It was a familiar sight to generations of east metro high school hockey fans who packed Aldrich Arena in Maplewood each winter: Ramsey County’s very first Zamboni.
The boxy resurfacer slid onto the ice at the indoor ice arena in 1962, something of a midcentury modern marvel at newly minted suburban ice rinks like Aldrich.
Now the Zamboni, mothballed three decades ago with a leaky tank, is being restored with plans is to make it a fully functional ice ambassador.
The county hopes to use it between periods at big hockey games and showcase it during community celebrations, including a parade this winter to mark the 40th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice” when the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team took home the gold.
Ramsey County is partnering with White Bear Lake-based apparel company, the Minnesotan, to raise some of the $15,000 needed to complete the restoration.
“Aldrich has a rich history of hosting major high school tournament games back in the ’60s and ’70s. The memories shared with me by our current Zamboni drivers is about that venue and the thrill the audience got by watching this machine roll around the rink,” said Sara Ackmann, Ramsey County’s director of operations for ice arenas and golf facilities.
“Minnesotans are known for our fascination with and desire to drive a Zamboni,” she added.
The machine was invented in 1949 by Frank J. Zamboni Jr., who with his brother started an electrical service business in southern California installing refrigerator units for dairies. He later leveraged his expertise in refrigeration to assemble the first Zamboni, according to the corporate website.
The county’s first Zamboni was used for decades, and its longtime operator Leon LaBossiere developed a bit of a cult following. The arena announcer called him “Leon and his dancing Zamboni” and hockey fans chanted “Leon! Leon!” as he smoothed the ice between periods.
A basement find
Ramsey County staffers found Aldrich’s original Zamboni in a county basement about three years ago. At first they thought they’d just use it for a permanent display in front of one of the county’s ice arenas, something that kids could sit on for pictures, Ackmann said.
But they found that the engine still fired up. Replacement parts were located, and a Wisconsin mechanic who specializes in ice resurfacers was contracted to get it humming again.
“It’s been a labor of love for the last three years,” said Ackmann, who said the staff is very sentimental about the machine.
The Minnesotan, known for its nostalgic line of apparel, is selling “Old School Cool” shirts and hooded sweatshirts featuring an image of Aldrich’s original Zamboni. Twelve percent of sales will be donated to the restoration project. The shop already has a popular Aldrich Arena line of merchandise.
“Ramsey County approached us with the idea. It didn’t take us long to accept. It certainly fits our brand of creating uniquely designed apparel that celebrates the journey of Minnesotans,” said Corey Roberts, owner of the Minnesotan. A Forest Lake High School graduate, he said he has fond memories of watching some nail-biters at Aldrich.
“The Zamboni is a unique piece of equipment that’s front and center twice a game,” Roberts said.
The hope is to have the ice resurfacer ready for its re-coronation at “The Greatest Day Parade” scheduled for Feb. 22 in downtown St. Paul to honor Herb Brooks, the local boy who became head coach of the 1980 Olympics championship team.
A reunion at the rink?
There are even talks with LaBossiere about returning to give the Zamboni one final spin around the ice, Ackmann said.
LaBossiere, now 87 and long retired, said he’s thrilled they are restoring the machine and that he’s game to take the controls for one final dance.
“I am happy they are doing it,” he said. “It was great times for me and it was great times for Aldrich Arena.”
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.