“It’s got a name, but it’s sure got a small niche in a small industry when you get down to it.”
— Frank Zamboni Jr., Frank J. Zamboni Company president
“We refer to it as the Kleenex syndrome.”
— Don Schlupp, marketing director
The child of Italian immigrants, Frank had lived in Utah, Idaho and California, before he moved to Chicago, Illinois, to attend trade school. Having completed that education, he returned to California and opened an electrical supply business, and then an ice making company.
But by then it was the late 1930s. War was breaking out in Europe and electric freezers meant that the ice manufacturing trade was quickly disappearing. Not sure what to do next, Frank and his brother decided that they would take the ice making equipment they owned, and instead of making ice for sale, they would make ice to skate on.
Though his electrical skills had served him well in his prior endeavors, they truly became inventive and entrepreneurial in the skating rink. Throughout the 1940s, Frank was constantly tinkering on the invention that causes us to know his name to this day, and that makes me pause and remember him now at the start of the National Hockey League season. From nearly the day that he opened his ice rink, he began to work on ways to avoid the expense and downtime that came from having to periodically resurface the ice. That task, necessary to keep the rink open and the skaters safe, took an entire team of men an hour and a half to complete.
Finally after years of work, at the end of the 1940s, Frank came up with his first working prototype of an automatic ice resurfacing machine. It included parts from a war-era Jeep, an Air Force light bomber, an oil rig and farm equipment. It was ugly, it was bulky, but it worked. Instead of shutting his rink down for 90 minutes and paying a team to manually resurface the ice, Frank could now accomplish the job himself in 15 minutes behind the wheel of his “Model A.”
He applied for a patent, which was awarded in 1953, and formed a company, to which he affixed his own name. That would likely have been the end of it, except for the interest of Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie and the National Hockey League. They each saw the potential of improving their sport by quickening their ice resurfacing, and so they placed orders with Frank’s company to purchase his machines. Those machines carried Frank’s name — the company’s name — right across the front of every one of them, and almost immediately, the machine and the name became synonymous. The Zamboni was born.
Because the Frank J. Zamboni Company dominated the market for ice resurfacing machines in its early years, people began to call every such machine a “Zamboni.” The company’s lawyers were smart, though. They knew that the generic use of other company and product names had resulted in the loss of trademark protection through a process in which those terms became “genericized.” Aspirin, escalator, kerosene, laundromat, thermos, even heroin, were all originally protected brand names that no longer have any legal protection because they became the generic term for the product.
The Zamboni Co. has carefully brought lawsuits to protect against the name becoming generic. They have threatened or brought legal action against other ice resurfacer companies, ice rinks, media companies, and even a rock band, Two Man Advantage, that recorded a song called “Zamboni Driving Maniac.” The Connecticut-based indie rock band “The Zambonis” even pays a licensing fee to the company in order to get permission to use the name.
Zamboni ice resurfacing machines are surprisingly inexpensive (high-end models are in the $75,000-$100,000 range, but smaller models are much cheaper) and are long-lasting. The company hand builds about 200 units a year. But my favorite fact about Zamboni construction? Each new machine is first given a test drive down the residential streets of Paramount, California, just outside the factory.
You can buy a Zamboni, you can repair a Zamboni. You can write newspaper columns about the Zamboni. Just don’t use the word “Zamboni” to describe anything not built by the Frank J. Zamboni Co. — that would be a trademark violation.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and vice president of the Board of Trustees of the Central Ohio Symphony.