Blades of Glory

So now we have the ice, all we need is the gear.

The Science of Skating

A combination of strength and mechanics is responsible for the differences between players’ speeds. To accelerate, the skate is dug into the ice and the skater leans forwards to exert a strong force on the lower body which propels the person forwards. However, if you’re not intending to accelerate but lean forwards anyway then you’ll likely fall over… so be warned!

There’s an ongoing debate over what proportion of skating is due to strength or technique. Individual differences also play a role – some people are just naturally better than others. The speed race in the All Star Game allows us to see the players demonstrate their full speed and the ability to turn direction abruptly. Last year’s winner was Dylan Larkin who holds the record of 12.894 seconds.

Even at a top professional level like the NHL, players still talk about wanting to improve their skating abilities and whilst cross-training activities can benefit, there’s no real replacement for skating itself to improve.

The Skate

A skate consists of the boot, a blade holder that is attached with rivets, and the blade itself. Skate blades are made from steel and the blade surface is concave as opposed to flat. To create the sharp edges that are used for stopping, starting, and changing direction, a process called hollow-grinding is engaged. An equipment manager is employed to sharpen the team’s skates and even the referees’ skates in a home game.

The stone wheel, used for sharpening, is shaped with a diamond tip then the skate is passed over a few times to identify the exact centre then the blade is passed over the stone again to smooth it. For the final pass, a light coat of oil is added to provide a blade polish and remove any debris. A hand stone can also be used afterwards then the skate is wiped clean.

exagerated-skate-sharpening-hollowsImproper alignment can cause one edge to be longer than the other which means skates will have plenty of bite to turn and stop in one direction, but will cause slipping in the other direction. Sometimes this difference can be seen visually, or a coin can be balanced on the blade to notice the tilt.

The size of the hollow (the arch between the edges of the blade) is dependent upon personal preference. Generally, a goalie prefers a smaller hollow because they need to move quickly from side to side, and a deeper hollow could catch an edge in the ice. Further, players have their own preference about how frequently their skates should be sharpened e.g. every period or every couple of games. The colder/harder the ice, the quicker the skates will dull.

A hollow is very small but can have a big effect on a game.

Smaller Hollow Larger Hollow
Deeper cut on skates Flatter cut on skates
Better suited to lighter players who dig in less Better suited to heavier players who grip ice
More energy lost into ice Less energy lost into ice
Extra effort required to skate More efficient skating
Lower top speed Faster top speed
More responsive to turns and stops Turns and stops less quick/sharp
Quicker, more explosive acceleration Acceleration limited

If the edges get too dull then the skates can come out from underneath a player. Lots of things contribute to “losing an edge”, for example coming into contact with another skate, with sand or dirt by the benches, with a goal post, during a check near the boards. Until the player makes a sharp turn or a stop, they likely won’t realise they’ve lost an edge… until they’re sprawled on the ice.


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