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Original Issue

Smooth Operator

The Gear Daddies had a cult hit singing I Want to Drive the Zamboni, but me, I want to be a Zamboni, the last great role model in sports.

Unhurried by the hurly-burly of modern life, Zambonis are frequently test-driven on the streets surrounding their factory in the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount, merging into traffic at the stately speed of nine miles per hour.

Nobody minds. In fact, people smile at the mere mention of a Zamboni. "I can only think of one other machine whose name does that," says Richard Zamboni, 73-year-old president of the company his father founded, "and that's a Jacuzzi." And though a Zamboni in London, Ont., has been fitted with a hot tub--an after-market modification--Zambonis are better than a warm bath. They're like a warm memory, resurfacing periodically.

Fifty-six years have passed since Frank J. Zamboni conjured a machine, with a Jeep chassis, to resurface the ice at his skating rink. Two blocks from the Zamboni factory, Paramount Iceland is still thriving, a glorious anachronism that houses the original Zamboni plus a working Wurlitzer pipe organ of 1920s vintage that continues to play an ancient sound track for the Tuesday-night Open Skate.

Unlike most 56-year-old sports legends, the Zamboni has remained free of scandal, though a Zamboni jockey was busted for ZUI this summer after he erratically resurfaced the ice at the Mennen Sports Arena in Morristown, N.J., and then blew a .12 on the Breathalyzer.

Otherwise, Zambonis are timeless, immune to the tides of fashion. As the title character noted in She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, "There are three things in life people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice."

That mesmeric quality was precisely the problem for the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, who purchased the second Zamboni, in 1950. "Arthur Wirtz eventually became disenchanted with it," says Zamboni, "because he thought it kept people from going to the concession stands between periods."

There is something deeply satisfying when the ice shimmers like the reflecting pool that so transfixed Narcissus. "I'm not one of those people who sit in the stands and says, 'He missed a spot,'" says Zamboni, bursting this reverie. "I sit there hoping the thing doesn't break down." (When the Zamboni broke down during the first intermission of the 1986 NCAA championship game in Providence, the game was delayed while a spare was driven--with a police escort--from across town.)

Likewise, Frank Zamboni never cared for hockey and could barely stand on skates. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade and was always self-conscious about it. That's why he wanted to call his firm the Paramount Engineering Company. "He thought that sounded sophisticated," says Richard. But the name was already taken, so this Edison of the Ice settled for the Frank J. Zamboni Co., and thank goodness he did, because nobody wants a license plate frame that says MY OTHER CAR IS A PARAMOUNT.

Today's four-cylindered Zambonis have Nissan engines and top out at 14 mph, though NHL rinks are typically resurfaced at 3 to 5 mph. This year the Zamboni Company ovaled its wagons, weathered the NHL lockout and sold its 8,000th machine, to the University of Minnesota.

Last week six Zambonis sat on the factory floor, awaiting shipment to China and Sweden and various North American cities. In a good year, only 100 new Zambonis roll off the lot. A new top-of-the-line 500-series model, the kind used in the NHL, sells for about $65,000, the same sticker price as a Z06 Corvette.

And while Zamboni has a branch in Brantford, Ont.--serendipitously enough, Wayne Gretzky's hometown--the home office and factory remain in a series of corrugated steel garages in Paramount, directly across the Los Angeles River from Compton, the cradle of gangsta rap.

Paramount has inspired nearly as much music as neighboring Compton: Minnesota's Gear Daddies, voicing the dream of every native son, sang, Ever since I was young, it's been my dream/That I might drive a Zamboni machine. And a Connecticut band called The Zambonis tours arenas and plays "hockey weddings."

Yes, Zamboni general manager Paula Coony has seen little plastic Zambonis atop wedding cakes. She has also seen a Zamboni converted into a barbecue, which makes sense because most Zambonis in the NHL now run on the kind of propane tank you have hooked to your grill.

That's right: Zambonis are environmentally friendly as well as unhurried, hypnotic hockey icons. And they continue to spread happiness like a Holiday Inn housekeeper, one clean sheet at a time.

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People smile at the mere mention of a Zamboni. There's only one other machine whose name does that, says Zamboni's president: a Jacuzzi.