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Zamboni Family Product Keeps Ice Rinks Polished


The name Zamboni is well known to fans of hockey and ice skating. The Zamboni resurfacing machine makes an appearance on ice rinks between the periods of a hockey game, or at intermissions for other ice sports. The unusual product was developed in an unlikely location.

In the middle of an industrial neighborhood of Paramount in southeastern Los Angeles, a small, family-owned factory makes the Zamboni, a machine that has become an intermission tradition for viewers of ice sports.

Richard Zamboni, the company president and son of founder Frank J. Zamboni, says the device has many admirers, especially among hockey fans in the northern and midwestern U.S. states, and Canada.

"Years ago, we were at an event in Toronto, and people would come up," said Richard Zamboni. "We had the old machine there, and a new one that they could get their picture taken on, and they would say, 'what part of Canada was this developed in?' And we would say,'sorry to disappoint you. It's from Southern California.' They can't believe that."

The machine's development was tied to a series of challenges in the family business. In the 1920s, Zamboni's father and uncle produced ice for the many dairies in this California neighborhood. With the advent of electric refrigerators, they joined together with a cousin and used their ice-making equipment to build an ice rink. Called Iceland, it still operates today, three blocks from the modern factory.

Zamboni faced a problem that all ice-rink owners face. As skaters used the rink, its surface became rough. The traditional method of resurfacing, using ice shovels and hoses, was slow and cumbersome. Zamboni developed a self-powered, moving machine to do the job better. The large-wheeled vehicle is run by a single driver, who sits high atop the Zamboni, and can resurface the ice in just a matter of minutes.

Rotating blades smooth the ice, as the machine cleans the debris and deposits a layer of water, which quickly freezes to leave a glassy surface.

Figure skater Sonja Henie bought two early Zamboni resurfacing machines, and as she traveled around the country in the 1950s, ice arena owners were amazed at what they saw, and placed orders themselves. The firm gained international notice when it provided six machines for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, California.

Today, there are competing machines, but none has the flair, or famous name, of the original Zamboni. Richard Zamboni says the company has at least half of the ice-rink market worldwide, and most of the market in North America.

"It's a bit difficult to get exact numbers on that, but we know what we put out, and we try to track what the competitors are doing," he said. "And, generally, we're the people. At least, our name is out there, people know us, they come to us. Maybe some, they'll try somebody else's machine for a while, but we've been very fortunate, so many come back to us. And we feel we're got a majority of the share around the world."

He says the people he meets are sometimes surprised to learn that his name is Zamboni.

"You know, at trade shows, I'm always fascinated," said Richard Zamboni. "They say, 'oh, I didn't know that was a family name.' Of course, we kiddingly say, 'our name used to be Smith, but we changed it, because it sounds so good and the name is getting popular.'"

In reality, the Italian-American family has gained an unusual kind of fame with a specialized product. At trade shows and exhibitions, fans are full of questions.

"People like to get their picture taken on the machine," he said. "The ladies at these shows, they say, 'gee, I'd like to drive one of those things.' So it's fun, and we get a kick out of it that they even recognize the name and keep it as a positive memory in their minds."

A separate part of the business involves product licensing, so the famous family name, which is a registered trademark, appears on caps and T-shirts. The company also licenses tiny model ice resurfacing machines, and many were distributed in a recent promotion with McDonald's fast-food outlets in Canada.

Mr. Zamboni's father, Frank, died in 1988, but the family factory and skating rink keep Richard Zamboni busy. His oldest son, who, like the company founder, is also named Frank, runs a second Zamboni plant near Toronto, Canada.

Visitors to the family ice rink in Paramount, California, can see the earliest model of the resurfacing machine, built in 1949, as well as a modern Zamboni, which smoothes the ice to a shimmering surface.

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