The hockey skate profile – demystified

Skate profile, hollow, and fit for rec players and kids need to be discussed by a rec player who have similar muscle-skeletal strengths. So I volunteered.

Selecting a hockey skate blade “profile” and “hollow” are much simpler than it seems.

First, let me tell you my opinion if you don’t want to read any of this.

I use 9-and-half foot profile in front and 10′ in the back for smaller feet. Bigger feet might want to got 9 and 9-and-half. Half way through the steel, get them re-profiled because the steel gets rounder every time it gets sharpened.

Start at 1/2″ hollow. If the skate gives you a jolt your legs find hard to handle, your rink might have soft ice – go to 5/8″ (smaller the number, deeper the hollow. So 5/8″ is shallower than 1/2″). If the skates are unsafely dull before you can manage to take them to the shop, go to 7/16″. If you can take it in more often, do try 5/8″. If you scrape the ice on transitions, or have catastrophic “catching an edge” falls, try to stay 5/8″ or 1/2″ to prevent injuries.

Simple enough?

Now the explanations for curious minds.

Profile is the shape from the side. This skate started out with Graf’s factory default – 9.5′ in front and 10′ in the back. It’s seen a few sharpening, and the front definitely looks more rounded. Because the skate sharpener has to press the skate into the mill, each sharpening ends up rounding the profile a little.
wpid-img_20150704_133121

Hollow is the shape when looking at it from the back. See it’s concave, basically creating two parallel blades? Because it sucks to have one blade or a flat bottom. More on this later.
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Skate blades sink into the ice.

First we have to understand that we are doing all this talk because skate blades sink into the ice. Because ice isn’t all that hard. Because, I’d you don’t sink into the ice, you don’t get to stop or turn.
If you doubt me, take a thick piece of metal – like your skate blade or a child’s scissors and push it into an ice cube (in an ice tray or on a thick cloth so you don’t cut yourself). You can easily make an indentation with your hands. (If you think it’s melting instead of denting, leave the metal in the freezer first.)
Now imagine a whole weight of a human body skating. Yes, you’ll sink even though you’re really skinny and look great in those jeans you bought last week.
Selecting a hollow and profile are all about how the blade sinks into the ice, so we have to adjust our selection if the rink is warmer or colder than average (standard: go with shallower hollows if warm).

Skips to the next section if too much information: why ice is soft.

Even though ice, water crystal, is as hard as concrete if you fall on it, the thin layer of the surface is soft. The rink’s room temperature is intentionally set that way because we need the ice to melt easily (also, very cold ice chips too easily). Things like steel slide better on ice at a warmer temperature because what makes things slide is the water not ice. Those of us from cold areas know this. After you finish ice fishing before dawn, try sliding on the ice. You do slide but don’t go too far. Wait till the sun is up and try again – oh actually don’t. You’ll slide so far it’s actually unsafe. Never fished? How about freezing rain – the temperature that’s perfectly between water and ice – it’s far more slippery than ice. so slippery my car on winter tires slid sideways down a hill once.

So, at the rink, the temperature is that it’s cold enough to keep the ice frozen but warm enough so that the friction of the blade on the ice can melt it to create a water film on top of the ice. There have been some efforts to invent blades that melt the ice. Graf’s T-blade came the closest, I believe. Currently in development is a steel that’s actually heated.

How do they decide exactly how cold? Well, they actually set it based on how well it works for hockey skates. They warm up the rink a bit for figure skates with flat bottoms (no hollow) where their edges are literally only as sharp as the edge of a cube.

Sinking and Hollow

Local sharpening guys always recommend quite a deep hollow. They always say the number is the radius of a circle it would draw if you extended the curvature, but my eyes have trouble seeing it. Check out the photo above. That does not look like a part of an inch circle (it’s a 1/2″ hollow). Anyway. I digress. All we need to know is that the smaller the number, the deeper the hollow.

7/16″ is what they almost universally recommend. I know I’m the most effective skater I can be at 5/8″ (= 10/16″). That, in a skate world, is a huge difference. Why do I not like deep hollows even though they are recommended by guys who’ve been sharpening skates for years? Because I tried them all.

A deep hollow does two things. One – it sinks deeper. The left is like you walking through snow. The right is you on snowshoes. You have more surface to keep you from sinking deeper.
hollow1
When your steel is right into the ice, it’s like cross country skis in the groove. It creates delay and great strain when turning against the groove. With the smallest mistake in timing or weight transfer, you catch an edge. Trained players may be so strong they don’t feel this extra effort. But we do.
Most skate sharpeners might tell you “Profile is what controls the ease of turn. You just go to a more aggressive (rounded) profile.” This is half true – you can do that – and half not – you shouldn’t just do that alone. More on this later.

Have you gone sea kayaking and white-water kayaking? It takes effort to turn a sea kayak without using the rudder. White-water kayak with flat bottom loves to turn. This is the same thing for skate blades. For hockey where we want both qualities, we have to find a sweet spot.

hollow4

Ever heard a friend say their skates are more comfortable in the third ice time after a sharpening? What’s likely happening is that the dull blade is giving them an effect like a shallow hollow.
hollow8
I recommend those skaters to try a shallower hollow. What’s wrong with a dull, deep hollow if they are comfortable with it? Nothing – if you can tolerate being uncomfortable (and unsafe – those cause you to “catch an edge” or to have to put a lot more force into a simple turn, causing chronic inflammation of knees) those first couple of ice times and if you’re ok with the drawbacks of the skates being dull. And if you can always plan sharpening 3 ice times before an important game. My point is – if it’s all the same, why not aim at the hollow that’s designed to produce that feel right off the get-go?
Two – when you turn, you push against a harsher angle.
hollow5
If this is hard to imagine “pushing against the side walls” happening while turning forward, imagine stopping.
stopping
So, as we discussed above, the skate blades sink into the ice, and your skates are in a groove. Turning is an effort against the side walls of the groove. But, imagine if you had skis whose bottoms are shaped like a back of a spoon – you can slide right out of the groove. Skates with shallow hallows (on right in the picture above) does just that. Disclaimer: I didn’t study this with a microscope. But it makes sense, doesn’t it. If you disagree with my analysis, that’s ok. “One” above still stands.

So what is the drawback of that angle? Would the shallow groove not stop as quickly? Possibly. When I use deeper hollows, I do feel a jolt when stopping, so that probably means it’s stopping faster (when turning tight, the hindrance from the “groove” is more prominent than any advantage it might be giving me).
But hockey is not about stopping. It’s about making a play or sprinting after stopping. The jolt is a complete utter hindrance to this. So even if 1/2 stopped inches behind 7/16, it puts you in a better position because you don’t have to spend a couple of seconds recovering from the jolt. This is where we might differ from trained players.

So why do I not skate on 5/8″ now? It’s because it gets too dull to skate effectively too quickly. A razor with a bit of the tip taken off would still cut. An axe with a bit of the tip taken off would bruise, not cut. So once 5/8″ gets “just a little bit dull,” it’s way too dull. Professional players get their skates sharpened every period if they want to. I don’t have that luxury. When I used to skate on 5/8″, I’d have to take my skates in about every 8 ice times. With 7/16″, I go 15. When I forget to take them in, dull 5/8″ is dull. A dull 7/16″, you can still skate on them. I know a strong skater, an average-sized man, who haven’t sharpened in years. I don’t know what his hollow is. I should ask.

So why do the skate sharpening guys recommend deeper hollow? I don’t know, actually. They said they grip the ice better. In my experience, there is no noticeable difference between a sharp 7/16 and sharp 5/8. Maybe they like the feeling of extra gripping? (that sensation is extra work against sinking deeper, not extra efficiency) Maybe there is business reason? (“oh my sharpening lasts longer when I go to this shop”) Maybe the sharpening machine manufacturer are teaching them that? Or maybe because there is something else in play.

Conclusion?
Shallow grooves are good. But there are compromises and conditions like “as long as you can keep them sharp.” So go with the middle of the range like 1/2″.

Sinking and Profile

Profile is the shape of the blade as you look at it from the side. It’s important to have it rounded somewhat because a completely flat blade – that much of the steel in a groove – won’t turn. When I’m warming up in my goalie skates (see example below – that’s my backup skate), I can’t make a skate turn. A crossover would let me turn a corner while the skates are moving in a straight line. But the pads prevent me from doing that. So I have to do a Mohawk turn (sorry if the use of this term is offensive to anyone. I don’t know any other way to call this pivot – please educate me if it is) and turn the corner backwards in c-cuts and cross-unders, all of which lets me avoid those red arrows in the above picture.
wpid-img_20150704_133220.jpg
Players don’t have that luxury, so blades are rounded to reduce the amount of steel in the groove. It is easier to turn a mini than a greyhound.
rocker3
So why don’t I go to a really rounded profile like 7′?

Oh, by the way, the profile is described using a circle it would draw if you extended the curvature. The smaller the number, the more rounded the blade is.
rocker1

So, why don’t I skate in a 7′ rocker if that’s more agile? Three reasons.

1.  Skating in a really rounded blade is like being on a unicycle. You can turn on a spot, but it expends energy to stay in balance.
2.  It’s like snowshoes. If your contac surface is too small, you’ll sink too deep. We learned above what sinking deep does. It’ll be negating the effect of agility supposedly gained by rounding the blade.
3.  The more contact surface, the faster you skate.

The third item above needs more than a sentence to explain. This is the last item, so you can stop reading here if you are not interested.
Ever notice that a kid flies down the hill in a big toboggan? But goes down at a reasonable speed in a one-man toboggan or snow glider? Even slower in a sled on two runners? This is because friction (resistance against sliding) is a function of weight per unit surface. In other words, for the same weight, the faster you go when your weight is spread over a bigger contact surface.

In hockey skates, the contact surface is a function of two factors: Profile and Hollow. Profile decides how much steel touches the ice front to back. Hollow determines how much steel touches the ice side to side. Especially because rec players do tend to skate on hollows that are deeper than ideal, we need to maximize the profile. I skated on 10′ in front and 10′ in the back, and I was completely in a “feet on rail tracks” situation. And, not to brag, but I do know my edges, having grown up on mogul hills. I pivoted properly on Mohawks and spread my feet to stop. Even then, it was simply too big. I backed it off to 9-and-half in the front, and that was perfect.

Not everyone can do this experiment of “hit the threshold and back it off just a little” because it takes off a lot of steel when you do this and takes the sharpening buys a lot of time to shave that off (they can’t do it in one shot because it ends up heating the blades, which makes the steel brittle). Hope you can find someone who knows this stuff and have a good talk to decide what’s right for you. (Don’t trust people who use words like “heel and toe.” – that’s an out-dated method)

profile

Bonus Material: Pitch

There is a notion “forward pitch for a forward. Neutral or reverse pitch for a defenseman.” I do NOT buy into that. I’ve skated in Bauer with the most neutral (sometimes feels too much in the heel) pitch (Supreme 2000, Supreme 7000, Vapour X, Vapour [another number], One90] and Grafs in their industry’s most forward pitch (301, 501, 7-something, G70 custom, G75 custom, G9035 custom). I do not see Bauers were better for skating backwards. We, as a defenseman and as a referee, don’t just C-cut backwards. We cross-under. We do cross-under running starts. We Mohawk, step-out, stop in a v, stop in a backwards hockey stop, and, most importantly, sometimes turn and skate forward like mad when we didn’t notice a seagull behind us.

Putting a pitch in a blade is a big commitment. My advice is “Don’t do it.” Can you get used to the pitch of your new skates? If you can’t, can you switch the holder? If you must, get a really good guy because it’s a procedure mostly “eye-balled.”

Bonus Material: HOLDERS! HOLDERS! HOLDERS!

You have a wonderful, powerful car (your legs). You have a great transmission (your skate boot). You have great tires (your skate blade). Do you have a great suspension?
There is some kind of a cult feel around the TUUK holders. It’s the most popular for 20 years, and the most popular brand, Bauer, uses them. What could be wrong? Well, no one can help me understand why this holder is supposed to be good.

TUUK (excluding the most recent models I have yet to feel in my own hands without skates) is a flexible holder. I’ve felt them, twisted and bent them, in my own hands. You put all that energy into your stride, and you’re losing a lot of the power into bending the holder. Have you tried to turn and feel a slight delay? That’s probably the holder. Bauer is making tube skates since One90s. Stiff is good!, right? So why put a suspension of a passenger car on your Ferrari?
When it released the new quick-release blade system, it released blades all over the NHL ice for a season with its owners being dragged off the ice by linemates. See what I mean by “cult”?

Alternative that’s been around is Graf’s Cobra (now simply known as Ultra 5000). I wish I still had the video of me twisting these two holders side by side. Cobras are stiff, but not completely rigid. I’ve skated in them for many years, and the holder nor the quick-release have failed me once. But as we all know, Grafs are near impossible to buy at stores in and around Vancouver now.

Today, we have more alternatives.
Easton Mako’s CXN is just as light and stiff as Graf’s Cobra. It’s also pitched forward like Cobras (in fact, when you read Mako’s marketing materials, they sound exactly like Graf’s G9035. Though I think they simply copied the words in some places – e.g. the hydrophobic liner – Easton’s liner is POROUS! Maybe each fibre is hydrophobic? That defeats the purpose, doesn’t it. I truly hope that Easton not only wishes to copy Graf but also starts actually copying Graf).
CCM Tacks’ SB+4.0 is actually stiffer than Cobra or Easton’s CXN, but they are noticeably heavier. When it comes to footwear, I do not personally believe in shaving every milligram – if the milligram is giving me enough return on the investment. But that weight difference seemed a bit much. I haven’t skated in them, so I’ll reserve judgement.

Just something to think about.

So, what I do wear?

Let me first tell you who I am. I grew up a skier. I strapped on my first hockey skates at the age 27 and joined the first organized team at 30. I never took power skating, so it really shows in my skating. I kick my feet to the side like a skier, and my body tips forward when I’m not paying attention. I twist my legs from the knees and skate from my quads instead of using the glute medius, maximus, and quads.

But edges and I are great friends. I used little tiny plastic skis as my transportation in the winter as a kid. I did some jumps and trick-skiing on a casual, recreational basis. If I cheated on my edges, I paid consequences. So, today on skates, I can easily pick up trick skating skills by watching them on YouTube. When I skate, primarily my feet ride the sole of the boot to control the edges. I don’t force the skate using the boot.

My feet have an odd diamond shape to them and are impossible to fit.

So this makes me not average on various ways. Just wanted to put that out there.

I currently wear Graf G9035 with 75 flex (senior flex). I love them. The boots have panels tthat slide on top of each other rather than bend. The boot gives back what you put into it. So there  is much less  fatigue in the material and no “crushed foot” when the boot of other brands flex. The first few games I kept over-skating the puck because I’d get there in much fewer strides than it used to take.  They are fast and agile. Quick to turn – no delays. The toe cap is too deep and too wide, which makes me want to get Mako 2’s now and again. If it weren’t for the game-breaker flaw in Mako II, I’d have already bought them. But I’m very very happy with everything else. The boot comes in 5 flexes – 2 junior and 3 senior. I’m probably in between, but I’m happy with the most flexible senior (I’m 5’2″ at 128 lbs).

[This post is not completed. Please come back tomorrow]

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