Like Q-Tips and Kleenex, you wouldn’t call a Zamboni by its technical name. Such is the influence of Frank Joseph Zamboni, Jr. on smooth ice.
The Zamboni was born out of a side hustle. Frank was in the refrigeration game, which at the time meant manufacturing large ice blocks that kept boxed-in perishables cold. Picture a cooler. When mechanical refrigeration froze demand for his business, he opened an ice rink.
The rink was a popular novelty in sunny Southern California, albeit with considerable overhead. It took up to four workers 90 minutes to scrape and squeegee the surface when it became too choppy. No skates on the ice meant no money in the bank.
Starting in 1942, Zamboni began piecing together a solution using vehicle scraps left over from the war, including bomber aircraft. By 1947, he had a prototype. It was essentially an army surplus Willys Jeep chassis outfitted with a blade, water dispenser, and industrial squeequee. Zamboni’s invention produced a silky smooth rink in just minutes.
Word quickly spread to other rink owners. Orders were placed. A new business was born. In 1950, the Zamboni earned its first major endorsement. Norwegian Olympic skater and film star Sonja Henie caught eye of a Zamboni in action in Iceland and ordered two for her European tour. In 1954, the Boston Bruins became the first NHL team to employ a Zamboni. Zamboni remains the official ice resurfacer of the NHL to this day. Nineteen-sixty was the coming out party: the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. The U.S. men’s hockey team won its first gold in the sport in a highly televised game against the Russians, on ice paved by the Zamboni.
The Zamboni’s next big stage was north of the border, in Canada, a country home to a tenth of the population of the United States but with three times as many ice rinks. In 1967, Zamboni opened a manufacturing plant in Brantford, Ontario. The same year, the company’s first competitor, Resurfice, opened up shop just 70 kilometres away from Zamboni’s new outpost. Resurfice’s Olympia model was a hit and featured prominently at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. The ‘ol hometown advantage.
It’s difficult to calculate how much of the market share is owned by Zamboni and Resurfice. Easier to determine is fame. It’s hard to imagine a kid telling you the best part of watching hockey is when the Resurfice zips around the rink between periods. The New York Times says “Zamboni may be the most famous name on ice” – including the players. You don’t have to know hockey to know the Zamboni, just like you don’t need to know soccer to fan over David Beckham. The Zamboni has been featured in Peanuts comics, the movie Deadpool, and as a Google Doodle. In 2008, shortly before she could have been elected vice-president, Sarah Palin revealed she “always wanted a son called Zamboni.”
Today, the family-owned company builds around 200 Zambonis a year. That’s a healthy number for a niche market in which a vehicle usually costs at least $75,000. Each Zamboni is made-to-order, with a production time of around six months. Its signature coat, Yves Klein blue and pearly white, looks fantastic.
In She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown remarks, “There are three things in life that people like to stare at... a flowing stream, a crackling fire, and a Zamboni clearing the ice." Ain’t that the truth.