The History of Ice Resurfacng: Zamboni and Olympia – by C. Scott Holland
One of the most popular hockey songs of all-time is the Gear Daddies’ “(I Wanna Drive The) Zamboni” which was released as a hidden track on their 1990 CD “Billy’s Live Bait.” Its popularity rose in 1994 when it was featured in the Disney film D2: The Mighty Ducks.
Almost every young fan has dreams of driving one, too.
While everyone attending a hockey game whether it’s professional or minor hockey always watches the ice resurfacing machines as they come out and clean and resurface the rink, very few know anything about the machine’s history. Or what brand it is.
In Canada not just anyone can drive an ice-resurfacing machine. There are courses and regulations – including wearing helmets – for all arena employees who get to wheel around the ice and do the resurfacing.
But the machine everyone refers to as a Zamboni has a unique history. Actually there are two major manufacturers: Frank J. Zamboni and Co. and Resurface Corporation. One makes the Zamboni brand while the supplies Olympia models.
Prior to and even including some arenas in the 1950s, push cart type of ice cleaners were used. Arena workers laboured to scrape, wash and then squeegee the surface before laying down a thin layer of water which would form new ice.
Frank Zamboni was in the refrigeration business, manufacturing blocks of ice and supplying farms and produce businesses around Paramount, California. He had created a plant which made the ice blocks but by the mid-1940s the technique and ice business was fading. He looked for another way he could capitalize on his expertise with ice.
In 1939 he had opened the Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount. It would usually take three or four workers to resurface the ice. The process was time consuming and he sought a more efficient method of creating fresh, clean ice.
But he didn’t get any immediate ideas on how to do it.
In 1942 he embarked on a five year process of refining a system and finding a vehicle to do the task. In 1947 he had decided he would need a machine which could shave the ice as well as wash and squeegee it. Using an army surplus vehicle’s chassis, he created his first model. He mounted a blade with which the ice could be shaved, and a tan for laying water which would form a smooth surface of new ice. It also had a tank which would hold the ice shavings which were lifted via a conveyor belt to the tank. The machine was powered by a Jeep engine and transmission. But after some trials he abandoned it due to deficiencies with the blade and its handling.
Using another surplus army vehicle for his next prototype he outfitted it with four-wheel drive featuring front and back steering.
In 1949 the “Model A” Zamboni Ice-Resurfacer became a working reality. Among its modifications were a wash water tank, and a cover for the snow tank. He reverted to front wheel drive because with the four-wheel model he found it often got wedged against the boards.
A Brantford Expositor reporter who saw one of the first ones stated, “The Model A machine looked like the offspring of a field tractor and a warehouse crate.”
In 1953 Zamboni patented the vehicle.
For his second version of the machine, Zamboni used another Jeep body but built the necessary parts and mounted them himself.
A third version featured several design changes including an elevated driver’s position for better visibility and a new holding tank and increased size along with a cover for the ice shavings.
One of the most innovative changes began in 1964 with the HD series. The shift in design used a vertical crew conveyor as well as a new hydraulic snow dumping system to lift and dump the ice and snow. It was quite the advancement since drivers previously had to manually shovel out the tank which held the ice shavings. This system has become the standard since its unveiling.
The Zamboni was the only ice resurfacer until 1967 when an Elmira, Ont. based welder, Andrew Schlupp, built his own machine and started the Resurface Corporation. His Olympia machines were manufactured using a Chevy powertrain.
By 2009 Olympia had a 70% share of the market while producing about the same number of models as Zamboni.
The company was the official supplier of ice resurfacing machines for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics with the contract leasing 17 machine for the event and a chance to create the Olympia Cellect – an ice resurfacing machine run on NiCad batteries. Recharging time ran between 6-8 hours and supplied 30-35 minutes of resurfacing. But some of the models were failures which the manufacturer explained as “due to maintenance issues.”
While the NHL favours the Zamboni models (licensing mostly) two clubs – Vancouver and Carolina – do use Olympia.
Most arenas around the GOJHL seem to use them as well.
Part of the reason Olympias are used more may be because of the cost – American vs Canadian currency. Having Olympia based In Elmira, makes that brand a favourite since it is fairly close to many Ontario arenas and obtaining parts may not take long.
Former Strathroy Recreation Director Tim Hanna tells us that, “We use the Olympia because of its lower cost. It requires less maintenance than the Zamboni and breaks down less often.”
The noted GOJHL exceptions where are Zambonis are used are Leamington, London, Lambton Shores and St. Marys.
Leamington has had a Zamboni since the 1970s and their first two ice-resurfacing machines were courtesy of the local Kinsmen Club who helped purchase them. In 1989 when the Leamington Kinsmen purchased a second Zamboni, it cost $45,000 – a far cry from what it cost today. Leamington’s modern double pad arena has two Zambonis to resurface the Highbury Canco and Unico rinks. Recently, a local restaurant, Jose’s Bar and Grill, helped buy a new model. (photo)
More uniquely, the St. Marys Pyramid Recreation Centre uses both! According to St. Marys Arena Operations Team Leader Nicolai Larsen “We have both Zamboni and Olympia ice-resurfacing machines (for their double pad arena complex). The Zamboni has a laser level on it and is the main one we use, but the Olympia comes in handy as a backup, especially if we have to flood the two rinks at the same time or if there is a break down.”
So the next time you visit any arena pay attention to that ice-resurfacer and check it out. Is it a Zamboni or an Olympia? Or let us know what brand your particular arena uses.
Photo credit (Leamington’s Zamboni by C. Scott Holland)
C. Scott Holland is an accomplished author, a former Western Jr. B Hockey League statistician and is recognized as the West Conference’s and GOJHL’s historian. A lifelong resident of Leamington Scott was a journalist for the now defunct Leamington Post for 26 years and currently writes for the Southpoint Sun. Among the books he has authored are: 75 Years: A History of the Leamington and Erie Shores Golf Course; A Century In The Making – History of Heinz Canada 1909-2009; Leamington Flyers 1992/93-2011/12 Platinum Anniversary Special Program; the Western Jr. B Record Book 2003/04 and 2005/05 editions; as well as updates of both the West Conference and GOJHL Record Books. He was been a member of he Leamington Jr. Flyers hockey club for the last 27 years and served many years as a board member, statistician, press box announcer, and scorekeeper among other duties. He has been named the West Conference Volunteer of Year and a Windsor-Essex Sportsperson of Year award. He resides in Leamington with his wife Susan. He can be contacted at: email@example.com