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Zamboni’s Curious Machines Make Old Ice As Good As New Contraptions Scrape, Condition Rink Surfaces After Heavy Use

Mon., Oct. 6, 1997, midnight

No one knows the Zamboni like Frank Zamboni.

The machine lumbers around the hockey rink between periods, changing a rutted, chopped-up surface to a glistening new one. Even as it approaches its 50th birthday, many hockey fans don’t know how it works.

Zamboni, whose grandfather invented the machine in 1948, understands the wonder.

“It makes it look sparkling new, magically new,” said Zamboni, vice president of family-owned Frank J. Zamboni & Co. “It’s very few people who actually know what the inner workings of the machine are.”

There’s no magic. Razor-sharp blades scrape the surface, and the shavings are mixed with water and a “conditioner” that smoothes the ice, he said. The mixture is heated and spread on the ice behind the Zamboni.

The Zamboni was invented in 1948 by Frank J. Zamboni, who owned an icehouse in Paramount, Calif. When sales of ice to dairy farmers in the 1930s began to slow, he built an ice rink across the street.

In 1942, he began to experiment and after several years of adjustments, Zamboni’s machine worked.

“My grandfather kept tinkering with it,” said Zamboni from the company’s plant in Brantford, Ontario, which also is Wayne Gretzky’s hometown. He finally perfected it in 1948 and started the company a year later.

Now the machines run from $5,000 for a tractor-pulled model (without the tractor) to $120,000 for a extra-wide model for speed-skating rinks, Zamboni said. The company has sold 6,000 of them through the years.

“Our company has gone through up and down cycles and is currently in an up-cycle,” Zamboni said, “especially because of the number of rinks being built in the United States right now.”

Zamboni said his company controls more than three-quarters of the market, employs about 60 workers and has factories in Brantford and Paramount.

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