Fifty five years ago this season, the NHL first welcomed an invention that not only improved hockey, but helped promote the expansion of ice rinks across the country. Like Howe, Gretzky, and Orr, its name would become synonymous with the game.
In 1954 the Boston Bruins acquired an ice resurfacer manufactured by Frank J. Zamboni of Paramount California after being impressed with an earlier model used by the Ice Capades show at Boston Gardens. (That first NHL Zamboni, Model E Serial #21 is proudly displayed at the entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.)
Three years later the Red Wings became the third Original Six team to buy a Zamboni, when they paid $7,900 for a red and white Model FL #69 that would resurface Olympia Stadium’s ice until 1965.
Gone forever were the days of time consuming manual labor when workmen had to scrape the ice and fill ruts using water barrels.
“For a hockey player, I think the Zamboni was the greatest invention since sliced bread,” says former Red Wing forward Johnny Wilson who was starting his second tour with the club in 1957.
“In the old days as the game progressed, the ice became slower and slower as the snow piled up unevenly and with all the ruts,” says Wilson. “The Zamboni sheared the ice evenly and allowed for the new water to set up more quickly. We could skate faster, our passes were crisper, and the puck didn’t bounce around your stick quite as much,” Wilson says. “Olympia had the best ice in the league and I know that tradition continues today at the Joe with Al Sobotka and his group.”
The idea for an ice resurfacer came to Frank Zamboni in the 1940’s while operating a family owned skating rink (“Iceland’) in Paramount California. The former owner of a ice making company decided that too much skating time was being lost because it took three experienced men 1 ½ hours to resurface by hand the carved up surface. After tinkering with different concepts, in 1949 Zamboni built a machine using a war surplus jeep that shaved the ice, propelled the shavings into a snow tank and washed the surface before dropping hot water disbursed by a towel.
Since the Red Wings purchased their first Zamboni in 1957, they have had four other machines. A model F, like the Wing’s ’57 machine, now sits in the lobby of the Hockeytown Café next to the Fox Theatre.