for faster and flashier hockey: building a better, oilier skate

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Skateguard: King Clancy, circa 1953, strikes a pose in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room — with a plain old unimproved skate. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, R11224-2910-X-E, Walter Curtin, Liberty Magazine)

In Gordie Drillon’s dream, he sped and stole pucks. “I dreamt I had on a pair of motorized skates,” he told a teammate the next morning, not long after the Hall-of-Fame right winger joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. “Nobody could get close enough to me to tap me on the heel with a stick. It was a great feeling.” He was equipped with a telescoping stick, too. “I pressed a button in the handle and the blade shot out a couple of feet. It was great for backchecking. I was taking the puck away from everybody.”

Drillon did fine without enhanced equipment — he was a first-team all-star in his heyday, leading the league in scoring in 1938 as a Maple Leaf, and taking the home the Lady Byng, too, as the NHL’s gallantest player.

That doesn’t mean other dreamers, including the NHL itself, haven’t entertained waking designs over the years of stretching sticks and speeding skates.

Actually, I don’t know about the sticks — but enriched skates definitely figure in NHL history.

Maybe you recall Tory Weber. Or, no, probably not. But his big idea might ring a bell, if only because it attracted Wayne Gretzky’s interest and endorsement a few years ago, and looked like it might even be on the verge of a breakthrough onto NHL ice.

Weber was the Calgary inventor who dreamed that heated skate blades would revolutionize hockey, increasing the speed of players and thereby the game they were playing. His Thermablades started to gain traction in the hockey world in 2005. Gretzky was an enthusiastic investor, and so was Harley Hotchkiss, one of the owners of the Calgary Flames and the presiding chairman of the NHL’s board of governors.

Skates glide on a film of water that’s created by pressure. Heated by a tiny lithium battery, Weber’s prototypes increased the layer of lubrication that forms, reducing friction, enhancing smoothness, increasing speed.

Gretzky testified that that its “performance benefits” would boost the game by making it “more exciting to play and watch.” Hotchkiss felt that it could reduce injuries. NHL players who tried Thermablades liked them; Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames was getting ready to wear in his team’s home opener in 2008.

That was before the NHL nixed them. The league’s GMs had their doubts, including concerns about cost and damage that might be done to the ice. They wondered whether Thermablades might make hockey too fast. Without NHL support, Tory Weber’s company struggled. By the summer of 2009, it slid into bankruptcy.

It wasn’t the first time a speedier skate almost accelerated onto NHL ice. Forty years earlier, another inventor had a flash of inspiration not so far removed from Troy Weber’s, and by 1960, Wilfrid Vaillancourt — Monk, to his friends — was on the brink of his breakthrough with the — well, it was either the “lubri-skate” or the “lubra-skate,” depending on the newspaper you were reading back then.

Vaillancourt was a steelworker at this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We know that he later went on to take charge of maintenance projects at the Soo’s International Bridge, a job he kept for 33 years, through to his retirement in 1995. A sizeable idea that came out of that job was a new and efficient mobile scaffolding structure he conceived of that (he said) would slash maintenance costs on big bridges by 70 per cent. Continue reading

footnote

art ross

Nikolai Kulemin was the first Leaf winger to fall to what the papers were calling friendly fire. This was October and the season hadn’t even started when in practice he caught a teammate’s shot on the ankle, which chipped the bone. Two weeks he was out of the line-up. Same thing happened at the end of the month to Joffrey Lupul, “plunked” in practice, as The Toronto Sun put it — though Lupul’s was only a bone-bruise, and he missed but two games.

That was no solace to Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. Both players should have been wearing plastic foot-guards over their skates, as mandated by the team for players at practice. It was just common sense, said Carlyle. “You don’t drive your car any more without a seatbelt. It’s basically the same principle.”

Modern-day foot-guards — they’re also called shotblockers — are light and resilient. They’ve come a long way since the steel-mesh prototype that the man they called “hockey’s Edison” came up with in 1939. By then, of course, Art Ross (above) had long since retired from a stellar playing career. He’d been managing the Boston Bruins since 1924. He’d already re-invented the hockey net by the time he turned his attention to trying prevent foot and ankle injuries, and in 1940 he’d get his patent on a refined puck.

In December of 1939, at the NHL’s Board of Governors meetings in New York, Canadian Press was reporting that Ross’ skate chainmail was an experiment tried and abandoned, having “proved unsatisfactory.” Already he had a new idea, and the league had approved it for trial: “a new-style stick, which combines a wooden handle, steel tube shaft and wooden blade.”