With a new hockey season upon us, I’m dusting off a piece I wrote in 2011 for my short-lived online hockey magazine, Pennsylvania Puck.
Here’s an aphorism worthy of the farmer’s almanac: old Zambonis don’t die, they just keep resurfacing.
Consider the case of Model E-26.
It was manufactured in Paramount, Calif., among the earliest Zamboni machines, and delivered in August 1954 to what was then the Hershey Sports Arena.
While it’s not immediately clear when E-26 took its final turns around the ice at Hersheypark Arena, we can clear up the mystery of whatever happened to it.
It has been “discovered” back at Frank J. Zamboni Co. headquarters, kept in a warehouse for the past decade. It is in line to be restored, a task that could take a year or more.
‘I must have that’
As the story goes, Frank Zamboni was born in Eureka, Utah, in 1901. He had a “eureka” moment while living in Southern California where, while running an electrical business with brother Lawrence, they installed refrigeration units used by dairies.
They built a plant that made block ice for produce shippers and consumers. That led to the Zambonis and a cousin building Iceland Skating Rink in Hynes, Calif., now Paramount. The ice rink still operates, mere blocks from the Zamboni factory.
Frank Zamboni debuted his Model A in 1949. It caught the eye of Sonja Henie, the Norwegian figure skating star and three-time Olympic champion, who had gone to Hollywood to act and to headline her own Ice Revue. She practiced on Iceland’s Olympic-sized sheet.
Upon seeing the Model A and how much it improved the ice-making process, Henie allegedly remarked: “What is that monstrosity? I must have that.”
The association with Henie was good for Zamboni’s business, which grew steadily as the 1950s unfolded. Model B yielded four machines, including two for Henie’s Ice Revue. The upstart Ice Capades show – formed in Hershey by a group of 10 ice rink operators – bought a Model B, which is now on display at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Minnesota.
Zamboni produced five Model C’s and three D’s – one of the latter sold to the Philadelphia Skating Club (and later dismantled). But it was with Model E that Zamboni geared up for something approximating mass production, building 21 of those machines from 1954 to 1956.
Zamboni debuted in the National Hockey League when the Boston Bruins put E-21 to work on the Boston Garden ice. In 1988, with a new Zamboni on order, the Bruins asked Zamboni to restore E-21, which subsequently was delivered to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Pennsylvania figured prominently among the Model E customers: Philadelphia Arena bought E-23, the Ice Capades in Pittsburgh got E-24, and, of course, Hershey Sports Arena took delivery of E-26.
The whereabouts of E-23 and E-24 are unknown, according to Zamboni.
From Hershey to Atlantic City
Before the Zamboni, ice resurfacing was pure manual labor. At Hersheypark Arena, the “rink rat” crew would scrape the ice by hand. Crew members, some of them wearing skates, would pour water from 55-gallon drums onto the ice surface to give it a shiny new appearance.
That changed with E-26’s arrival in Hershey.
No doubt, the early Zamboni would have been an intermission attraction all its own in the days before in-game emcees and T-shirt tosses. An ad declared the Model E as the “Star of the Ice Rinks.”
The machine had a curious familiarity about it, owing to the fact that it was built on top of a Jeep. The top of the machine was open, so plainly visible to fans was the big steel paddle-and-chain conveyor that dropped scoops of snow into the holding tank.
Dan Strawhecker is facility operations manager for Hersheypark Arena and its successor arena, Giant Center. He has worked at the arenas since 1981, including many years of driving the ice resurfacers.
The two Zambonis currently in use at Hersheypark Arena are the fourth and fifth in the building’s history, Strawhecker said. He didn’t know which year the E-26 was replaced or where it went from Hershey.
We do know that by 2001, it was in Atlantic City, N.J. That is where Zamboni acquired it “on trade,” said Paula Coony, Zamboni brand manager.
It’s entirely plausible that E-26 was used at Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City’s historic convention center best known as the long-time home of the Miss America pageant. Boardwalk Hall also has a rich history in hockey and in January will play host to the American Hockey League’s all-star game.
A recent guide to Boardwalk Hall noted that the facility has two Model 500 Zambonis: one from 1985 – and one from 2001. Coony said it appears as though the 2001 model was part of the trade that netted Zamboni the E-26 in return.
Preserving company history
Coony said E-26 has been in Zamboni’s Paramount warehouse for the past decade, although a call from Pennsylvania Puck to Coony helped to jog memories.
“We completely forgot that it was E-26 that we had,” Coony said.
It’s easy enough to understand why, particularly given that it isn’t every day that someone inquires about a 57-year-old Zamboni. What’s more, at some point, the oval plate bearing E-26’s serial number was relocated from a prominent spot on the machine to a harder-to-reach location.
Richard Zamboni, the company’s president and son of founder Frank, searched and found the plate, confirming the machine’s identity as E-26.
While photos reveal rust spots and other wear befitting its age, Coony said E-26 is in relatively good shape and stored inside.
Zamboni has restored fewer than one dozen machines out of more than 9,500 manufactured in Paramount and Brantford, Ontario; E-26 is among three or four that are awaiting facelifts.
“It really is just preserving the company’s history,” Coony said.
Richard Zamboni would oversee a restoration of E-26, Coony said, although it would require a small team of workers a year or more to complete. But make no mistake, the son of the company’s founder would be intimately involved.
“He loves blood and oil under his nails,” she said. “He’s a tinkerer, just like his dad.”
Update: I contacted Coony on Oct. 7 — opening day for the National Hockey League — for an E-26 update. “It is indeed still safely stored – Richard Zamboni has been so busy that he hasn’t had a moment to think about a restoration project,” she said.