Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Great Zamboni Fire Of 1973


To say 1961 wasn't a good year for all things figure skating related in the U.S. was the understatement of the century. As we know, the horrific Sabena Flight 548 tragedy on the way to the World Championships in Prague claimed the lives of a whole generation of America's skating community including nine time U.S. Champion Maribel Vinson Owen and her two daughters, judge Harold Hartshorne and his wife and skating partner Louise, judge Edward LeMaire and his thirteen year old son Dickie and twenty seven other coaches, judges, skaters and family members. However, that same year a ball would be set in motion that would almost claim the life of another huge part of American skating: the fourth Zamboni in existence.

Living its first life as an ice resurfacing machine for the Ice Capades, the Zamboni returned home to the Iceland Skating Arena in Albuquerque, New Mexico until 1961, when the rink's owner Bill Snelson offered the then-newfangled contraption to the Los Alamos Skating Association. Transported over the Jemez Mountains on a trailer in a caravan of skaters and their families to Los Alamos safely, the Zamboni served the old rink (built in 1936) well for over ten years until a fire in February of 1973 almost claimed its life too.

According to Eric Dregni's fantastic book "Zamboni: The Coolest Machines On Ice", "the garage at the rink caught fire at the Los Alamos Fire Department was going to let old No. 4 go up in flames with it. But Zamboni driver Ted Dunn would not hear of it. He doused himself with water from a fireman's hose and barged into the burning building. Amid scorching flames, he threw a wet blanket over the machine and quickly tightened the battery terminals. He hopped in the saddle and revved the engine. At 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) per hour, he burst through the burning doors to safety. No. 4 was saved! The firemen gathered around to admire the rescued Zamboni and the hockey team was pleasantly surprised to find that their sticks and gear had been stored in the snow tank and thus mostly survived the blaze." According to the Zamboni website, "in June of 1973, the Zamboni Company received a phone call from Ted Dunn of the Los Alamos Skating Association in New Mexico telling them that their Zamboni machine was involved in a fire at their rink and they required assistance in rebuilding it for the coming skating season. When it was determined that their resurfacer was the fourth machine that Frank had built, and up until the fire, was to the Company’s knowledge the oldest unit in regular operation, it was decided that the Company would obtain it, re-build it and reconstruct the story of its much-traveled history."

Today, the fourth Zamboni ever made still survives. Fully restored, it is on display at the U.S. Hockey Hall Of Fame Museum in Eveleth, Minnesota and we owe a debt of thanks to Ted Dunn for literally risking his life to preserve an important part of skating history.

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