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Smooth Operator
Steve Rushin
November 28, 2005
The Gear Daddies had a cult hit singing I Want to Drive the Zamboni, but me, I want to be a Zamboni, the last great role model in sports.
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November 28, 2005

Smooth Operator

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The Gear Daddies had a cult hit singing I Want to Drive the Zamboni, but me, I want to be a Zamboni, the last great role model in sports.

Unhurried by the hurly-burly of modern life, Zambonis are frequently test-driven on the streets surrounding their factory in the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount, merging into traffic at the stately speed of nine miles per hour.

Nobody minds. In fact, people smile at the mere mention of a Zamboni. "I can only think of one other machine whose name does that," says Richard Zamboni, 73-year-old president of the company his father founded, "and that's a Jacuzzi." And though a Zamboni in London, Ont., has been fitted with a hot tub--an after-market modification--Zambonis are better than a warm bath. They're like a warm memory, resurfacing periodically.

Fifty-six years have passed since Frank J. Zamboni conjured a machine, with a Jeep chassis, to resurface the ice at his skating rink. Two blocks from the Zamboni factory, Paramount Iceland is still thriving, a glorious anachronism that houses the original Zamboni plus a working Wurlitzer pipe organ of 1920s vintage that continues to play an ancient sound track for the Tuesday-night Open Skate.

Unlike most 56-year-old sports legends, the Zamboni has remained free of scandal, though a Zamboni jockey was busted for ZUI this summer after he erratically resurfaced the ice at the Mennen Sports Arena in Morristown, N.J., and then blew a .12 on the Breathalyzer.

Otherwise, Zambonis are timeless, immune to the tides of fashion. As the title character noted in She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, "There are three things in life people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice."

That mesmeric quality was precisely the problem for the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, who purchased the second Zamboni, in 1950. " Arthur Wirtz eventually became disenchanted with it," says Zamboni, "because he thought it kept people from going to the concession stands between periods."

There is something deeply satisfying when the ice shimmers like the reflecting pool that so transfixed Narcissus. "I'm not one of those people who sit in the stands and says, 'He missed a spot,'" says Zamboni, bursting this reverie. "I sit there hoping the thing doesn't break down." (When the Zamboni broke down during the first intermission of the 1986 NCAA championship game in Providence, the game was delayed while a spare was driven--with a police escort--from across town.)

Likewise, Frank Zamboni never cared for hockey and could barely stand on skates. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade and was always self-conscious about it. That's why he wanted to call his firm the Paramount Engineering Company. "He thought that sounded sophisticated," says Richard. But the name was already taken, so this Edison of the Ice settled for the Frank J. Zamboni Co., and thank goodness he did, because nobody wants a license plate frame that says MY OTHER CAR IS A PARAMOUNT.

Today's four-cylindered Zambonis have Nissan engines and top out at 14 mph, though NHL rinks are typically resurfaced at 3 to 5 mph. This year the Zamboni Company ovaled its wagons, weathered the NHL lockout and sold its 8,000th machine, to the University of Minnesota.

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