Frank Zamboni would have been proud of those northern Minnesota kids. Frank Zamboni automated ice rink cleaning for the well-off, but hockey crazed 'Iron Range' kids smoothed their town's rink themselves.
When growing up in central Minnesota, we didn’t have a Frank Zamboni machine to clear the ice on our hockey rinks. I used to be a Zamboni with a garden hose.
We had to do everything ourselves – flood the rinks, build the sideboards, even create our own goals, which usually took the form of stringing anything we could find, from gill nets to gunny sacks, across a series of artistically welded pipes to corral the puck.
It shouldn’t have been this way. Hockey is to small-town Minnesota what intransigence is to Washington. It’s just part of the culture. Many towns in the region had hockey programs in the schools. That means they had mechanized ways to clean their ice. We didn’t, at least not always.
Town fathers (and at that time they were all fathers) decided that the community didn’t have enough money to support three winter sports. Basketball and wrestling were well enshrined. Hockey was a recreational afterthought – something you could do on your own, including helping maintain the rink.
This was fine with us. For years, we had the only indoor skating facility in the area. It was located in a Works Progress Administration-built arena. At one point, when the town decided to refurbish the hockey rink, my father, a wholesale lumber salesman, helped with the construction of the sideboards. Everyone showed up with their hammers and handsaws. Almost overnight, a dusty oval transformed into a glistening slab on which kids could mimic the moves of Bobby Orr.
The rink in those years was maintained by the town – public works officials used a front-end loader fitted with a rotary brush to clean the ice and a fire hose to flood it.
Eventually, however, recreation succumbed to commerce. A snowmobile manufacturer bought the building and we were kicked outdoors. The town built another rink, on two tennis courts nearby, but it was never as regal. The sideboards were cheap plywood, and cryogenic winds whipped off the lake on most days, mocking even our most stoic attempts to ignore the cold.