The Zamboni Legend and the Science of Making Ice

1949 Zamboni Model A

The coolest sports-related vehicle ever? Not the golf cart, Formula 1 car or even monster trucks. At 9.7 miles an hour, the ice resurfacer beats them all.

There are jobs that millions of kids around the world dream about being when they “grow up” – firefighter, astronaut, teacher, professional athlete, doctor, hockey blog writer. It’s just human nature to dream big. There is one job, however, that most adults still dream of doing, even just once. That job, of course, is to drive a Zamboni. Lucky for me, aside from being a former firefighter and current hockey blog writer, I also have three seasons under my belt as a Zamboni driver. Yes, I thank my lucky stars often. Before we get to the topic of what it’s like to drive one, let’s cover the history of how the modern ice resurfacer came to be, shall we? Oh yes, we shall.

Zamboni. The man, the machine, the legacy. Perhaps no other product’s name is more synonymous with its inventor, as the Zamboni Ice Resurfacer. Named after Frank J. Zamboni, this ice resurfacing machine has shaped the history of hockey at every level and every continent where hockey is played.

Furthermore, it has also been celebrated in pop culture through music “I Wanna Drive The Zamboni” by the Gear Daddies, in the movies when Deadpool uses one to eliminate a bad guy (a la James Bond in For Your Eyes Only), and in children cartoons, when Snoopy provides a silky smooth ice resurface as Charlie Brown and friends look on. Charlie comments, “there are three things in life that people like to stare at; a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice.” Truer words have never been spoken, Chuck.

For your viewing pleasure….

Cool Joe – Snoopy doin’ business in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown (1980)

So, just how did the Zamboni become such a sports icon? To answer that, we have to go back to 1949 in Paramount, California. Frank J. Zamboni, already in the refrigeration business, worked for nine years before perfecting a working model, logically naming it the “Model A”. It was powered by an army surplus Jeep engine and even had parts from a Douglas bomber plane leftover from WWII.

What was once a task that took five men, 90 minutes to complete, a resurface using his Model A on their family-owned rink named “Iceland”, now took only 15 minutes and one person. The success of Zamboni’s invention was immediate, as the first purchase orders came from Chicago and Boston. He filed for a patent in 1949 and it was granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1953.

Having a driving need to improve the design and functionality, Zamboni created multiple subsequent models with the help of family members. Many of the early models are now museum pieces, including the No. 4 (of 4) “Model B”, which is on display at the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota (which I highly recommend visiting if you’re ever in the State of Hockey). Zamboni was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.

Bond….James Bond (1981)

There is so much more to the Zamboni legacy, but it goes without saying, that it’s an incredible story and his invention has had an incalculable effect on the game of hockey, not to mention figure skating, curling, etc. He stands alone as the man that invented the modern-day ice resurfacer – there will be no one to ever eclipse what he has done for the game. Stick taps to Frank Zamboni, the legend.

Eighteen years after Zamboni completed its first resurface, its now largest competitor in North America, the Resurfice Corporation completed its first ice resurfacer in Elmira, Ontario. From a market share position, Zamboni was king of the ice for decades and decades. However, with an equally competent machine in the Olympia, the proverbial race is on. While most, if not all, NHL and college hockey teams have had Zambonis at one time or another, the Olympia machines are slowly gaining traction (pun intended). Both companies have been long-used during the Winter Olympics, Stanley Cups, NCAA and high school championships and all the way to Mites practices and figure skating shows.

Saying that Zamboni is better than Olympia or vice versa, is like saying that Ford is better than Chevy (I mean, Ford clearly wins, but just for the sake of argument). Ask ice resurfacing specialists though, and some are equally as indifferent while others have their favorite. A new player from Canada is ICETECH Machines, which began in 2016 in Terrebonne, QC, Canada. I have to say that I’ve heard the ICETECH name, but that’s about it. Perhaps they will be the next Olympia, but no one will ever be the next Zamboni.

Deadpool doin’ Deadpool things in Deadpool (2016)

Across the pond in Europe, there are a couple of Italian companies that make ice resurfacers, Engo (not Enzo), which was formed in 1979 and WM, which began in 1986. Check out the pic below and be real…. how many times have you seen a Mercedes-Benz converted into an ice resurfacer before? What will those zany Europeans think of next? Am I right? Speaking of which – if any of you are reading this from Europe and have a Unimog that is still in use, send us a pic of it in action.

Regardless of what brand of ice resurfacer you’re looking at, make sure you have a big purse/wallet. Prices for new ice resurfacing machines range between $100K-$200K. Certainly, technology has advanced what these machines can do, be it laser technology for extremely accurate levels of ice to the manner in which water is applied in order to save energy and water usage, the future in ice resurfacing is still bright as a new sheet of ice.

The WM ice resurfacer built for a Unimog

Ice Resurfacing: The Experience

As I mentioned before, I have three seasons’ experience of driving a Zamboni at my local rinks. People have asked me if it’s as fun as it looks and it truly is, perhaps even more so. The anticipation of the next resurface keeps you staring at the clock like you did in school, waiting for the bell to ring.

Driving onto the ice and having the cool air hit you in the face is a feeling that I never get tired of at all. It’s almost indescribable given the fact that you’re the only one on the ice and you have a countless amount of kids (and adults alike) staring at you through the glass in wonderment and jealousy. Kids smile and wave and some give the universal sign that they want you to honk the horn, emphatically pumping their arm up and down, then cheer when you honk.

Typically, a full resurface takes one resurfacer around seven minutes. If there are two resurfacers working together (a.k.a. doing “doubles”), it obviously cuts the resurface time in half. Though experienced ice resurfacer drivers make ice maintenance look easy, there is actually a lot of science and care needed to prepare a beautiful sheet of ice.

The foundation underneath the rink itself plays a part in the overall quality of ice. A concrete foundation, for example, makes it much easier to control and maintain the ice surface in all parts of the rink. Obviously, laying a thick foundation of concrete that is able to withstand the weight of the water/ice, plus people and equipment, isn’t a cheap undertaking. An alternative to concrete is to put a base layer of sand and building the rink on top of that. However, this option has challenges at times, to regulate the ice quality and temperatures.

Speaking of ice temperatures, each rink, regardless of foundation type, has a computer system which monitors and controls the ice temperatures 24/7. Using compressors, an anti-freeze coolant called “brinewater” and miles of plumbing and tubing, certified rink managers and ice technicians are able to provide a perfect sheet of ice.

That’s not to say that a fresh resurface is the only ice maintenance required. Ice temperatures are taken throughout specified areas of the rink, particularly at collegiate, NHL and Olympic levels to ensure good quality ice all over the rink.

Also, as the number of resurfaces increases throughout a season, a small machine called an “ice edger” is used next to the boards around the entire rink to prevent a somewhat “bowl” shape from occurring. As a Zamboni travels next to the boards and into the corners, excess water can build up where the boards meet the ice.

As the Zamboni makes its way around the rink, there is a blade underneath that shaves the ice at whatever degree or pitch that the driver wants and the old ice is swept into a horizontal auger, before being moved towards the center and up through a vertical auger into the dump box that sits on top of the Zamboni. It takes about 200-275 gallons of warm water per resurface.

Needing to slow in corners and while turning during the entire resurface, drivers also need to adjust the amount of water they are applying to the ice in order to prevent an uneven buildup of ice. To ensure a completely flat sheet of ice however, edgers are brought in just in case. Once the resurface is complete, the shaved ice/snow is dumped usually into a melt pit that recycles the water.

You see, driving a Zamboni isn’t as fun as it looks. Scratch that. It is, but drivers have to pay attention to what they’re doing and when while they “work.” A Zamboni can travel at almost 10 miles an hour. During resurfaces however, they usually travel between 4-4.5 miles an hour, but even at that speed, a lot can go wrong in a hurry. Still damn fun though.

Author: MNhockeywriter

Hockey is like religion in Minnesota and I'm here to preach.

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