The ABCs of hockey's Zamboni

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:19 AM ET

Which 50-year-old National Hockey League icon has more mileage than Gordie Howe, is always first on the ice, last off and can still do laps around everyone?

If you wrote down zamboni, you would be correct, though your name would also wind up on company president Richard Zamboni's Z list of Z-offenders.

"Zamboni is a trademark, to be spelled with a cap Z and not used as a noun," Zamboni said from his office in Paramount, Calif., a few blocks from where his father Frank invented the world's first ice resurfacing machines in the 1940s. "Our company goes back a long way and with the internet and everyone 'Googling' around today, we just want to prevent Zamboni from becoming a generic term."

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Zamboni's first NHL appearance in Canada, at the Montreal Forum in a game between the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs. But the arrival of that tractor chain monster was not enough to distract an unruly crowd from tossing refuse on the ice, including pigs' feet, to protest the Leafs' stalling tactics in a 0-0 tie.

The league's first Zamboni was delivered to the Boston Garden three months earlier while a public rink in Laval, Que., became the first Canadian venue to take possession just ahead of the Forum. Prior to its arrival, the Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens and other rinks had manual scrapers and two-man crews pulling barrels of water.

"It's hard to believe it has been as successful as it has," Zamboni said. "But we're pleased and the people in Canada are obviously pleased, too."

Frank Zamboni had joined his two brothers' garage business in the 1920s, refining refrigeration units for the dairy and produce industry. With their ice expertise, the family cashed in on the skating craze of the late 1930s by building a giant rink in Paramount that could handle 800 people.

The need to keep the ice well-groomed in the California sun kept Frank in invention mode. From 1942-47, he developed a machine that would shave the ice, remove the shavings, wash and squeegee the ice and hold snow in an elevated tank large enough to last for an entire resurfacing job. Converting the vehicle to four-wheel drive in 1949, he filed patent No. 93,478 -- the Model A Zamboni. He built 13 more with successive improvements that soon were heading to rinks all over the continent. More than 7,000 have since been purchased worldwide. The NHL doubled its order early in the 1990s when it went to two machines per building to speed up intermissions.

In Toronto, Sam DeAngelis, the longtime driver at the Gardens and Air Canada Centre, just turned in his ignition keys on Dec. 31 after 44 years piloting various models. He's being honoured later this month by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. and the Zamboni company.

DeAngelis once joked if he'd added up his Zamboni kilometres, he has probably driven to his native Italy and back a few times. The ACC now uses a pair of 2004 models, including the top of the line 520, though ACC general manager Bob Hunter says they are replaced every two years.

"Because we're a premier client, Zamboni gives us the latest and greatest models they have," Hunter said. "They're always making new advances."

Frank Zamboni, who died in 1988, never stopped refining his invention and Richard picked up the torch. But what will the Zamboni of 2055 look like?

"We don't know what the means of propulsion will be by then," Zamboni said. "The machines will always have to feature a sharp blade, a conveyor and a water tank. But people will always want to go faster and develop skates and better arenas. We'll have to keep up with those changes."


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