August 13, 2012

From NEHJ: Great skates

By Jesse Connolly

How many times have we looked at the countless products we use in our daily lives and thought they’d reached their pinnacle? 

Jackson Wiltshire, 14, a Bantam player from Eastern Ontario, checks out skates during a visit to Boston. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

From color television to the first wave of cell phones to dial-up Internet, we all — at one point or another — have mistakenly thought to ourselves that nothing could top these revolutionary changes. Time and time again, we’ve been proven wrong.

Over the years, the same has been true of hockey skates.

To those of us who aren’t well-versed on the intricate construction process and the vast research that goes into shaping the future of skates, that’s easy to understand. After all, it seems so simple. There’s a boot, there’s a blade and that’s about it, right? How can such a product continue to be so significantly refined, and how can it really change how anyone performs on the ice?

In this special report with New England Hockey Journal’s annual Hockey Skates Buyer’s Guide, we’ll look at where skates have come in the past half century, where they’re going and how all these technological changes are making the game faster than ever before.

The old days 

At the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, many of the pieces of equipment on display that weren’t used all that long ago look like they belong in museums next to musketoons and wooden teeth. For years, players were wearing barebones equipment from head to toe. Midway through the 20th century, Montreal Canadiens legend Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion concocted the slap shot, provoking some necessary changes.

“When I first started out, skates were fairly light because there wasn’t much to them, but that was before the slap shot,” said Lenny Gregorian, who has co-owned Connecticut’s South Windsor Arena with his brother, Steve, for nearly 40 years. “As the game got more aggressive and players got bigger, taking slap shots with advanced sticks, skates started getting heavier and heavier as they required more padding.”

Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, CCM had a stranglehold on the market, spearheaded by their iconic Tacks model, which remained their signature skate until about six years ago. But back then, of course, the primary material used was leather.

“What’s very different about skates 30 years ago is they were made with baked leather, and over time, that would conform to your foot,” Reebok-CCM product manager Andrew Stewart said. “Today, with the stiff reinforcement materials everyone’s using to give the player more support, we have to address that same need but in different ways. Thirty years ago, you put your skate in a bucket of water, because it’s leather, then you’d tie it on and it would shape around your foot. Today, the bucket of water just damages your skate.”

Before the leather skate became extinct, Bauer supplanted CCM as the top dog thanks to a key acquisition.

“Bauer, after they got their boots straightened out, went out and bought a company named Warrington that made the TUUK blade,” Gregorian said. “Both CCM and Bauer at the time were purchasing their blades from Warrington. When Bauer bought that company, CCM was unable to get their fulfillment of blades one season, which put them way behind. Bauer owned the company, and CCM’s allocation didn’t materialize. I think they sold fewer skates because, well, you can’t sell a car without tires.”

The 21st century       

By the year 2000, Bauer remained No. 1 — especially after ushering in a new era with its first lightweight Vapor skate in the late 1990s — but CCM was now Reebok-CCM. Along with Reebok-CCM, Graf (formed in 1921 in Switzerland, expanded to Calgary, Alberta, in 1997) and Easton (which truly entered the hockey market about two decades ago) also remained competitive, but things began to stagnate a bit throughout the industry.

“When I started with the company in 2000, every skate was black and every generation was the same as the last generation,” Stewart said. “Not much changed from year to year.”

About 2004, according to Stewart, skate companies’ collective creative juices began flowing again.

“Things have really sped up in the last six to eight years where there’s been this drive for lighter-weight materials,” Stewart said, “and that’s led to the research by all the companies to find new lighter-weight, more resistant materials.”

What it means for the player

So where has all of that research led? Has it truly benefited today’s hockey player in a tangible way?

Wayne Zwicker, owner of H.A. Zwicker, Inc. (Bedford, Mass.), certainly believes so.

“Well, you can definitely skate faster if you take weight off (the skate),” Zwicker said. “I knew a guy that was the goalie coach out at West Point. There were doctors out there, and they were doing a lactic acid buildup study. He said if you can take so much as one ounce off, you can measure the difference, not only in speed, but there’s less muscle fatigue. They can skate longer and they can skate faster.”

That all begins with groundbreaking research.

“Traditional materials have been replaced with high-tech components,” said Dave Boucher, who co-owns New Hampshire-based TSR Hockey with Brendan Sheehy. “Companies have been pouring way more money into the research and development of new products than ever before.”

A change to high-tech components hasn’t affected only the weight of a skate.

Jeff Duval (Tewksbury, Mass.), a loyal customer at TSR who has been skating in the same men’s league since college, recently treated himself to a new pair of skates (Bauer Supreme One100s) after getting 15 years out of his last pair. He’s noticed plenty of differences.

“They’re a huge amount lighter, stiffer and more comfortable all around,” Duval said. “They didn’t make them heat-moldable back then. What would take you a month and a half to break in now takes about a week.”

Thermal-molded skates have had a huge impact on comfort and performance.

“The thermal-molded skates have materials designed specifically to shape and mold around a person’s foot to get a better fit and more contact points all around,” said Paul Stanton, owner of Sports Etc. in Arlington, Mass. “It improves transfer of energy when they’re striding to get the most power out of their skate. If you have a skate that’s a sloppier fit, you’re going to waste more energy every time you’re striding in your boot. When a person comes into our store, we try to put them in the thermal-molded skates to give them the best fit.”

There are even companies that focus solely on accessories such as Icon Elite, which produces state-of-the-art laces that sell like hotcakes in both North America and Europe.

“We developed a new tech lace, which we call our pro series,” Icon Elite CEO George Nehme said. “It’s an oval-shaped lace. It has no stretch to it. Because of its shape in the oval, once they’re applying it and it’s going through the eyelets, it never goes back, so they’re never putting their finger there to keep that part of the lace tight as they go up the boot to tighten it more and more. It holds your foot in perfectly because there’s zero stretch to this lace.” 

What it means for the consumer

It’s a no-brainer that top-of-the-line skates cost more than they did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. But many likely wonder if all these leaps forward on the technology front have priced them out of a quality skate. 

Technology advancements have helped create tons of great skates -- across price points -- for players. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Not so, Stanton says.

“There’s so many great skates out there right now,” he said. “Ten or fifteen years ago, consumers would’ve gone right to the top-end price and picked it. But now, there’s so many different price points and the boots are so well-constructed by all the manufacturers that you can find a mid-level price skate that’ll offer the same benefits as a pro-level skate. Price is less of an issue at this point.”

Graf product manager Tyler Hazelwood believes fit has and will always come first.

“Consumers want a skate that fits well, is comfortable, and allows them to skate well,” Hazelwood said. “They want a skate that complements their stride instead of impeding it. Consumers pick a skate that feels good, has technology that will work with them, and value. Consumers don’t mind paying more for real technology, but they shy away from gimmicks and flash.” 

With so many models to choose from, it may often become hard to gauge if a bigger investment will be worth it. Sometimes, as Hockey Giant’s general manager Mark Hullings points out, it is.

“Let’s say someone came in looking for a $200 skate, and the next level up was around $250,” Hullings said. “Especially for an adult, I’d tell them they’re getting a blade that can be replaced. On some skates, you can’t replace the steel on them after so much sharpening. You have to buy new plastic and steel. At that point, it’s too much money and you’d be better off buying a new skate. I try to look at the advantages and up-sell them if the benefits are worth it to them. If someone’s skating once a week or every few weeks, you don’t have to up-sell them. But if they’re on a couple men’s league teams and skating a few times a week, that next level up might make it worth it.”

A lot of the time, however, customers are walking through the doors already armed with a wealth of knowledge.

“From 20 years ago, there’s a lot that’s changed with the customers’ knowledge,” Hullings said. “Thanks to the Internet, customers are really educated when they come in. If they don’t know the answers, they don’t tell you because they want to hear what your answers are. Our customers nowadays know the products, know what they like and what they want.”

Thankfully for parents — at least the ones whose children aren’t doing extensive research online — they’re still able to buy skates for their son or daughter without going over the moon.

Duval, whose 7-year-old son Andrew will be a first-year mite next season, certainly appreciates that.

“Thankfully, to a kid, anything in that Vapor line is going to look roughly the same,” Duval, 40, said. “So he doesn’t necessarily know the difference between the top-of-the-line ones. They’re all gray and black. It was just a question of which boot he felt more comfortable in, and these guys (TSR) did a great job with the fitting.”

What it means for businesses

With companies constantly cranking out new models, what kind of impact does that have on the various venues that sell their products? On the surface, one would assume that offering the latest and greatest in skates must surely be a strong drawing point, but some see the short life-cycles of models as being a hindrance.

“From a retailer standpoint, it puts us at a disadvantage,” Jim Morris of NYC Skate Pro said. “Last year’s stuff gets thrown out at closeout prices all over the Internet, and it devalues our inventory. 

“Companies think they’re helping the consumer, but they’re forcing the retailers to drop prices, make less of a margin on the product and it’s a dog chasing its tail. You’ve got to dump so much inventory at the end of the season at lesser prices so you have money to pay for your booking orders come the next season. It’s a vicious cycle.”

And there’s where online retailers have a big edge over small mom-and-pop stores and even some bigger brick-and-mortar companies. Companies such as Hockey Monkey are capable of purchasing a high quantity of skates directly from a manufacturer and selling them to consumers at a discounted price once they’re no longer on the list of skates that must be sold at MAP, a minimum advertised price.

“It’s due to the volume that we purchase and turn over,” Hockey Monkey’s Rob Laurie said. “We usually have good opportunities to buy excess skates that the manufacturers have when they’re rolling out the new ones. It helps us reduce our average cost, which we can pass onto our customer — probably more than anybody else can.” 

Virgil Ghita (right), a supervisor at Hockey Monkey in Norwood, Mass., discusses skates with Duane Wiltshire and his son, Jackson, of Ontario, Canada. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Laurie estimates that they can sell skates for 20, 30 or even 40 percent cheaper than the competition once they come off MAP.

However, while companies such Hockey Monkey that are based online have begun to build stores in key locations around the country, there’s no denying that the experience of purchasing skates is infinitely different when you’re able to speak with an expert face-to-face and — most importantly — try on the skates.

“If you’re buying a pair of skates online, I don’t want to say it’s buyer beware, but you’re not understanding what’s happening from year to year,” said David Healy, owner of New York City’s Westside Skate & Stick. “The product cycles in a lot of the bigger brands change yearly. You don’t know how the next year’s skate is going to be made, or how it’s going to fit. You could be a size 8 one year and an 8½ next year. You just don’t know.”

The future of skates

You know what else we don’t know? What the future holds for hockey skates.

However, various members throughout the industry have both inclinations and their own personal hopes for where the product will go next.

“Without giving away any trade secrets, we’re always looking at ways to make the product lighter, more durable and more reactive so the player will get more reaction from foot to ice,” Reebok-CCM’s Stewart said. “Those are always challenges we’re working on with universities to see how you can make a hockey player faster. If you look at the last 15 years, even with some of those ESPN replays of older games, you can see how much slower the game was than it is today. That in large part is because of the equipment the guys have today.”

So what do the retailers foresee?

“I can’t see them getting any lighter, especially because we’re using graphite and everything,” Hullings said. “I think a lot of it will go toward more of a custom fit. I think they have the outer materials and the outer shells pretty much where they can be for the next 10 years, but I think fit is No. 1.

“Bauer just came out with the Nexus skate. They can currently fit 70 percent of the market; 30 percent they can’t because it just doesn’t agree with their foot. That’s pretty much where they’re going now, in making sure skates fit everyone the right way. Once you buy your shell and it is heat-molded, it’s going to form 100 percent to your foot.”

With running shoes and soccer cleats already taking advantage of advanced chips that can track speed and distance, it’s probable that something like that is in the cards for hockey skates in the near future.

“Anything that’s being used in running shoes, in the ski industry, golf — that was golf technology in the shafts of hockey sticks — will be useful,” Zwicker said. “We live in the age of technology, so we’re certainly going to see more and more of those things. You’ll probably see more and more of those things where you can download data into your phone, see how many strides you took in a game and a comprehensive readout.”

Gregorian said he’s glad he’s not “under the gun to be a designer for the products in 2014 and 2015,” and that “it’s got to be an excruciating job to continue to come up with the next great thing.”

Boucher said that there’s truly no predictable next step, as far as the evolution of hockey skates goes.

“I think we’re at that point with technology in the world today as it is. You ask yourself, ‘How do they make this computer, this phone, this car better?’ Next thing you know, they’re doing it,” Boucher said. “Back during the technology boom, you could foresee like, ‘Someday, we’ll be able to do this!’ Now you can’t. Now everything you think of, you can already do. Nowadays, everything new that comes out surprises you.”

For those of you eagerly awaiting the next cutting-edge developments in hockey skates, expect the unexpected.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ