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In tribute to the Zamboni

Dennis Gunderson (left) and Butch Schuler resurface the ice Saturday evening at Ralph Engelstad Arena before the start of UND's game against Minnesota State-Mankato. Herald photo by John Stennes.

The Zamboni is a baby boomer -- 60 years old this year.

Born in Frank Zamboni's Southern California shop (yes, that's right: Southern California), the quintessential ice-resurfacing machine is only getting better with age: neater, more precise and efficient, with the turning grace of a deer and the bulk of a bear.

Wherever men and women on skates slap at pucks with long sticks, the Zamboni reigns -- between periods, anyway. And it serves an iconic role on the most solemn of occasions. When Cliff "Fido" Purpur died in 2001, the procession taking the U.S. hockey hall of famer to his Grand Forks gravesite was led by a Zamboni, whose cruising speed may be said to be funereal.

The unique machine, its unflattering shape copyrighted, has left the ice to enter the broader popular imagination, too. Who among hockey fans hasn't dreamed of turning figure eights with a Zamboni, or waving in triumph from that high perch after liberating the neighborhood streets from a deep snow?

In the comic strip "Peanuts," Woodstock clears ice on his birdbath with a Zamboni. "There are three things in life that people like to stare at," Charlie Brown once observed in the nation's newspapers: "A flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice."

Driving a Zamboni was an early part-time job for Brandon on "Beverly Hills 90210." (Yes, California again. But Brandon was born, we were told, in Minnesota.)

They sometimes refused requests to sing it, but the Gear Daddies once recorded a novelty hit, "I Wanna Drive the Zamboni." Another, somewhat less notable group -- the Zambonis -- gave us "Drop that Puck!" and ""Bob Marley and the Hartford Whalers," a tribute to disappeared or relocated pro hockey teams, including the Minnesota North Stars. You can hear it here: http://tinyurl.com/aoo5h4.

When the NHL returned to the Twin Cities, St. Paul's welcoming parade included a mechanized division of 17 Zambonis, which could have cleared White Bear Lake in minutes -- or conquered Iowa in weeks.

Frank's Model A

The Zamboni family came to the U.S. in the 1880s from the snowy Alpine valleys of northern Italy and eventually settled in Southern California, starting an auto-repair business. The business also built refrigeration units for the dairy industry.

Frank Zamboni, born in 1901, was trained in mechanics. In 1939, he built a 20,000-square-foot ice skating rink in Los Angeles. He called it Iceland, and it could handle 800 skaters at once, but it took forever for a small army of workers to pull scrapers behind tractors, scoop up the shavings and spray a new surface.

So, Frank went to his shop and tinkered with tractors and scrapers and odd parts, according to the company's Web page (www.zamboni.com). In 1949, he unveiled his Model A Zamboni.

In 1950, skating and film star Sonja Henie saw the Model A at work and asked Frank Zamboni to make her one. He called that the Model B and built four of them. One is at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn.

For the Model C (four units), Frank raised the driver's seat for better visibility. Each of the four Model D machines was different as the inventor kept incorporating improvements, but the 20 Model E Zambonis (produced between 1954 and 1956) were assembled by a standardized machining process.

The Zamboni made it to the pros in the mid-1950s, and a larger audience got to marvel at the great machines when they were used during the 1960 Winter Olympics. At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, all the resurfacing machines were electric models, which Zamboni introduced in 1978.

Frank died in 1988, but his company delivered its 7,000th machine to the Minnesota Wild in 2000 and the 8,000th to the University of Minnesota in 2005.

'My first Zamboni'

The first Zambonis offered for sale cost about $5,000. UND paid about $76,000 each for its tandem pair at the Ralph. A small version for use on very small skating surfaces goes for about $10,000, but a rink in Buffalo, N.Y., recently paid $225,000 for a new top-of-the-line model.

Want to publicly declare your zeal for the Zamboni but don't have the cash to put one in your driveway? The company's Web page offers Zamboni coffee cups, T-shirts, watches, key-chain fobs, license-plate holders and other ways to show the love.

Cover up that Obama or McCain bumper sticker with "My other vehicle is a Zamboni."

Or dazzle that future NHL draft choice of yours with a "My First Zamboni," a 9-inch remote-control toy that "turns left for resurfacing." At $29.99, it's meant for toddlers ... but go ahead; they won't ask.

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