Where hockey is king, the Zamboni is a royal chariot
LAKE ELMO, Minn. — In Minnesota, the coolest guy on the block is not the one with the Corvette.
Jim Leonard is that guy, with a 40-year-old personal-size machine that makes him a rock star in his hometown of Lake Elmo.
“It has been a dream of mine since I was 5 years old,” Leonard said as he climbed into the driver’s seat and twirled the wheel controlling the scraper blade.
The machine is one of the strangest contraptions ever built. It looks like what would happen if a snowplow and a street sweeper had a child — then sent it to hockey camp.
Leonard was introduced to Zambonis as he was growing up in South St. Paul. “At that time, you had no choice but to play hockey,” he said.
He became fascinated with the hulking, clattering bathtubs-on-wheels that magically ironed out all the rough spots on his rinks.
In 2012, when he heard about a Zamboni being sold by the city of Albert Lea, he jumped at the chance.
The machine is smaller than the Zambonis used in professional ice rinks. And engine trouble kept it out for most of last winter.
Fortunately, Leonard co-owns three Fury Motors dealerships in the metro area and employs dozens of mechanics.
When the broken Zamboni limped into the Lake Elmo shop, his mechanics got to work.
“They enjoy those challenges,” Leonard said. “There is passion to it.”
They replaced a balky compressed-gas engine with a rebuilt motor from an old Volkswagen Beetle. Leonard found an old gas tank from a Zamboni repair specialist. He has spent about $10,000 on the Zamboni, including the purchase price and repairs.
By this winter, it was ready to roll.
Leonard wanted to encourage Lake Elmo’s children to be active outdoors in the winter. So he decided to keep his Zamboni in a shed at a city park, where it could be deployed for two outdoor rinks.
He splits the rink-clearing duties with city workers, including Jamie Colemer, who greatly appreciates Leonard’s contribution.
Last season, with no Zamboni, the only way to smooth rough ice was to flood the rinks. City crews had to do that 120 times. This year they have had to do it just 50 times.
“It’s fantastic — a great timer-saver,” Colemer said.
On Jan. 29, Leonard fired up the Zamboni and began making slow circles in one rink.
He immediately violated one of the first rules of resurfacing a rink: Never stop on the ice. When he did, the water-spreading cloth on the rear deck froze to the ice and ripped.
Colemer explained that the air temperature is crucial. The water cascading from the rear of the machine needs time to flow into all the cracks, so you don’t want it to freeze too fast. The ideal outdoor temperature is 15 to 25 degrees, he said.
After a 30-minute repair job, Leonard resumed his duties.
The machine has no speedometer and no brakes. Leonard expertly grabbed at the array of levers and wheels, checking the angle of the scraper blade, adjusting the two water valves and turning on the augers that scoop up the scraped-up ice and spit it into the truck bed.
Leonard circled the rink, the spinning brush sweeping the snow away, the motor puttering, augers clattering. He was grinning like a kid on a birthday pony.
When he climbed down, he pulled out his smartphone to find the lyrics of what could be his theme song.
“I Wanna Drive the Zamboni” was written by local musician Martin Zellar and includes the line “I’d get that ice just as slick as could be, and all the kids would look up to me.”
Leonard tucked the phone back into his pocket. “I think,” he said, “that sums up every Minnesota kid’s passion.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.