There’s So Much More To The Zamboni Story Than You Ever Imagined
This past January 16, a one of my LinkedIn pals named Jesse Cooke, a Buffalo lawyer who dabbles in fascinating historical trivia, posted that it was the 120th birthday of the late Frank Zamboni, inventor of the beloved ice resurfacer. I commented on his post, and a PR friend of mine out in Los Angeles, Don Klosterman, offered to help connect me with the company. Thus commenced my thorough education about all things Zamboni (or Frank J. Zamboni & Co., Inc., to be more proper). As with so many people, my initial interest was simply this: that their machines are just way too cool. But the real Zamboni story, I discovered, is about a man whose invention profoundly changed the world of ice sports.
Frank Zamboni didn’t set out to be a machine builder.
He was a serial entrepreneur. He and his brother Lawrence first opened an electric service shop in Hynes, California, in 1920. Soon after, they saw the need in those pre-refrigeration days for ice for the local dairies and for rail shipping of the area’s produce, so they built an ice plant and made 300-pound blocks.
The arrival of refrigeration in the late ’20s slowly eroded that business, so in 1940 the brothers used their chilling systems as the basis for an ice rink. (Paramount Iceland is still in operation today, just down the road from their main manufacturing plant.) It was a hit, but the downtime caused by the need to manually resurface the ice sheet was a problem. Richard Zamboni, Frank’s son and the company’s president, said, “My father took over managing the rink and felt there had to be a better way to make a good sheet of ice than the present one that took a lot of time and manpower. After many attempts, he was finally able to create a machine operated by one person that replaced the old process.”
That machine was the Model A ice resurfacer, built from surplus WWII vehicle parts in 1949. Its basic operations have remained unchanged for over 70 years. “There are three primary functions that have stayed constant,” said Mike Zamboni, Engineering Product Development Manager and Frank’s great-grandson. “There’s the blade, which shaves off a thin layer of ice. Then there’s the conveyor that moves the shaved ice to a storage tank. And finally, there’s a system to lay down fresh water—hot water, which freezes more efficiently and creates a better layer of ice.” Frank’s invention replaced the manual labor of several workers and a variety of other less-successful contraptions, saving both time and money.
The story could have ended there, but Frank—a ninth-grade dropout but a born engineer—wasn’t satisfied. His two-wheel-drive prototype didn’t have the traction he wanted. So he built a second machine, which was really a Jeep with all the ice resurfacer parts added, the Model B. He sold it to the Pasadena Winter Garden in 1950, and along the way established his new company.
Then Sonja Henie showed up.
Henie was a Norwegian Olympian figure skater who’d gone on to star in her own traveling ice show. She made a stop at Paramount Iceland to practice, saw the Model A, and immediately wanted an ice resurfacer to take with her on the road. Frank delivered—literally. “After he built the resurfacer,” explained Richard Zamboni, “he placed all the machine parts in a trailer and proceeded to drive the Jeep pulling the trailer to Chicago.” In fact, he’d gone to Chicago by way of St. Louis, where Henie had been scheduled to perform but where her show had been canceled. Frank’s dogged pursuit of the show became a catalyst for his success, though, because Henie’s subsequent travel with her own Model B became a free national marketing campaign for Zamboni—and eventually an international campaign when the show bought a second machine for its overseas performances. Soon the rival Ice Capades show became a customer as well, and business took off.
Through the 1950s, Frank continued to refine his designs. The 1956 Model F was the first built on a stripped Jeep frame, took on the basic appearance that most people think of today when they think of the brand. That was the company’s 37th machine, since ice rinks around the U.S. had been buying them steadily.
That trend would only accelerate in subsequent decades. Zamboni picked up the official endorsement of the National Hockey League, and has had a presence at most Winter Olympic Games since 1960. The humble ice resurfacer has slowly worked its way into the national psyche. “There was a Zamboni Happy Meal toy, a Zamboni PEZ dispenser, and a Zamboni Matchbox vehicle,” said Paula Coony, Zamboni’s Brand Manager. “It became like a mascot—some rinks even dress it up that way.” The brand would appear in Charles Schulz’s timeless Peanuts comic strip a full 48 times. As Charlie Brown himself said, “There are three things in life people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire, and a Zamboni clearing the ice.” (The company would prefer that not even a cartoon character use their brand name generically like that, though. That’s a big no-no when it comes to defending brand identities. “We spend a good part of our day protecting our trademark,” Coony added.)
Eventually demand for the machines outside America led Zamboni to establish an international presence. They first set up a manufacturing operation in Canada in 1967. Today, that’s become Zamboni Company Ltd., which operates in Brantford, Ontario (fittingly enough, also the birthplace of Wayne Gretzky). In 2018, the company also formed Zamboni Europe AB in Österfärnebo, Sweden.
Most people fail to see the transformational effect the ice resurfacer has had on the sports world. “The equipment that Frank Zamboni invented has enable our ice sports of today,” explained Derek Gunn, Zamboni’s VP of Operations. “The National Hockey League has three periods in their games because of Frank. We just wouldn’t have the amateur ice sports we have today if it hadn’t been for him.”
Frank’s penchant for improving his machines never left him, and he infused his company with that ethic. “My dad was always challenging himself and his staff to make the existing product even better,” said Richard Zamboni. “I see that same innovative spirit in our engineering team and with our manufacturing staff.” Frank Zamboni passed away in 1988, but his team has continued on the path he forged.
In addition to the constant mechanical improvements that have been made to the machines over the decades, Zamboni has driven much bigger changes. While electric vehicles are all the rage for every application today, Zamboni was an early pioneer. “We debuted our first electric machines in 1960, at the Olympics in Squaw Valley, [California,]” Mike Zamboni said. That was the company’s very first Games, where they supplied a total of six machines, including the two electric ones and a unique three-wheeled machine for tight rink corners. Their first commercial electric machine, the Model 550, was rolled out all the way back in 1976.
That long experience offers tremendous opportunity now, particularly in Europe. “Sweden has been more or less electric since around 2004,” said Jörgen Åström, Managing Director, Zamboni Europe. “With lithium-ion batteries, you get full power through the full charge. Europe is quite demanding for features on the machines, especially for emissions. I think it’s a great idea for ice resurfacing—you resurface, then you recharge. It has lower costs than LPG or natural gas. The future is electric.”
Canada is a strong market for electric as well. “One huge opportunity is our acquisition of our former distributor in Quebec,” said Greg Dean, Zamboni’s VP of Sales and Brand Management, referring to the company’s purchase of Robert Boileau inc. in 2019. “That’s Canada’s largest market for electric. Our move gave us direct access to that market.”
Other innovations are aimed at addressing the talent crunch and further improving ice quality and facility management. “More automation makes it easier for less-experienced operators,” said Mike Zamboni. “Making good ice is an art, getting the right blade depth and amount of water applied. Things like our FastICE System can automate those settings based on an experienced operator’s inputs. That can help prevent a less experienced operator from adding too much water and other actions that might raise a rink’s utility costs. The Level Ice System uses laser leveling to automate the machine’s blade to make a perfectly level ice sheet. That can allow rinks to hire operators who aren’t necessarily experts at creating a sheet of ice.”
Finally, Zamboni is bringing manufacturing innovations as well. “We’re still a small shop building custom machines,” said Gunn. “We’re focused on scalability, making improvements with an eye toward increasing our sales. That includes technology to streamline assembly and improve quality, like our main assembly system. It also includes communicating regularly with all our people, getting their input on how to innovate on quality and schedule.”
A lot of people are unaware that Zamboni has competitors. Some have come and gone, unable to keep pace with the iconic brand, but others remain. The company doesn’t share sales figures, but they’ve produced over 12,000 machines to date, and they make more machines per year than all other producers combined.
Richard Zamboni wants to keep it that way. “Actually, it is kind of overwhelming to think back to the beginning and realize how much our company has been able to accomplish over the past seventy-plus years,” he said. “We’re so fortunate to have a well-known brand name and even more so to have people regard the brand and our products as being of the highest quality. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with being an industry leader, and a big piece of that is making sure that you maintain that position, which I think our team is doing well.”