© 2021 West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Telling West Virginia's Story
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

70 Years Of The Zamboni


If you've spent any time around ice arenas, you know this signature sound.


SIMON: It's a Zamboni. Even the name sounds magical - Zamboni. Zamboni, circling the rink, replacing the bad, old ice with a new surface that's immaculate and smooth. As the philosopher Charlie Brown once observed in that seminal work, "She's A Good Skate, Charlie Brown"...


ARRIN SKELLEY: (As Charlie Brown) There are three things in life that people like to stare at - a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice.

SIMON: This year marks the 70th year they've been able to do that, thanks to Frank Zamboni, a Californian with an ice rink and a problem.

PAULA COONY: It took a significant amount of time and labor to resurface the ice.

SIMON: That's Paula Coony, spokesperson for the Zamboni Company.

COONY: It took four or five people with planer and some squeegees and some hoses close to an hour and a half to do the resurfacing.

SIMON: That's an hour and a half when people could be paying to skate. So Frank Zamboni took some war surplus parts, including a Jeep chassis, and almost a decade. By 1949, he had concocted a machine to make quick work of that rough, old ice.

COONY: It took that hour and a half down to about a 10- or 15-minute resurfacing.

SIMON: Ten to 15 minutes. Now, this machine was supposed to be a miracle Frank Zamboni used only at his skating rink, but know who came to that rink one day?


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Now, Chris Linden (ph), our petite star to entertain you with an exhibition of free skating.

SIMON: Norway's three-time Olympic gold champion figure skater and Hollywood star Sonja Henie. She was in Paramount, Calif., with her traveling ice revue and needed a place to practice. Frank Zamboni was ready to impress.

COONY: He brought this machine out on the ice. She lovingly later referred to it as the monstrosity. And she said, I'll take two.

SIMON: Sonja Henie loved how quickly it made the ice glassy and clean, like a Nordic pond - not that I've ever seen one. She got her own Zambonis and took them on tour. Other ice rink owners didn't want to miss out on the ice-shaving revolution. And before long, Frank Zamboni was building the company and supplying Zambonis all over the world.


SIMON: Today, the company estimates there are nearly 12,000 Zambonis in use. There are other brands of ice resurfacers - Olympia, the Okay Elektra. And FYI, it is not polite to call them all Zambonis. It's like calling every cola a Coke.

But what's it like to actually drive a Zamboni? Ask the Iceman.

JIMMY MACNEIL: Everybody looks at you and thinks that this is such an easy job.

SIMON: Jimmy - Iceman - MacNeil of Brantford, Ontario. He was the Zamboni Driver of the Year in 1999. Can you name any of them? The Iceman says...

MACNEIL: Driving the Zamboni is a little bit of science. It's an art. You have levers. You have buttons.

SIMON: And a lot to worry about if you want to hold onto that trophy. There's an ice-cutting blade and two water tanks, a spinning brush to clear the snow from the sides of the rink as the Zamboni drives by at the breakneck speed of 5 miles an hour. And even though he's been driving Zambonis for four decades, Jimmy - Iceman - MacNeil still watches his back.

MACNEIL: I can almost guarantee there isn't one driver that hasn't come off the ice and had some hockey fan or figure skating fan say, you missed a spot.

SIMON: Yeah, pal - your mouth.


GEAR DADDIES: (Singing) Hey, I want to drive the Zamboni. Hey, I want to drive the Zamboni. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

WVPB is local news, education, music, and entertainment for West Virginia.
Your donation today will help keep us strong and vital.