Zambonis and the business of smoothing the ice in Aotearoa.
THE HILLS OF THE CROWN RANGE ARE ALIVE WITH SECRET CARS. THEIR MAKES AND MODELS ARE HIDDEN UNDER DARK CLOAKS, LIKE NUNS’ HABITS. THESE ARE THE CARS OF THE FUTURE (HENCE THE SECRECY), SENT HERE BY INTERNATIONAL AUTOMOBILE MANUFACTURERS TO HAVE THEIR ICE HANDLING PUT TO THE TEST AT THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE PROVING GROUND.
Set directly across from Cardrona Alpine Resort, tucked away from prying eyes, the Proving Ground looks from above like a set of polar crop circles. These are maintained by the other type of vehicle here, one that’s been wielded in battle by both Deadpool and James Bond. Beloved by many yet ridden by few: the Zamboni. Technically, it’s called an ice resurfacer. Zamboni is just a brand name that’s become synonymous with a product, like Kleenex or heroin (yes, really), although Zamboni’s official slogan makes it clear what it thinks of competitors. It reads, “Zamboni. Nothing else is even close”.
That’s not entirely true. There’s a whole range of contraptions that can cut and resurface ice. Collectively, they’re called groomers, which unfortunately leaves operators to choose between calling themselves “groomers” or “Zamboners”, neither of which are ideal. Most default to “ice technicians”, or something along those lines. These operators are essential, as regular resurfacing is crucial for ice rinks. Skate blades and, worse, toe picks make grooves and divots that pose a hazard to skaters, and the Zamboni is designed to smooth these out quickly and efficiently, often several times per skate session or ice hockey game.
The machine is always a crowd favourite. There’s something Zen about the way it goes about its work. As Charlie Brown says in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, “There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire, and a Zamboni clearing the ice.”
They come in shipping containers. The imported ones, that is. The Dunedin Ice Stadium’s groomer, despite its size, was just “dropped off in the parking lot”, Reece Aiken, the rink’s technician, explains. He says he simply had to open the up box, “crawl inside with a gas bottle [and] reconnect the battery.” After it was hooked up, “we just drove it out of the shipping container and onto the rink.” But it’s not quite that simple.
Reece drives an Olympia model, Zamboni’s competitor. Zambonis are more prevalent globally, but Olympias are more popular here. Replacement parts can be picked up at any standard New Zealand auto mechanic, while Zamboni parts have to be sourced from specialists overseas.
When Reece started at the Dunedin rink, he was one of only three people in the region who could operate the machine, though the board he works for (Ice Sports Dunedin Inc.) had to be convinced of that fact. When the Olympia first arrived, Reece says, the board members assumed anyone would be able to drive it. He sent a couple of them out to groom between periods during an ice hockey game, working against the clock to placate the waiting teams, lining up the edge of the blade with the line that’s just been cut, trying not to drive headlong through the boards, balancing the flow of fresh water with the time it takes to re-freeze. The hockey players had some feedback. It was not positive.
Reece chuckles while he tells the story, like a parent who’s just watched their kid do something really, really stupid. “It’s easy to sit here in a warm room and look out and see how good the ice looks. They found it was actually a wee bit harder than they thought.”
Reece used to spend upwards of 50 hours a week taking care of the Dunedin ice, as well as working on the outdoor rink at Naseby, too. It’s satisfying work. “It’s pretty good when you get off and the ice is dead smooth and has the nice finish on it. And if you leave the conditioner down, you can do pretty good donuts. That’s normally my after-night trick. The last, last thing.”
FREE THE ZAMBONI
In Aotearoa, the problem of smoothing the ice goes back to at least 1938, when Naseby hosted the inaugural Erewhon Ice Hockey Tournament. Naseby’s current rink, which opened in 1991, is cut by a proper Zamboni, but back in the early days of the Erewhon Cup the ice was resurfaced by hand, worked by a team of men with picks and shovels and a ride-on mower modified to spurt water, which sealed the rink back together.
Hockey games are usually an hour long, consisting of three 20-minutes periods, separated by 15-minute intermissions during which the ice is groomed. But these early games either saw no resurfacing or were contested as one period of play per day so that someone could come out and prep the ice by hand. This involved shaving the surface with a steel blade, collecting up the shavings, then applying water to the surface and waiting for it to freeze. “Good play, guys, yeah”, you can hear them say, barely winded. “Well. See youse tomorrow!” There had to be a better way.
Some rinks came up with creative DIY solutions. For a while, the groomer at Gore’s ice rink was also a ride-on mower. In what was a time of fledgling rinks and antipodal isolation, Gore’s skaters had to make do with what they had, so they jerry-rigged a scraping blade to the back of a John Deer, chucked a hot water tank on it and used that to resurface the ice. The contraption was wheeled out once a night to do a full cut and pour, though the touch up grooms were done by hand, using a scraper.
In fact, the last hand groom in Gore occurred as recently as 2001, when their new rink opened and the ride-on was replaced by an official model, a Tennant, which was shipped down from Hamilton. It was very reliable, but apparently quite difficult to control. The Tennant, in turn, was scrapped in 2013 after Gore acquired Dunedin’s old Olympia model. At the time, the Caversham Foundation had been championing ice sports, but couldn’t find a way to fund Gore’s rink, as the town was out of their jurisdiction. Instead, they offered to buy Dunedin a newer Olympia model on the promise that Dunedin would sell their old groomer to Gore at mate’s rates. Gore bought the machine for one dollar.
Daryl Soper, a volunteer who has been heavily involved in the grooming at Gore, was sent to collect what was likely the cheapest ice resurfacer of all time. When he drove the Olympia out of the Dunedin rink and down to a loading bay to be put on a Gore-bound truck, it was not the first time he had hit the asphalt on such a machine. Daryl has ridden a groomer along sections of State Highway 1, down the main Gore thoroughfare, and he even drove the Tennant all the way to Mataura to be scrapped. He wasn’t puttering along, either, he said. “On the open road, that thing could hit 80 to 90 K’s an hour. Guaranteed.”(Older groomers like the Tennant could easily reach 90 kph. Modern ones are built to be stuck in first gear, so they top out at about 15kph. #FreeTheZamboni
HAMILTON’S HOMEGROWN ICE GROOMER
It’s 1957. Kiwis have been contesting the Erewhon Cup for 20 years without a proper groomer. On the other side of the world, in Boston, the North American National Hockey League rolls out its first Zamboni.
Developed by the California-based refrigeration expert, inventor and ice rink-owner Frank Zamboni, the machine could scrape the ice, pick up the shavings, store them, and wash and wet the ice all in one. It had four-wheel steering, making it highly manoeuvrable, and it left in its wake a shiny, silken track that, with each lap of the machine, got wider and wider until the whole rink gleamed. It is, as Charlie Brown noticed, soothing to watch. Order from chaos, smooth from the rough.
The Zamboni could very well have been invented in New Zealand. At the same time Frank was building his eponymous machine, another engineering legend was working on the same problem. You might’ve heard of him: one Bill Hamilton.
Bill is best-known for inventing the Hamilton jet boat in the 1950s, which revolutionised our ability to navigate shallow rivers by boat and to attract planeloads of tourists to the Shotover River in Queenstown. He is less well-known as the engineer behind Aotearoa’s first ice resurfacer. While it was a not as high- octane as a jet boat, it was certainly a ride to remember. Hamilton’s groomer was a three- wheeled amalgam of steel and rubber, more like a tricycle with two wheels up front than a Zamboni. Nicknamed Bluebell, she cut the ice with a blade fastened to the front rather than the rear, and had no auger or snow bin to collect shavings. She just scraped up a layer and pushed it aside like a snowplough, not unlike Gore’s mower.
It would be a good three decades before the first Zambonis, or Zamboni-equivalents, reached our shores, and by then Bill’s model had been deployed at the ice rink in Tekapo for years. His was one of many custom-built resurfacers that continued to pop up in the small towns of the South Island long after ice-grooming became an all-machine affair in the Northern Hemisphere. Those days are gone. Importation has replaced innovation. Tekapo has an Olympia now, and Bill’s groomer sits in a Tekapo shed, gathering bird droppings.
WE LOVE ZAMBONIS
Today, Zambonis are puttering about near the summit of the Crown Range, shaving ice one layer at a time, American machines paving the way for another wave of international cars. But there is something very Kiwi about a Zamboni. From the hum of the capable motor to the endless, piecemeal repair jobs, to the easy-going attitude of the operators, they feel like they should be more a part of the culture than they are. Like lupins. Or sheep. From somewhere else, but of this place too. No wonder the country’s most famous inventor had a crack.
So, it’s not surprising that though we may not be big on ice skating or hockey down here, and while ice groomers may be few and far between in this part of the world, we love them too. My mate Lucy, who has never set foot on a rink, says that not only does she know what a Zamboni is, but she’d “bang the driver in a heartbeat”. Snap. Reece says when he tells people what he does for a living, they say, “Oh, like the Charlie Brown cartoon!” And Emily Dickie, who also drives the Dunedin Olympia (she grooms for the figure skaters, the hockey players and the preteens on Friday nights) says she gets recognised when she goes out after games. She used to have blue hair, and the crowds at the stadium were vocally upset when it changed.
I even took my Uni graduation photos on the Olympia. It’s the proudest my American grandparents have ever been.