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My other car is a Zamboni

10/7/2010 - NHL
Despite revolutionizing the way we look at ice, the Zambonis have kept the business in the family. Marla Rutherford for ESPN The Magazine

They are the sweetest three words any red-blooded hockey knucklehead will ever get to hear. Just as I am exiting the understated Zamboni headquarters in Paramount, Calif., the newest gleaming, hulking, three-ton wonder lumbers out a factory door and stops directly in my path.

The temptation too great, I grab a handle far above my head and climb skyward into the driver's seat. Below me, company president Richard Zamboni, 78, steps up and protectively pats the rotund chassis of the machine as if it were the soft, furry belly of a giant blue Labrador retriever.

That's when I notice: He's got the keys.

"Whaddya think?" I yell down, half joking.

Squinting up at me into the hot California sunshine, Zamboni shrugs his bony shoulders and does a quick 360 for cars and nervous PR people. Seeing none, he tosses the keys to the $100,000 machine heavenward and utters those three magical words: "Aw, go ahead."

It's not quite off to the races, though, because I need Richard's help to decipher the controls and instructions, which are in Russian. But I'm a quick learner, and soon enough I raise the blade off the pavement, tap the gas and lurch onto palm-tree-lined Colorado Avenue. I navigate, ungracefully, past a fire hydrant, Richard's gold Cadillac and a group of kids playing soccer near a lumberyard. This, right here, is payback for all those kids-only Zamboni ride-alongs I've endured while covering the NHL. As I pass them, their soccer ball trickles away, unattended. They've stopped to gape at me and my gas-powered elephant. It's exactly like Charlie Brown famously said: "There are three things in life people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice."

Even after 61 years, with nearly 10,000 Zambonis operating in 68 countries around the globe, there is still something hypnotic about the way this machine takes your breath away at a top speed of 9.3 mph. Enshrined in both an athletic hall of fame and the Inventors Hall of Fame, the Zamboni is one of the most influential, and beloved, sports machines ever created. It has been a McDonald's Happy Meal toy, a Monopoly piece and an answer on "Jeopardy!" Like the Coke bottle and the iPod, its unique shape is a registered trademark. There's a rock band named the Zambonis and a cult classic by the Gear Daddies called "I Want to Drive the Zamboni." (Sorry, fellas.) David Letterman forced Mujibur and Sirajul to race Zambonis down 53rd Street in New York City.

Maybe it's the "Aw, go ahead" attitude of a small, family-owned business in a world crowded with McCourts and Snyders. Maybe it's the stately, unhurried movement of the apparatus, something resembling the hippo dance in Fantasia. When a Zamboni driver in Grand Forks, N.D., passed away, his machine seemed like the perfect choice to lead the funeral procession to the cemetery. Or it could be the Zamboni's unique place in the deeply ingrained car culture of the U.S. You know, among folks who appreciate the fact that you can firewall the throttle on the 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine and move this 6,000-pound behemoth from 0 to 9 mph in a sweet 6.22 seconds. In May 2009, Car and Driver actually gave the Zamboni a full test drive and found the visibility "poor," the throttle "abrupt" and the "vague steering totally 1970s Cadillac."

Okay, so it's not a Porsche. But I guarantee that the Zamboni has never taken steroids, gone on strike or organized a dog fight. The only scandal in recent memory a Zamboni was remotely involved in took place in 2005. That summer, drunken drivers at local rinks in New Jersey and Quebec were arrested for what could be termed a ZUI after leaving the ice looking like an Etch A Sketch. "There's just something about this machine that makes you feel good," says Dan Craig, the NHL's facilities operations manager and "ice guru." "Something about torn-up ice magically becoming pristine again right in front of your eyes. From 6 to 96, everyone sits there entranced, like they're watching a campfire. Even I still look at it and go, Wow."

A large part of the machine's appeal comes from the classic American Dream that fueled its creation -- a tale that began just five blocks from my joyride. In January 1940, Richard's father, Frank J. Zamboni, a child of Italian and Austrian immigrants, opened Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount, an offshoot of his electrical and ice manufacturing plant. When the 20,000-square-foot rink opened, though, the process of making a new sheet of ice was a labor-intensive, water- logged mess. Using a tractor equipped with a plane, a large crew would need up to an hour and a half to scrape off the top layer of ice, remove the resulting snow, spray the surface with hot water and wait for it to refreeze.

Frank's education had ended in the ninth grade, but he was a classic tinkerer who already had three U.S. patents to his credit, for Adjustable Reaction Resistance, Reaction Coil and Circuit Controlling Reactance Coil. One day in 1942, he decided to find a better, faster way to clean his ice. He picked up a piece of welder's chalk in his shop, grabbed an old wooden board and got to work on a design. Today, black-and-white photographs that tell the entire Zamboni history dot the walls of both the test rink and the factory. But the one that still stops Richard in his tracks is a shot of his dad sitting alone in his garage deep in thought. The strong backlighting suggests a bit of divine intervention as Frank, elbows on knees, hands clasped together, stares deep into the tangled extraterrestrial guts of an early prototype.

The original Zamboni is a Frankenstein-like amalgamation of genius, elbow grease and trash-picked military surplus parts. Frank started with a Jeep engine, the chassis from an old oil derrick, a hydraulic cylinder from a Douglas Aircraft fighter plane and a paddle-and-chain system that, in theory, would shoot ice shavings into a tank. "My dad always said if people hadn't told him it was impossible, he probably never would have tried it," says the gray-haired Richard, who, equipped with a Timex watch and a pocket protector, could pass for Joe Gibbs' brainy little brother. "He couldn't draw a straight line, but he was a determined guy, and boy did he know how to make a beautiful sheet of ice."

The Model A hit the ice for the first time in 1949. The key to the machine is a razor-sharp blade -- 77 inches long, half an inch thick and weighing 57 pounds -- that drags behind the unit's back wheels, where it can scrape 1/16th of an inch, or less, off the top of the ice. (NHL teams prefer 1/32nd of an inch.) At this depth the machine can remove up to 60 cubic feet of ice in one pass. That's enough shavings, company officials like to point out, for 3,661 snow cones.

Running parallel to the blade is a large horizontal screw (like what you see in a snowblower) that brings the shavings to the center of the machine. Another vertical screw, turning at 1,500 rpm, it lifts and shoots them into the large snow tank in the front of the vehicle. Finally, about 95 gallons of hot water is spread on the ice by a towel. Yes, hot water, which makes better ice because it melts the existing surface and bonds with it. It also accelerates evaporation, which freezes the ice faster, leaving behind the trance-inducing surface this magazine once described as "smooth as Lou Rawls' baritone, as shimmering as hand-blown Bohemian crystal."

What once took an entire crew more than an hour, one guy on a Zamboni can now do perfectly in 10 minutes. (NHL teams using two machines have since cut that down to less than five.) "The Zamboni very much revolutionized not just hockey, but everything on ice, the entire industry," says Craig. "I still remind our operators all the time just how much the condition of the ice influences the game."

By 1956 Zamboni had more than 30 customers, including Sonja Henie's Hollywood Ice Revue and the Boston Garden. Meanwhile, Frank had become so influential in the world of ice sports that he was named a charter member of the Ice Skating Institute of America, and the NCAA consulted him about the proper radius of its hockey rinks. When Zambonis stole the show at the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, the company established an international presence. A year later the Ice Capades were granted a rare appearance behind the Iron Curtain. According to the book "Zamboni: The Coolest Machines on Ice," smitten Soviet officials decided the only members of the entourage who would not be allowed to depart Moscow would be the Zambonis.

To keep up with demand, in 1967 a second Zamboni factory opened in Wayne Gretzky's hometown of Brantford, Ontario. All the while, Frank continued to obsessively upgrade his invention. Because tire chains dug up the ice too much, he retreaded the Zamboni's tires with crushed walnut shells for better traction. These were later replaced by hand-placed tungsten carbide studs. Frank also added a hydraulic dump lever, much to the delight of the rink rats who had to shovel the shavings. The newest versions come with eco-friendly battery-powered motors and computerized touch-screen control panels.

In a bizarre twist, Zamboni's superb quality and name recognition turned out to be its biggest problems. The custom-built machines are so well constructed that rinks can go decades between purchases. Zamboni still produces around 200 machines a year, with estimated (it's a privately held company) annual sales of $20 million. The only drawback to having an astronomical market share -- approximately 80 percent in the U.S. -- is that somewhere along the line the Zamboni trademark morphed from an adjective to a noun, like Kleenex or Frisbee. It might be the highest honor you can receive in the lexicon of pop culture, but Richard has several competitors in Europe and one in North America: Ontario-based Resurfice Corp., which makes the Olympia-brand resurfacers used in five of the 30 NHL arenas. "We've had an ongoing war with Zamboni since Day One, and right now I can't tell you who's ahead and who's behind," says Resurfice president Andy Schlupp, who founded his family-run biz in 1963. "Basically we do the same job, but no matter what rink I walk into anywhere in the world they call the thing a Zamboni. As long as they buy my machine, I don't care what they call it."

The Zambonis certainly do. In the fall of 2008, Resurfice scored what it thought was a major coup when it won the rights to provide ice resurfacers for the Vancouver Olympics. But during the Games the machines leaked water and chewed up the ice, delaying the men's 500-meter speedskating event by more than an hour on a day when International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge was in the stands. After an avalanche of criticism about delays and ice conditions, Olympic officials trucked a Zamboni the 600 miles from Calgary to help clean up Olympia's mess. A few news outlets, though, simply reported that the rink's "Zambonis" had failed. This forced Richard to issue a terse press release scolding the media for disrespecting his trademark. "It's good to be well known but not good to be generic," he says, cringing. "Our brand recognition is so strong people think we're as big as GM or something. But we're a small family business."

Richard speaks these words sitting in an office two blocks from the house he was born in. He met Alice, his wife of 56 years, in school near Iceland. His welder, John Luth, has been with the company since 1969. Besides Vancouver, the only time you'll ever see Richard lose his temper is if you make the mistake of trying to pay for lunch. "They treat everybody like family," says Craig. Most everyone is. Richard has worked with four generations of Zambonis, including all 13 of Frank's grandchildren. Richard's son Frank, for example, runs the plant in Canada. And let's say you're a rink in Russia that recently received a new Zamboni that was missing some rubber on the back tires and had some weird fingernail marks imbedded in the steering wheel. (What can I say? I got excited.) When you call the company's customer service hotline, you're more than likely to end up speaking to Don Zamboni. Please be gentle with him.

Halfway through my test run down Colorado, I spot a KFC drive-thru at the end of the block. I instinctively gun it. That's when I notice nervous employees taking my photo from the sidewalk. (For the lawsuit, I presume.) So instead of a bucket of extra-crispy, some slaw and a Mountain Dew, hold the ice shavings, I U-turn my ride and in a few minutes have my Zamboni back, safe and sound at the doorstep of the factory.

I climb down, slowly, pat her on the chassis and hand the keys back to a relieved Richard, who asks if I have any more questions.

"Just one," I say. "Where can I get one of those 'My Other Car Is a Zamboni' bumper stickers?"

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.