It's hockey season. Here comes the Zamboni machine.

Knowing the name of the bulky vehicle that scrapes and smooths the ice between periods is what separates real hockey fans from the diletantes. For more than 20 years, the Zamboni machine has been as much a part of hockey as the puck, and the little-known California company that builds it has made its name a part of the sport.

"Any building that has an ice situation buys one," said Lou Corleto, public relations director of the Washington Capitals, who will use the machine at their first home game of the season tomorrow night at Capital Centre.

Bill Harpole, whose job is to get Capital Centre's ice in shape, said, "We've always had one. I don't know what they did before it was invented."

The Zamboni machine is a giant mobile ice scraper. Powered by a Volkswagen engine--which replaced the Jeep engine in 1963--it rolls across the ice, scraping up shavings and chips with an eight-foot blade and laying down a sheet of warm water that freezes into a smooth, new surface.

The single driver can do in 10 minutes what used to take twice as long for a team of skate-wearing maintenance workers pushing blades on sticks and wielding barrels of water. Virtually every major arena and skating rink in the United States, Canada and Europe has at least one, providing a steady flow of orders for the family-owned firm of Frank J. Zamboni & Co.

"We're a fairly small operation, really specialized," said Richard Zamboni, son of founder Frank, who now runs the compnay. "Right now we run about 30 to 40 employes, and we do almost everything here with the exception of some metal forming." All the machines are made and sold at the company's Paramount, Calif., plant, he said, except for those used in Canada, the home of hockey, which are made by a Canadian firm under a Zamboni license.

The name Zamboni, Richard Zamboni said, is a registered trade name, and "when we see the name used in the lower case, we try to call that to people's attention." Besides the ice machine, which costs about $30,000, Zamboni also makes a machine that sweeps water off artificial turf in baseball parks, another that rolls up the artificial turf when a hard floor is needed, and a "stripe remover" that takes up the white lines for the change from baseball to football and back.

As a family-held corporation, Zamboni doesn't reveal sales volume or profit figures, and Richard Zamboni declined to discuss them. Over the years, however, the firm has been healthy enough to survive occasional challenges from competitors. About 3,000 Zamboni ice machines are in use around the world, Richard Zamboni said.

The machine was invented about 1950 by Frank Zamboni who operated--and still operates--an ice rink in Paramount. Ernest Thompson, operations manager at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, skated on Zamboni's rink as a boy and recalled that "they used to get kids in after school to scrape the ice. It took a lot of time and effort."

Frank Zamboni began by tinkering with harvesters from nearby farms, Thompson recalled, and eventually mounted a harvester-type blade on a Jeep chassis to make a reliable machine. One of the first customers, according to Richard Zamboni, was the great Sonja Henie. Now, Thompson said, "it's an integral part of my business. I can't imagine not having a Zamboni machine."

The only special qualification needed to operate it, Thompson said, is that "you have to be an extrovert. I have an employe right now who cannot bring himself to get on that machine and go out in front of a crowd. He can drive circles around anyone in practice, but when it comes to going out in front of those yelling, screaming hockey fans, he can't do it. You have to have a little pizzazz."