Frank Zamboni: We hardly knew you

Frank Zamboni would have been proud of those northern Minnesota kids. Frank Zamboni automated ice rink cleaning for the well-off, but hockey crazed 'Iron Range' kids smoothed their town's rink themselves. 

Associated Press
Frank Zamboni made cleaning ice easy for cities and organizations that could afford a Zamboni. But young hockey fans in northern Minnesota had to make and clean our rinks ourselves. Here, a city worker floods a hockey rink in northern Wisconsin.

When growing up in central Minnesota, we didn’t have a Frank Zamboni machine to clear the ice on our hockey rinks. I used to be a Zamboni with a garden hose. 

We had to do everything ourselves – flood the rinks, build the sideboards, even create our own goals, which usually took the form of stringing anything we could find, from gill nets to gunny sacks, across a series of artistically welded pipes to corral the puck.

It shouldn’t have been this way. Hockey is to small-town Minnesota what intransigence is to Washington. It’s just part of the culture. Many towns in the region had hockey programs in the schools. That means they had mechanized ways to clean their ice. We didn’t, at least not always. 

Town fathers (and at that time they were all fathers) decided that the community didn’t have enough money to support three winter sports. Basketball and wrestling were well enshrined. Hockey was a recreational afterthought – something you could do on your own, including helping maintain the rink.

This was fine with us. For years, we had the only indoor skating facility in the area. It was located in a Works Progress Administration-built arena. At one point, when the town decided to refurbish the hockey rink, my father, a wholesale lumber salesman, helped with the construction of the sideboards. Everyone showed up with their hammers and handsaws. Almost overnight, a dusty oval transformed into a glistening slab on which kids could mimic the moves of Bobby Orr.

The rink in those years was maintained by the town – public works officials used a front-end loader fitted with a rotary brush to clean the ice and a fire hose to flood it.

Eventually, however, recreation succumbed to commerce. A snowmobile manufacturer bought the building and we were kicked outdoors. The town built another rink, on two tennis courts nearby, but it was never as regal. The sideboards were cheap plywood, and cryogenic winds whipped off the lake on most days, mocking even our most stoic attempts to ignore the cold.

The town assigned one man, a ‘Mr. Sears,’ to clean the ice. But he was no match for the elements. The public works department had long ago found other uses for the loader, and the fire hose had turned into a garden hose.

When it snowed, we brought down our shovels and helped him clear the ice, in part because we knew it was the only way we’d get to skate and in part because we couldn’t bear to see his frozen visage anymore – the perpetually dripping nose, the cheeks flirting with frostbite. We’d tell him to go stoke the fire in the warming house. We’d handle the rink.

Flooding the ice was another matter. We’d all watch the weather forecast to figure out when to do it. It wasn’t because it might be too warm. It was because it could be too cold. Every winter, the temperature would drop to 40 degrees below zero for several weeks. When you pour on water at that temperature, it freezes before it spreads out, turning the ice into a terraced tundra.

It was about this time that I had my first encounter with a Zamboni. Each year my father would take a group of us down to the state high school hockey tournament in Minneapolis. The games were enthralling but no more so than this ice machine that would come out between periods, achieving in 7 minutes what it often took us 7 hours to do, and without putting Mr. Sears’s life in danger.

Inevitably, the championship game would end being between some small town from the “Iron Range” in the north – a Warroad, or International Falls, or Roseau – and some big school from the twin cities – a St. Paul Johnson, or Edina, or Burnsville. We instinctively sided with the Iron Range school, both out of geographical kinship and because we knew those kids, like us, had once used Montgomery Ward catalogues as shin pads and had shoveled their share of rinks.

They weren’t always pampered by mechanization.

Sorry, Frank.

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