

I want to drive the Zamboni … Yes I do!


Now ever since I was young it’s been my dream

That I might drive a Zamboni machine

I’d get the ice just as slick as could be

And all the kids would look up to me

I want to drive the Zamboni … hey

I want to drive the Zamboni … Yes I do!


Now the manager said, “Son, I know it looks keen


But that right there is one expensive machine


And I’ve got Smokey who’s been driving for years.”


About that time I broke down in tears.


Cause I want to drive the Zamboni … hey


I want to drive the Zamboni … Yes I do!

 

It was originally a hidden track on the 1990 album Billy’s Live Bait. Zellar had dashed it off in a few playful moments as a kind of musical joke. But years later, the song became a surprise hit—first on the soundtrack to the Walt Disney film The Mighty Ducks, and then Mystery, Alaska, and then through the National Hockey League, where it is played at almost every pro hockey game on the schedule. “I heard that he put his kids through college because of that song,” Richard Zamboni said with just a hint of envy. “Well, we wish him the very best.”

“The notion that I’ve profitted handsomely from that song is something of a myth,” Marty Zellar told me. “The Gear Daddies version probably isn’t even the most familiar version, to most people. It was since recorded by some hockey novelty band that has probably made more money off it than I have, and without ever giving us credit. These guys have actually toured hockey arenas playing that song. It’s gotten a lot of exposure, but it really hasn’t translated into a windfall.”

Driving the Zamboni may look like it’s just spinning circles on the ice, but the hazards are many. Walt Bruley, a self-described “Zamboni man,” resurfaces the ice at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, home ice of the University of Minnesota–Duluth Bulldogs. Bruley drives the “Waste Management Zamboni,” which is painted like one of that company’s garbage trucks. He warned of the pitfalls of pucks, broken sticks, and items that fans throw on the ice—all of which can badly foul up the machine. Bruley told me, “Every once in a while, the nails from the boards, which used to be made of plywood, would pop out with the puck bouncing around, and we’d puncture the tires on the Zamboni.”

“I could teach you how to drive it in a day, but it takes two to three years’ experience to master it,” Bruley said. “It’s so unnatural because you can’t see. You have this big massive thing in front of you and you’re expected to hit a mark without being able to see it. I try not to get too happy out there because then you don’t pay attention. Everyone waves and wants me to honk. Never get too happy, always pay attention.”

To prove that resurfacing the ice is serious business, Bruley told me about a group of hockey fans in Section 26 who would heckle him at every game about his Zamboni driving. According to the fans, either Bruley missed a spot, put down too much water, or just drove too slowly. “A guy from the stands one night after the game came down and said, ‘I’ve been watching you do that for twenty-five years. What do I have to do to become a Zamboni man?’ We gave him a job and he slowly learned how to do it and couldn’t believe how hard it is.” The man from the stands now drives a Zamboni—but it took him many months of practice, and many embarrassing mistakes. It was Bruley’s hope that his new charge might go back to his buddies in Section 26 and tell them just how hard it really is.

Richard Zamboni conceded that driving a Zamboni is a refined art. “Take it easy and keep up your momentum and you’ll be fine. But don’t go too fast; it’s a delicate balance.” Then he added, laughing, “I’ve put them through the boards myself a couple of times.”

Zambonis are tested at Iceland, which today is a fully functioning indoor arena. In the past, each new Zamboni that was delivered also came with driving lessons, usually from Frank Zamboni himself. Now a Zamboni training video accompanies each delivery. Richard sat me down in front of a VCR to show me the tape, and within minutes I was dozing. Apparently, I don’t have the right stuff.

My failure was harmless compared to the failures of others. A couple of scofflaws recently violated the Zamboni driver’s solemn oath of seriousness. Last summer, a man was arrested in Morristown, New Jersey, for speeding and driving a Zamboni drunk. (Getting drunk inside a hockey arena is not impossible to believe. But speeding—at nine miles per hour?) After apprehending the man, police were stumped on whether this was actually a crime or not, because a driver’s license isn’t generally required to operate a Zamboni. A few weeks later, another Zamboni driver in Victoriaville, Quebec, was booked with a blood alcohol level nearly four times the legal limit. The Canadian prosecutor, Jean-François Royer, told Toronto’s National Post, “Higher than that and there’s a danger of coma … It’s typically Canuck.” When I asked his opinion of these antics, Richard Zamboni just shook his head sadly and said, “Don’t drink and operate any machinery.”

Taking a Zamboni on a joy ride is the stuff of boyhood dreams, though. Stories abound of hijacked Zambonis from the local ice arena taken to the drive-through at the local Jack in the Box. The most celebrated Zamboni road trip was taken by Canadian Jimmy MacNeil, who traveled coast to coast across Canada during the winter of 2001. It took him four months.

The beloved ice resurfacer inspired Road & Track magazine to run a recent road test of the top-of-the-line Zamboni, which accelerated from zero to nine miles per hour in 6.22 seconds. Anyone who’s been to the arena in the past ten years can see that even the Zamboni has been touched by commercial culture—and it has probably not hurt too much in the looks department. The machine has been the canvas of outrageous paint schemes and advertising gimmicks. And a few years ago, students at Pasadena’s nearby Art Center College of Design were asked to propose how they’d design the Zamboni of the future. “The Los Angeles Kings approached the students and asked them to design something that wasn’t this chunky old block of stuff just going around the ice rink,” Richard Zamboni told me. Suddenly, space-age Zambonis with streamlined designs leaped from the page. Zamboni loved the new blueprints, but they were strictly fantasy; the students were disappointed to hear that the designs didn’t allow enough space for ice collection and hot water tanks.

Because of Zamboni’s near monopoly in the market of ice resurfacing, Zamboni is worried that its name will go the way of “Kleenex,” “Frisbee,” and “Jacuzzi” and that the company will have to struggle to protect its trademark. Company literature—which we’re just getting to now, obviously—points out that Zamboni “is always an adjective. Never a noun … The machine is not ‘a Zamboni,’ it is a ZAMBONI ice resurfacing machine. The name must be capitalized and spelled correctly and should never even remotely be used in a generic sense. Never use ‘Zamboni’ as a verb or in the plural, such as ‘Zambonis.’”

These earnest requests may already be moot, because in many ways “Zamboni” has entered the lexicon. Already, it has appeared in the hallowed pages of Webster’s dictionary, in crossword puzzles, and in your standard deck of Trivial Pursuit cards. A Zamboni solved a crime on CSI, and another one ran over Carla’s husband, Eddie, on an episode of Cheers.

In Southern California, though, many people have still never heard of Zamboni. At home, hardly anyone recognizes Richard Zamboni. But when he ventures north, he’s surprised at the celebrity reception he gets. “Once I was up in Thief River Falls, way up there in northern Minnesota. They had a new machine and split the paint scheme down the middle because it had to be for two teams … At a party, a very nice fellow named Mike introduced me to some friends saying, ‘This is Richard Zamboni.’” Thinking it a joke, someone responded, ‘Oh, and I’m Julius Caesar, too.’” Another especially sharp Minnesotan said, “Oh, so you’re named after the machine?”

Tom Sersha, the executive director of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, summed up the near-mythical status of the machine. “There’s something about the name ‘Zamboni.’ People like it. They like to say it and hear it. It brings smiles to their faces.”

Richard Zamboni seems happy to have his factory in the relative obscurity of Los Angeles. At least the people in Paramount know all about Zamboni. They’re a fairly common sight on city streets. Just so, a Zamboni driver is almost always having too much fun. Richard described how he recently drove the old Zamboni Junior back from Iceland. “As I’m driving on the city streets, I saw a police car.” Richard hunched his shoulders as though he were nervous that he’d be thrown in the clink for his Zamboni joy ride. “The sheriff rolls down his window and just waves at me. I just hope I wasn’t doing anything wrong!”

Pages: 1 2