Friday, June 26, 2009

Blackstone unveils a major innovation in skate technology

This is not a paid endoresement. I am in no way affiliated with Blackstone, nor did I derive any personal profit from this article.

Last month, HCTB profiled the amazing breakthroughs in stick-shaft technology going on at Easton. Small tweaks in the composition of Easton shafts allowed Zdeno Chara to break the NHL slapshot record at this year's All Star Game.

Now, we may be witnessing a similar breakthrough in skate technology. Blackstone Sports recently unveiled the Flat Bottom V (FBV), an innovation which promises to change the skating capabilities of players at all levels of hockey.

The FBV is a departure from traditional sharpening methods which forced skaters to choose between varying degrees of speed and agility. In layman's terms, the blade of an ice skate is actually two edges separated by a crescent-shaped hollow. A generic skate-sharpener grinds this hollow in order to either increase speed (shallow) or control (deep).

Using FBV blades, a skater can have the best of both worlds -- smooth acceleration as well as improved maneuverability in the corners. The concept is simple. Instead of grinding the blade into a hollow, the FBV leaves a flat surface with a sharp "tooth" at either side. Instead of digging deep into the ice, the skater stands flat on the surface, maximizing the energy used in each stride.

HCTB recently spoke with Steve Wilson, co-founder and VP of Blackstone, a family-owned company based in Ontario which is applying for a patent on the FBV dressing system.

How did you get involved in developing skate technology?

I actually got my start in a hardware store at age 12, sharpening skates for my dad. He ended up going to work for a competitor, and being older and wiser I ended up following him there... before long we had branched out. We started Blackstone 11 years ago.

And what led to the development of the FBV?

In developing a sharpening machine, we had always developed for the operator in the past -- we made machines that were easier to use but did basically the same things as before.

The FBV led us into a whole other area -- we could put a shape on that wheel that would give the skater a performance enhancement. It took 2 1/2 years to get it right, but now we have a product that can actually affect your performance on the ice.

What makes the FBV different from a traditionally-sharpened skate?

The FBV sharpens the blade flat, leaving two fangs. Instead of digging down into the ice, the skater is actually flat on the ice. That allows him to have better forward movement while still getting the same bite in the corners.

We can control the angle of the fangs to control how much they go into the ice, how much flat is on the ice, a lot more variables. It can only happen because of the changes in the dressing system. We've never had the technology to change the way a blade is sharpened before, and now we do.

So this reduces the friction between the skate and the ice?

You could say that. It's a matter of how far the skate edge sinks into the ice.
When I was learning how to ski, I had very long skis that lay flat on the surface of the snow. Since then, the parabolic ski changed the industry by changing the way the skiier comes down the slope -- he sits on the edges. We've done the same thing with skates.

Does it feel different to skate on FBV blades, as opposed to traditional ones?

Players get on it and they instantly say "wow". It's very easy to use and you can feel a difference almost immmediately. And it takes only about 10 minutes to adjust.

If this allows players to go faster with less effort, won't it also be a boost to their endurance?

Definitely. With the FBV blades, when they go into the corners, they maintain their speed going through. If you can get more glide and less pushing, you end up with more energy.

The pro players come off the ice and they say "My legs aren't burning". The beer leaguers, guys like you and me, they say "I can have more beer!"

Can this be used for goaltenders' skates as well?

We're working with goalie skates now. Eddie Belfour's actually working on them with us. The goalie blade's thicker and reacts differently. A lot of goalies are switching to a deep hollow in order to get that sharp lateral movement. With FBV they get the bite without sinking into the ice.

Is there a way to put a precise measurement on the advantage that it gives to a skater?

University of Ottawa is doing a large study of this. Their first phase was to qualify it -- they took a look and decided that, yes, there is something to this. That's what justified the study.

Then there's the second phase, to quantify the results. They had 6 pro players come out on the ice. They all had their original [blade] cut that they usually skated on, as well as 4 others to rank by comfort. They had to skate a timed lap for each hollow, and rank them in terms of how comfortable they were throughout the process.

When they were finished, all 6 said they were most comfortable with their original hollow. That's about what we expected. But the #2 ranking for every single one of them was also the blade with the fastest skating time -- it was FBV in all cases.

So, how did it test with pro players?

Cory Stillman [Florida Panthers] was the first to test the prototype. He said, "I'll tell you in 3 strides if I like it".

He took 3 strides, then came back and asked "What is this?". He told the equipment manager to "do whatever you have to do" to keep the machine. Now, I had to tell him I was under strict instructions to bring it back home with me when I left. I couldn't leave without it.

At the end of the day, I ended up leaving it there. Cory insisted.

Who's using this right now?

Bear in mind that we approached the Panthers about it mid-season. The fact that they wanted to switch in the middle of the season blew us away. We're also seeing it used by the Blues, the Predators, the Sharks. The LA Kings equipment manager flew all the way to Canada to find out about it. We can't make machines fast enough.

Also, Boston University has a lot of guys on the FBV. They used them while they won the Beanpot Tournament.

Nick Boynton told us, "Thanks for adding three years to my career".

Are any of the Bruins in on this?

Right now there are no Bruins using it. Of course this only came out in November, and they were the number-one team in the East. None of the players wanted to change anything -- they do all that stuff in the middle of the season.

How is the market reacting to this so far?

It's going very well in North America, and we're heading into Europe now. We're in Switzerland, Sweden, France and the Ukraine. The direction is now to get into figure skate sharpening -- we don't have to get into the details, but the faster they can go the higher they can jump. So we're looking at that as well.

It sounds like this has the potential to become ubiquitous. It's affordable and doesn't seem to have a downside... is this going to be the industry standard in a few years?

It's absolutely possible. You can have a $300 stick and $800 skates, but unless the skates are sharpened right you can't play the game.

For more information on FBV, visit the Blackstone website.

For reviews by knowledgable customers, visit the FBV thread at Modsquad Hockey.

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