Though skaters with the names of Lipinski, Lemieux, Yamaguchi and Gretzky are among the greatest to take to the ice, the most famous name on the slippery surface belongs to a slow, clunky, 53-year-old.
Nestled in the sunny backlot of Los Angeles is Paramount-based Frank J. Zamboni Co., maker of the boxy ice resurfacing machine called the Zamboni that's been smoothing dings, ruts and gouges on ice surfaces and entertaining crowds while it does so.
The tight-lipped and closely-held company is sliding along a particularly slick streak now. Interest in ice sports typically spikes after the Winter Olympics, but lately ice sports are enjoying an unusual popularity.
Beyond that, however, Zamboni finds itself in the position of being able to capitalize on something rare: Its brand. Its image. In short, its famous and funky name.
Zamboni has about two dozen licensing agreements, including a children's book, ice scrapers, hockey jerseys, remote control toys, infant clothing and even a 1:18 scale die-cast model bearing the logos of the 30 NHL franchises.
And the pace is picking up. Some Zamboni goods are found on Target's shelves, Zamboni Happy Meal Toys were in Canadian McDonald's last fall and a biography of Frank Zamboni and his eponymous machine is due out this fall.
All those licensing agreements mean the Zamboni name is one cool commodity though the company is not disclosing exactly how cool.
"I can tell you that if they're not making in the high six figures annually for each licensing agreement, they're doing something wrong," said L.A.-based branding expert and consultant Rob Frankel. "Licensing is a cash cow; but when you combine the high-profit, low-cost nature of the licensing business with the strength of the Zamboni brand; it's more like a cash farm."
In fact, Sasha Strauss, director of brand development for L.A.-based Brand Sense Partners, said the name could generate more for the company's bottom line than sales of the machines.
"This is as close to a perfect brand as you can get," gushed Strauss. "It's taken on rock-star status with hockey fans and has taken on an eclectic yet dependable image with everyone else I'd bet my job they're making millions a year off of the name alone."
The fact that one of his father's greatest ideas was putting his own name on a boxy machine is an irony that doesn't escape Richard Zamboni, now the chief executive of the company. Had Frank Zamboni named it the "Slick Willie" or the "Ice-O-Nator," it likely wouldn't have resonated with the hockey faithful and become the symbol for an entire industry.
"When my father built the machine, he didn't know what else to call it, so he named it a Zamboni," he said. "It was a total accident that it's amassed the cult-like following it has."
Before Frank Zamboni came along, ice resurfacing took a crew of four more than an hour to do by hand. Thanks to the Zamboni, it now takes about seven minutes.
The street sweeper-like vehicle travels about nine miles an hour on its three-quarter of a mile resurfacing journey around a typical ice rink. It uses a seven-foot blade that weighs 57 pounds and is half an inch thick to shave off about 1,500 pounds of ice. It leaves behind about 1,200 pounds of water that's quickly frozen.
The machines are handmade in a 50,000-square-foot building just off the 91 Freeway that looks like most any other plant. On one recent day, workers bustled about; some painting large, black metal frames, while others prepped a shiny, bright red Zamboni for its trip via flatbed truck to a customer in the Midwest. Across the vast concrete floor, pock marked from the thousands of steel-studded Zamboni tires that have rolled across it, the largest of the eight Zamboni models is destined for an outdoor rink in Eastern Europe, hinting at the worldwide demand for the machines.
There are about 4,300 ice rinks in the U.S. and Canada, and every rink needs frozen water and some way to resurface the ice. All resurfacers aren't Zambonis, but the name has become synonymous with the process. In fact, industry veterans guess that Zamboni owns 70 to 80 percent of the North American market and about 50 to 60 percent overseas.
Paula Coony, the spokeswoman for the Zamboni brand, said the company makes about 100 to 200 machines a year. The prices start at about $65,000 for the smaller, combustion engine model, to $85,000 for the newer electric-powered models. Throw in the replacement parts, regular service and maintenance, and Zamboni sales could easily hit the $15-million- to $20-million-a-year mark, not counting the licensing revenues.
The company has benefited from ice sports, which have regained their footing after a tough spill.
But the return of hockey, the popularity of the reality TV show "Skating With the Stars" and the usual post-Olympic surge have combined to boost ice skating, according to Pat Kelleher, executive director of an ice rink industry association that publishes Rink magazine.
"Business is always better after the Winter Games, but it's been even better than expected so far," Kelleher said.
Grant Ballantyne, chief executive of Vancouver-based Canlan Ice Sports Corp., the only publicly-traded ice-rink management company in North America, couldn't agree more.
"We're seeing great growth," he said. "Our profits have doubled, our attendance is way up, the number of our women's leagues has doubled and we're looking at expansion."
He's also looking at adding two Zambonis to his fleet of 36 sometime this year.
Meanwhile, the company has seen its horizons expand dramatically. It's shipped more than a dozen Zambonis in the past year to ice rinks in China, opening a new world of machine sales, maintenance contracts and licensing opportunities.
It's unclear, though, whether the machine will resonate in the popular consciousness in China as it has in the United States, where its popularity has transformed the firm from not only a manufacturer, but a keeper of a brand.
In fact, some hockey fans know the Zamboni name better than the players or teams themselves, said Jim Haskins, the vice president of consumer marketing for the National Hockey League.
"It's sort of become the mascot for the entire sport of hockey, especially with kids," Haskins chuckled. "Everyone watches it do its thing between periods. Some marvel at the skill it takes to drive it, others watch to see if they miss a spot. But have no doubt, everyone in the arena watches it."
But while advertisers and tchotchke hawkers attempt to capitalize on the brand, the image that's embedded in the memories of most Zamboni fans is one conjured by the rock group Gear Daddies in their one, 1980's-era claim to fame "Jesus in a Sidecar," better known as "The Zamboni Song":
"Now, ever since I was young, it's been my dream, that I might drive the Zamboni machine."
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