The History of Hockey Skates, Part II: The Rise of Hockey-Specific Skates

As we discussed in The History of Hockey Skates, Part I, the 1800s saw a boom in ice skating as a form of recreation, which drove advances in skate technology. The rise of ice hockey as a sport kick-started a period of innovation that began with the very first skate designed specifically for hockey: the Starr Hockey Skate, which was introduced in 1866. Starr’s hockey skate featured a wider blade, which was rocker-shaped rather than straight, and rounded at the front and back. This allowed for the tighter turns and sudden stops and starts that are hallmarks of ice hockey. Around 1900, Starr introduced the first “tube skate,” in which the blade was held by a tubular carrier, which then attached to the boot. The Starr Hockey Skate remained popular among hockey players well into the 1920s.

Proliferation of Skate Makers

The first two decades of the 20th century saw the launch of many more hockey skate manufacturers. In 1899, Toronto’s CCM—Canadian Cycle & Motor Company—began producing bicycles and automobiles. Looking for new businesses, they launched a line of ice skates in 1905. The CCM Automobile line of ice skates got its name because the blades were made from metal left over from the manufacturing of Russell motor cars.

That same year, a Canadian shoemaker named George Tackaberry built a pair of ice skates for his neighbor, a hockey defenseman named Joe Hall, who had complained that he couldn’t find skates that could last a whole season. Applying his boot-making skills, Tackaberry used kangaroo leather to build a boot with a reinforced heel and toe, as well as a thicker tongue. He also lowered the top of the boot two inches to improve mobility. Once other players saw Hall’s new skates, Tackaberry was in demand, and he was soon selling skates as fast as he could make them.

CCM dominated the ice hockey market until the late 1920s, when the Bauer family—owners of the Western Shoe Company in Kitchener, Ontario—began producing the first skates in which the blade was permanently attached to the boot. The company’s signature model, the Bauer Supreme, came on the market in 1933. It was immediately popular, and Bauer became the major competitor of CCM. In response, CMM purchased the Tackaberry brand in 1937 and introduced the legendary CCM Tacks line of hockey skates. Both the Bauer Supreme and CCM Tacks are still made today, although in much-improved and updated versions.

Eventually, skates from European makers such as the Swiss company Graf—which began producing hockey skates in 1937—became available in North America. These imports were among the reasons that Starr went out of business in 1938, unable to compete in a difficult market during tough economic times.

Popularity Fuels Skate-Making Innovation

Very little changed over the next few decades, with Bauer and CCM dominating the market, although other companies sprang up and disappeared. Hockey skates continued to be made with leather boots and tubular blades exclusively. The rise in popularity of hockey in the USA from the late 1960s through the 1970s—as the NHL went from the “original six” teams in 1967 to 21 teams in 1980—spurred an expansion of the market and a series of innovations in hockey skate technology.

Molded-Plastic Skate Boots

The 1970s saw the introduction of molded-plastic skate boots, based on ski boot designs. Lange first introduced these models, featuring a hinged plastic boot and a foam liner, and they were endorsed by NHL players, including Phil Esposito. The skates forced the wearer to lean forward slightly, which helped them maintain a good hockey stance. But the plastic boots were quite heavy, and some players didn’t like how they looked. The molded-plastic boot concept was taken up in the 1980s by companies such as Micron and Bauer, whose Turbo model was very popular.

Tuuk Blade Holders

Bauer’s revolutionary plastic Tuuk 2000 blade holders made history in 1976. They replaced the tubular blades in use since the turn of the century, making skates lighter and allowing easier changing of the blades. Within a few years, most other manufacturers had gone to plastic holders as well, although some players still preferred their tubes. Bauer surged in popularity, while CCM struggled, eventually going bankrupt in 1983.

Hockey Skate Brand Consolidation

But this was not the end of the CCM brand, and the next two decades saw a consolidation of brands—as smaller companies changed hands and were absorbed by larger brands—and the brief entry of sports giants, including Nike and Reebok, into the skate manufacturing landscape. Nike purchased Bauer in 1995, then sold it in 2005. Bauer’s parent company is now Peak Achievement Athletics, Inc. After its bankruptcy in the early 1980s, CCM went through a series of owners and parent companies before finally being bought by Reebok in 2004. The next year, Reebok was purchased by Adidas, who sold the CCM brand to a private equity firm in 2017. Today CCM and Bauer once again dominate the hockey skate market, as they did through much of the 20th century.

In Part III, we will outline the remarkable achievements in boot and blade technology in the 21st century.