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By Weston Phippen
You either know what it is or you don't.
If you do, then skip the next sentence. The Zamboni is the big machine that drives around an ice rink scraping up a thin layer of used ice and laying down a sheen of water that will soon turn into fresh ice.
The Mesa Office of Redevelopment.
You either know what it is or you don't. If you do, then skip the next sentence. The Mesa Office of Redevelopment is a body of city government concerned with revitalizing the original town center. Part of that plan is to bring the Phoenix Roadrunners to currently rinkless Mesa, and what's a hockey team without someplace to skate?
Right. Mesa needs to build a rink. But why stop with just one? A recent market study by the office indicated that, "in the East Valley, there is a need for, like, seven ice skating rinks," redevelopment specialist Patrick Murphy told me.
All of this is exciting news. An actual hockey team in downtown Mesa, plus all that cool, hardened water for East Valleyites to glide around on. But, as we have already learned, an ice rink is simply not going to happen without a Zamboni to keep things shaved and smooth and lovely.
I must admit, my knowledge of the Zamboni experience is not merely voyeuristic. In addition to many other fascinating jobs in my past--waiter, mail-room grunt, backstage doorman--16 years ago I drove a Zam at the Pasadena Ice Skating Center. I didn't know how to drive a car (didn't get a license until I was 29, but that's another story), but three or four times a night I would get behind the wheel of this monster and make new ice.
What a sensation, what a powerful feeling; I'd push the Zam up to its top speed of 9 mph, zip along, dangerously close to the edge of the rink, the artificially cooled air stinging my acne-ridden cheeks, skillfully laying down fresh lines of ice while X or the Stones blared over the PA. How fun it was to take my time out there, simply to infuriate the hordes of little girls in their pink leotard skating costumes waiting to get back in the rink to practice their twirls and routines. They'd scowl from the bleachers and shoot me black stares, these daughters of the wealthy, future heartbreakers all.
They hated me, but they needed me. I was essential, I was the Ice Maker, the Lord of the Zamboni. Best job I ever had.
As you can plainly see, it takes a special breed of man to tame the Zamboni, to put the beast through its paces. And, for the Roadrunners, that man is Tom Youngs.
He is 29, a son of Guelph, Ontario, born with hockey in his blood. And blood in his hockey. There is a conspicuous gap in Youngs' smile as a result of a face-down meeting with some ice. When teeth meet ice, ice always wins.
"I got blindsided and knocked out a tooth and blew out my shoulder," he says with all the concern of someone recalling a paper cut. "I got knocked out on impact." Big deal. Youngs is a hockey man. "I don't like basketball, I think it's a baby sport," he scoffs. "Every time they get touched, they're crying foul."
When Youngs is on the ice these days, it is atop the big, black, 1990 Zamboni at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, where he has been cutting ice about 35 times a week, six days a week, for three years. Before that he was at the Oceanside rink in Tempe for four years. He notices the difference.
"I guess I was real surprised when I came here where a pro team was playing, and how much the kids and the fans get into the Zamboni," Youngs says. "I've always been around hockey players, which is like, 'Get the machine off the ice so we can go out there and skate.'
"I've had kids that came up and marveled at it, and girls standing there and they ask me if I drove it, and they thought that was the greatest thing. That was the first time I sat back and looked at it and thought, 'You know, it kind of is an amazing machine.'"
As Siegfried and Roy are close to their animals, Youngs is close with his Zamboni. "I know almost every scratch on it. If there's a new one, I'm freaking out. It's my baby. I've had little kids come up and ask for my autograph, and I say, 'Do you even know who I am?' They say, 'You're the guy who drives the machine!' So I sign. I just sign 'em 'Tomboni.'"
Oh, yeah. Tomboni. That's what it says on the front grille where it should say 'Zamboni.'
"My first year here, you know, you get that cocky thing, and I was looking at it thinking, 'You know, if I just changed two letters on this, it's my name plus 'boni.' I took some tape and covered up the Z and the A. Then I had it professionally done. And the first one actually got stolen." Crazy kids.
While you are sleeping tonight, somewhere in the world there will be a Zamboni chugging away in some rink making fresh ice while the preteen skating minxes and the hockey players become impatient. Zambonis have been sold in Russia, China and South Africa. Zambonis rule the rinks in Australia, Korea and Japan, too.
The Bethlehem of 'bonis is the town of Paramount, California. Paramount's Mary, Joseph and Holy Father all wrapped into one was Mr. Frank Zamboni, nonskating, ninth-grade dropout. He started an icehouse in 1922, which the home refrigerator squashed a few years later.
What to do with all that water-freezing equipment? In the late '30s, he built himself a rink, cleverly named it Iceland, and resurfaced the ice in the common method of the day. One that involved four men, a tractor, a hose and an hour and a half.
Frank started scratching his head. By 1949, he had created an enormous contraption with wooden sides housing a conveyor belt to pick up shavings and spray out water, all riding on the body and engine of a Jeep. It worked.
Sonja Henie was a big name in figure skating back then, and when she came to Iceland to rehearse with her troupe, she fell for Frank's baby. He built another one for her. She took it on tour. Needless to say, the monster spoke for itself; soon rink owners throughout the country were ordering up. Frank and company needed a name. They thought of Paramount Engineering Co. That was taken.
But what about, well, why not?! Mama mia! Zamboni it was, and Zamboni it is!
Frank went to that big rink in the sky back in '88, and his son Richard took over. A couple other companies have made ice resurfacers over the years, but that's like trying to reinvent the Frisbee. Zambonis now start at about $50,000, but the average life expectancy is 20 years. A Zamboni was mentioned in a Peanuts cartoon. There are Zamboni fan clubs, and there was a winning thoroughbred horse named Zamboni in the '80s.
Like a gunslinger, a test pilot, a really fast short-order cook, Tom Youngs is something of a badass when he gets behind the wheel of his Zamboni. That's just the way it is with Zam jockeys, and not just anyone can cut the frigid mustard.
"We're kinda in our own little world," he admits. "My boss, once I told him, 'I'm the best there is, the best there was, the best there'll ever be.'"
Youngs is quick with the resurfacing, that much is true. Just ask him.
"Everybody that comes in this building says I'm the fastest they've ever seen drive the machine," he says quietly. "I don't do anything different from anybody else that climbs on that thing, but for some reason I'm down to the six, six-and-a-half-minute mark. It usually takes eight to ten minutes."
Youngs has even heard tell of Zam jocks greater than he; yet it is perhaps the stuff of legend.
"I know the driver in Vegas," he says. "They have two machines there. I knew that the one guy would do 360s in between periods, and then I heard a rumor that both guys would start out at opposite directions and go past each other and do 360s, and another one was where they would drive by each other and high five." He shudders, shrugs. "But I've never seen this."
Then there's something that even the strongest Zam studs don't like to mention. It can send a man to bed at night with fists clenched and teeth gritting in the dark:
"Yeah," whispers Youngs, his voice not cracking. "I've seen guys who just can't do it. A lot of it is intimidation, they're scared of it out there. And that's the one thing, you can't really be scared of it."
It? It? It? . . . What is It?
"It's hard to say," he says, frowning. "I don't know if it's that it's such a big machine, and when you start going into a slide it feels like you're going to lose control. It'd be pretty embarrassing if you put the thing through the wall. And there's the crowds, thousands of people watching you, kids standing by the boards waving."
Youngs is not ashamed to admit that, way back when, it was hard for him.
"The first two times out there, it was. I'm used to driving on ice, so that didn't bother me, but the difficult thing is, when you come around corners, it's easy to mess up your lines. But by the fifth time, I did it. I could make a perfect pass.
"Now, I horse around a little bit too much. I'll take another driver out, they might be having problems doing one particular thing, and they say, 'I want to do it like you do it.' I'll say, 'Don't drive the way I do.' When I first came here, I wouldn't drive that radical until I learned the machine, learned to feel what it's going to do."
Maybe it's all about respect. Maybe it's all about love. Maybe it's something that hits you out of nowhere and you realize it's in your blood. Youngs ponders the mysterious attraction of this thing Zamboni.
"I was sitting around, not really knowing what I wanted to do [in my life], and I came upon this and started driving and having fun. I kinda stuck with it."
Though he has his dreams--"I want to work up to running my own rink, eventually, and get off the machine"--the Zam, well, she's a lover that maybe a fella really never gets over.
"Give it up?" says a startled Youngs. "I wouldn't be able to totally give it up, I'd go out there, have some fun. And I would personally train everyone. I've gotten basically so attached to this principle of making the ice, when it's kind of your baby, you better watch over it."
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