Zamboni makes the play at ice rinks everywhere

Your first hockey game? Whether in Boston or Vancouver; Los Angeles or Philadelphia; Montreal or New York; chances are the most memorable player was Zamboni.

In fact, you can see Zamboni "play" at almost any indoor ice skating rink in the United States or Canada. His ice time, however, is limited to before and after games as well as between periods.

Should you be wondering just who this universally versatile "player" is, "the Zamboni" is an ice resurfacing machine employed by 99 percent of the indoor and outdoor ice rinks in the US that use machine ice-surfacers. Many kids might rather drive one than be the next Bobby Orr.

The machines are the invention of Frank J. Zamboni, the Henry Ford of the ice resurfacing machine industry. The first "Zamboni" came into being at his Paramount, Calif., ice rink in 1942. It was a tractor mounted version that went through various stages of improvement so that in 1949 Sonja Henie, upon seeing it, requested another be built to accompany her throughout the US, Canada, and Europe.

In the years that have followed, the machine has continually been refined to make it more efficient and effective in its ice maintenance duties. More than 3 ,000 have been manufactured for distribution throughout the world since the original machine first "skated" onto the ice.

The Zamboni Ice Resurfacer was selected for official use in the recent Lake Placid Olympics. This came as no surprise as it was after the successful use of the Zamboni machines in the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics in 1960 that the ice resurfacer spread to Western Europe, Japan, and Australia.

The Zamboni uses a method of washing and squeegeeing the surface of the ice, thereby producing a consistent sheet. A 1600cc Volkswagen engine powers the apparatus, which is supported by a four-wheel-drive chassis and includes a 190 -gallon icemaking water tank, a 72-gallon wash-water tank, and a 100-cubic-foot compacted snow tank.

Precisely variable speed control in the Zamboni is regulated by a single, hand-controlled lever. This, combined with power steering and four-wheel drive, give the vehicle great maneuverability.

A ballpark figure for the cost of a Zamboni is $25,000 to $30,000. The price varies, though, because so many models are available and most machines are customized to the specific needs and restrictions of the arena.

"Anyone can drive a Zamboni," says Dave Edmonson, superintendent of the Boston Garden, where the National Hockey League's Boston Bruins play their home games, "but there's an art to making ice and shaving the surface." And the Zamboni in the hands of an "artist" makes all the difference where only one and a half inches of ice supports the furious skating of professional players.

Recent complaints by NHL players and officials about poor ice conditions and the fact that a scheduled game was almost called off due to bad ice in Hartford, home of the Hartford Whalers, points out how critical proper ice conditions are.

"You can't just flood a rink and turn the temperature to 0 degrees," Edmonson notes. "You have to keep spraying -- build it [the ice] up." This is done by putting a fine layer of water on the ice in several stages while progressively lowering the temperature of the ice from 44-38-32-28-24 degrees, etc., all the while shaving the surface to keep it level. This is where the driver's "artistry" and the capabilities of Zamboni must jell.

When the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs get under way next month, you can expect "the Zamboni" to make it to the finals.

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