After Bauer introduced its Supreme hockey skates in 1933, featuring the first permanently attached skate blade, not much changed in hockey skate design for the next four decades or so. Skate boots were generally made of leather or less expensive leather substitutes, with tube-style blades. Short-lived innovations, such as molded-plastic skate boots, made a splash in the 1970s, but the next real game-changer came with the introduction of Bauer’s Tuuk blade holder in 1976. Suddenly, hockey skates could be much lighter and it was easier to change runners. Within a few years, Bauer’s innovation became ubiquitous, and metal blade holders went the way of the dodo.
The 1980s and ’90s saw incremental improvements in blade coatings, boot materials and fit, and strategic placement of padding, but no real great leaps forward. As with many products, the innovations that first appeared in top-of-the-line models eventually filtered down to less expensive skates, which meant that all skates continued to improve.
Beginning in the early 2000s, ice skate manufacturers began to envision themselves as technology companies, which set off an intense period of competitive innovation that’s still going on today. The goal was to maximize the effect of every part of the skate to help players start quicker, go faster, turn better, and be more comfortable. Here are just a few of the myriad innovations and the state of the technology in 2020:
Better, Lighter, Stronger Skate Boots
Manufacturers had been experimenting with composite materials in various parts of the boot for years when, in 2004, Easton came up with the first one-piece carbon-composite boot, on their Synergy 1500C, which promised better transfer of energy from the foot to the blade. Composite materials in the footbed could also be heat-molded to the player’s foot, creating a custom fit.
Taking a page from the design of basketball shoes, Reebok launched the 9K Pump Skates in 2009. After the player put the skates on, they would use the pump to inflate bladders inside the boot, filling up the “negative space,” making for a better fit and improved comfort. The pump idea never quite caught on, but the idea that comfort and fit are vital to performance drives today’s boot designers.
The Jetspeed FT2 boasts Liteframe 360 Evo technology, the latest one-piece frame. Because there is no outsole, stitching, or glue where the foot transfers energy to the skate, the design offers more explosive power and speed with every stride.
On the Supreme 2S Pro, high-tech Aero Foam Pro padding and the Recoil Pro tongue solve the problem that the short-lived pump system was designed for. The memory foam creates a personalized fit and excellent comfort, while the tongue maintains excellent flexibility.
These pro models also include features that designers of just two decades ago could barely dream of—including moisture-wicking materials that keep the foot dry and various foam products that offer both comfort and extra impact resistance for foot protection. Every couple of years, the technology allows designers to make the boot a little lighter, a little more comfortable, and a little more performance-enhancing.
Active Skate Blades
After the introduction of the Tuuk blade holder in the ’70s, plastic or graphite replaced metal holders on almost all hockey skates pretty quickly. This led to a number of innovations in blade runners, including different metal formulations for longer lasting sharpness and reduced weight, and carbon coatings for better gliding and corrosion resistance. In recent years, the focus has been on creating a blade or holder-and-blade combination that can actively help the skater go quicker and faster.
In the early 2000s, a company called Thermablade produced a battery-powered holder that heated the blade just enough to slightly melt the ice, which would supposedly boost acceleration and gliding ability. Although Thermablades were touted as a great innovation by Wayne Gretzky himself, the cost—$400 just for the blades and chassis—and the increased weight sank the venture after just a few years.
In 2013, an engineering student in Canada came up with the idea of creating a spring-loaded blade, and Bladetech was born. Initially, there were actual springs under the ball of the foot and the heel, but the company eventually moved to using flexible steel runners to create the spring action at a reduced weight. With Flex-Force technology, the blade flexes up into the holder as it presses into the ice, and then releases that energy at the end of the stride. According to the manufacturer, this results in an increase in speed and acceleration, plus it reduces wear and tear on the player’s joints and muscles.
The bootmakers who originally produced Tackaberry and Bauer Supreme skates almost a century ago would be astounded by how far technology and design have taken their initial ideas. Even the more affordable hockey skates on the market—including the CCM Ribcor 74K and the Bauer Supreme S25—offer features that would impress NHL players of just a generation ago.
While we await the next revolutionary developments in technology, ice skate designers will continue to add new features, discover new materials, and attempt to help players squeeze every bit of energy out of every stride.