Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hockey Skates Demystified

A previously published version of this article has had over a quarter million page views, enjoy.

Arguably, skates are the most important part of any hockey player’s gear. They are also the most mystifying piece of equipment to buy. Skates have to fit properly and be of the appropriate level or the experience will simply be miserable.

In this article I will review the following, 
  1. How to pick a skate that fits properly 
  2. Some things you should know about used skates
  3. Modern techniques to make skates more comfortable 
  4. What sort of feet different brands of skates fit best 
  5. How to select the proper level of boot stiffness 
  6. When and how to get skates sharpened 
Selecting Skates That Fit Properly
One of the hardest things to understand for players who are new to the game of hockey is the way that their skates should fit. Unlike shoes, skates should offer a snug fit, tight but not painfully so. The worst thing that a skater can do is purchase skates that are too big. If they are too big, they will only get worse as they stretch. Skates that are a little small 
can be easily fixed. Most hockey shops employ a couple of fitting techniques to enlarge skates. These include: punching – a quick process in which a small and very specific portion of the boot is stretched out; and power-stretching – an overnight process where the boots can be lengthened sometimes up to a size or more and widened by at least a full width.

Skates that are too big are almost impossible to fix. Most people think a second pair of socks will help here. Contrary to what our mothers taught all of us, wearing an extra pair of socks is one of the worst things you can do in a pair of skates. The more room you have for your foot to move about, the more likely you are to develop blisters and even painful, semi-permanent bone spurs on your feet. Serious figure skaters never wear socks. Most wear thin tights no thicker than heavy panty hose would be. Many hockey players and figure skaters forego socks altogether in favor of bare feet. While this ensures a better feel for the ice, it is very hard on your skates. They will eventually smell like rotten, stinky feet and actually wear out faster as they soak up all the perspiration from your feet. I prefer a very thin pair of socks, think dress sock thin.

So the question is how do you determine proper skate size? The first and most important rule in buying skates is to
never buy a pair that you cannot try on first. As internet shoppers this probably isn’t what you hoped to hear. Nonetheless, it is possible to buy skates online, but I’d never recommend doing so without finding them in a shop to try them on first. That said, your local shop should be willing to order a pair at no obligation to you if they don’t have what you’re looking for in stock.

Having fitted hundreds of people for skates, I can tell you that it is annoying to have people come in and take up a long period of your time only to tell you they are going to buy the skates on the internet. If you do try skates on at a local shop, you might ask what services they include in the price. I still spend on average at least half an hour with each skate customer. Rocket Skate offers the first 3 free sharpenings, a heat fit and lifetime comfort adjustments (free boot punching). Even when our prices are slightly above the average internet price on skates, by the time you do the math you’re getting a much 
better at Rocket Skate. We also guaranteed the fit of our skates. Most importantly, if there are issues with your skates we will fix them quickly rather than forcing you to send them back and wait several weeks while it is sorted out.

Often times when you factor in free sharpenings and a heat mold of the boot, the price with shipping on the internet isn’t very different. I charge $12 to sharpen a brand new pair of skates and $15 for a heat fit in my shop, but throw these in for free if you buy the skates for me. Try to factor in the amount of time and service you’re getting before saving a few dollars. If these benefits don’t appeal to you, remember that your local retail shop is NOT a showroom for Hockey Monkey or Hockey Giant.

All of that said, there are sometimes killer deals on the net, and not all players will benefit from all of the services offered by local retail shops. Obviously if you find a pair of $450 skates on clearance for $199, you will be hard pressed to beat that deal anywhere. However, it never hurts to ask your local shop if they can meet the price. If someone find a deal that’s that good, I’m never opposed to them taking it. In fact, if you find a deal that good, I’m going to tell you it’s a good deal and you that you should take it.

So back to trying on skates, it isn’t like trying on shoes. If you put on a pair of skates and they feel as comfortable as slippers, I can almost guarantee that you will have serious issues skating in them. It is important that you can feel the end of the skates with your toes. A perfect fitting on a hockey skate is best described as this:

When sitting with the boots first on and not laced, they might feel uncomfortably short. Don’t panic. First you should kick back into the boot. Kick the heel of the skate on the floor a couple of times to make sure your heel is settled back. Next lace the skates up and make sure they are tight. The forefoot area should be snug, but not crushing. As you get to where the eyelets start to turn towards the vertical portion of the boot, tighten these up a little tighter. This will pull your heel back into the proper position. When laced and still sitting, you might still feel like the skates are too short. Don’t make your judgment yet. With both skates on and laced tight, stand up. You should notice a little less pressure on your toes at this point. Pay close attention though as they should still touch the end of the skate. Now the important part, bend your knees so they are over your toes. You should feel your toes pull off the toecap or still be just lightly brushing against them. This is the perfect length of boot for you.

Keep in mind two things if this type of fit seems a little too short. First the heel pockets of the boots will compress as they break in and actually give you a little more room for length. Second, if by some chance the boots are uncomfortably short after breaking them in, you can still have them stretched for length. Had you erred on the side of buying a pair that was too long, you would have to replace your skates.

If you are unsure of the length even after trying skates on, a good way to double check is by simply taking out the insoles of the skate and standing on them. An adult’s toes should come right to the end of the insole. A child who needs room for growth should never have more than about a finger’s width of toe space. This will get them through about a year without having skates so loose that they cannot skate without their ankles bent. I highly recommend this method of sizing skates for younger children who often do not express how the skates fit in any certain terms.

Now the other factors of width and foot shape are a little more abstract. If you have a full service hockey shop, (by this I mean a place where they fit you instead of handing you a box) competent sales people will be able to recommend skates based on the width of your foot and height of your instep.

The skate fitter should know what questions to ask you to determine the proper fit. If they don’t, this will be up to you as the purchaser to determine this part of the fit. Again, make sure that your skates are snug, but not uncomfortable. Pay attention to the fit of your heel, does it move? Try on another pair. Do the laces feel like they are digging in to the top of your feet? Try another pair. Does the forefoot feel loose? Try another pair. Eventually one will likely feel significantly better than the others did.
Used Skates 
I am generally not a fan of putting my feet into something that other people have worn and sweated in profusely. No amount of Lysol can make a pair of hockey skates seem clean enough for my comfort. Nonetheless, there is a pretty large market for used skates. Even if you aren’t worried about some exotic, new foot fungus that you might develop, there are a lot of other reasons to buy a new pair of skates rather than used. If you are thinking about buying used skates there are some factors to consider. 

The biggest reason to buy a new pair of skates is simple. Unless a used pair has only been used for a few hours, it is already broken into to someone else’s feet. Everyone has different shaped feet. In fact, you might be surprised how unique feet can be. The problem with a pair of skates that someone else broke in is that they will never fit you as well as they should. Think about rental skates, they never fit. The simple fact is, dozens of different shaped feet have broken them down. While a pair of used skates will not be quite as bad, they will likely have a number of spots that fit loosely and shouldn’t. 

The steel is another factor. How many sharpenings will you get out of the runners on a used pair of skates before you have to replace the steel? On most brands, new steel will cost you in the ballpark of $50. There are a number of skates out there where it will cost closer to $100. Often times used skates are being sold 
because they need new steel.

The boot might be broken down. Stiffness is a major factor in hockey skates. Without the appropriate level of stiffness, a boot cannot and will not perform properly. Many used skates on the used market have outlived their usefulness and become soft. If the support is gone, the boot is worthless.

All this said, I have seen some very good deals on used skates. Some shops will exchange a boot that a skater wasn’t satisfied with and then sell the slightly used skates at cost. If you can get a pair that has only a couple of hours on it for half the price of new, it is certainly a good deal. Used kids skates can also be worthwhile. With growing feet, kids are less likely to be affected by the less perfect fit of a broken in skate. Do pay close attention to the other factors, such as the stiffness of the boot and the amount of steel left on the blades though.

How Major Brands Fit 

Bauer has three lines:
The Supreme line skates fit average to slightly wide feet. They are wider in the mid-foot than CCM, but similar in the forefoot. Instep height is low to average. The Vapor line runs a little narrower, fitting narrow and average feet best. Instep height on the Vapors is average.The Nexus (formerly Flexlite) is still the widest boot on the market. The Nexus will fit an average instep height, but even in the D width has been a favorite for skaters with Fred Flilntstone feet.
Graf skates come in a number of different styles which will accommodate numerous foot shapes. The Graf number system designates the stiffness and shape of the skate boot. The first digit on the skate is the boot level. A G or 7 describe an elite level skate. A 6 would be advanced, 5 intermediate, etc. 

The second part of the model number designates the last, or shape, of the foot the boot fits. The 3 is the narrowest skate while the 5 is the same last but 2 millimeters wider. The 35 has the wider forefoot of the 5 and the narrower heel of the 3. The 9 is a high volume skate for players with thick, wide feet. Lastly, the 7 is a special skate originally designed for players wearing an ankle brace. The ankle and foot of the skate are almost independent allowing for the highest level of forward and lateral flex on the market today.

Thus a Graf 709 is an elite level skate for wide, thick feet. A 503 is an intermediate skate for people with narrow to average width feet and a G35 is an elite skate for players with a wide forefoot and narrow heel. Further setting Graf apart is the fact that they are one of the only companies offering most of their skates in 3 different widths, so if you find Bauer Vapors too wide, Grafs in a narrow width might be the best bet.

CCM's current U+ and CL line is something of an intermediate width skate which will cover a fair range of foot shapes. It uses a similar last to the Vector line but fits more narrowly than the discontinued Tacks line did.
Easton skates are best for average width feet. The Easton models have a little bit narrower toes than do some wide models of skates. Their skates aren’t great for players with higher insteps. 
Reebok makes some of their models in three widths becoming only the second major skate maker (after Graf) to do so. Reebok skates fit more like the traditional CCM line. (As confusing as this might seem as Reebok owns CCM and seemed to claim the next generation of would-be -Tack as their flagship skates when they bought the company). 
Modern Skate Fitting 
Up until recently there was a common feeling that hockey skates simply weren’t comfortable until you had quite a few hours of break-in time on them. This was more or less the truth of it. However, in recent years there have been a number of developments that have decreased the break in time of skates. 

Heat-fitting is a process in which the skates are actually baked in a special oven (don’t try to bake your skates at home, 
they will melt). By heating approved skate models up to approximately 200 degrees, then lacing them very tightly on the skater’s feet, it actually helps to round out the stiff sides and upper of the boot. The boots conform to the shape of the player’s feet. Heat-fitting shortens the break-in period often times by about half. Heat-fitting will notchange the size of a boot significantly. A heat fit will cost $20 - $30 and takes about half an hour. Obviously the skater will need to be there for the process.

Punching is a term used to describe the process for expanding a localized portion of the boot. This method can help with the fit by eliminating hot spots in a boot. If you have a bone spur or a toe that is a bit too tight, punching your boots can eliminate these problems. Punching is done on a manually operated machine. It basically entails a small ball or finger shaped piece inserted into the boot with a cup on the outside of it. By pulling a lever, the skate tech applies pressure and loosens up the localized area. Due to the nature of the equipment used, not all areas of the boot are addressable with punching. Most notably, areas that are right on the edge of the boot (i.e. the eye stays and the cuff), and the top and ends of the toecap are difficult or impossible to fix. Also, the heel of the boot is a very critical part of the skate and great care has to be taken to not over do punching in this area. Punch jobs usually range from $5 to $10 a session and are done while the player waits. It is very important for the player to be available during punching sessions as they will have to try the skates on and it might take several tries to get the punch just right.

Power-stretching entails heating up the boots as for a heat-fit and putting them on a device similar to a professional shoe stretcher. This process can deliver remarkable results, and is often the best-case scenario for people with different sized feet. Power-stretching can easily increase a quality boot by a full size in length, sometimes more. While power-stretching of a boot can also add a full width or more to a skate, it only adds width to the middle and front portion of the boot. The nature of the equipment does not widen the heel. This process usually cost $20 to $35 and takes about 12 hours.

CCM’s FIT system is very similar to the conventional heat-fit, but uses a somewhat odd-looking device to apply pressure to the outside of the boot during the boot’s cooling period. The player, with skates on, puts their feet into the top of the FIT system (a large fiberglass box). When turned on the FIT system inflates air bladders that press against the boots to help shape them to the player’s feet.

Custom insoles are another option that help solve some problems. These can range from $30 to $100 or more and come in a number of forms. The less expensive option would be a heat-molded insole that some shops offer. The more expensive would be the orthotic inserts that a podiatrist might recommend. These work fairly well to put player’s feet in a proper neutral position, lowering fatigue and actually increasing stride length. Insoles will often help with players who have a hard time keeping their skates perpendicular to the ice 
if their boots fit properly.

There are several models of skates that offer a “soft boot” now. A soft boot, contrary to the name, is a very hard outer boot shell with a soft lining. The advantage to this type of skate is that break in is very short. Rather than the player having to break down thick leather, the softer lining molds to their feet. Nike was the first to create this style of skate and still makes all their models soft boots. CCM Vector and Externo skates have been very popular and are also soft boots. Most recently, Easton introduced the SBX which is a soft boot. All of these are quality skates that are comfortable right out of the box.

Selecting the Level of Boot Stiffness 
There are two tendencies in buying skates that are simply incorrect. One is that the more money spent, the better the skate. While this is true in the purest sense, it might not be the best skate for a given player. The other tendency is much the opposite, in thinking that all skates are more or less the same, so the cheapest one is best. 

Skate price is generally proportionate to the level of stiffness in the boot. Novice skates will generally cost in the ballpark of $150 for a name brand senior size skate. Elite level skates will run $500 or more. Most skate makers use a numbering system to designate their skates by stiffness. The higher the number, the stiffer the skate is. Note that CCM Powerline and Bauer Impact skates are 
hockey style recreational skates. These are more appropriate to learning to skate than actually using to play hockey in.

The three most important factors in determining the proper level of boot to purchase are player weight, ability level and average hours of weekly ice time. Of these three, weight is probably the most important factor. A child who wears size 6 (senior) skates but is just pushing 100 pounds would never be able to flex a pair of top end skates no matter how often they are using them or what ability level they play at. Conversely, a 275-pound man will destroy a pair of low-end skates in under a year skating only once or twice a week.

Buying too much skate will result in a miserable experience in which the skate will take a very long time to break in, or possibly never break in. A reasonable break in time for skates is 2 to 5 hours of ice time. This can be cut in half by heat-fitting and is highly recommended for top tier skates such as Bauer 8090s and CCM Pro Tacks.

Buying skates that not stiff enough will cause premature breakdown. The boots will actually flex in areas that they should not. In a matter of months or even weeks a boot can degrade to the point where the skater is getting little or no support. Explosive skating is all but impossible in a boot that has broken down. Pinching and soreness sometimes occurs as well.

Sharpening of Skates
Skates are 
not sharpened by the manufacturer. This is one downside to internet skate sales. I have literally seen dozens of skates a year that players used, but never sharpened. How anyone even steps on the ice without realizing this is hard for me to understand, yet I had one mother tell me her son skated for several months on a pair that was never sharpened. She came back a week later to tell me how much better he was with an actual edge on his skates. Make sure to get your skates sharpened if you buy them online!

Sharpening is something of a personal feel. While some grinds are more common, there are half a dozen different hollows regularly used by various hockey players. The most commonly requested grinds are 3/8” and 7/16”.

The way a skate is sharpened is a little bit confusing at first. Essentially there are two edges on the steel (figure skaters will claim there are four, but that would be like arguing there are two edges on a knife, the right and left . . . semantics). The sharpener actually hollows out the very center of the skate blade leaving high spots on the two outside edges of the blade. The hollow is the size diameter that the section removed from the blade would be if it were a complete circle. Thus, the smaller this number is, the deeper the hollow in the blade and the more pronounced the edges on the skate are.

Goalies are the most varied in sharpening of their skates. A good starting spot for goalie skates is ¾”. However I have sharpened goal skates from 1” all the way to 7/16”. (3/8” is a practical impossibility on goal skates for technical reasons). If ¾” grind doesn’t suit you after trying it I would make adjustments, 1/8” at a time until you find one you like. (i.e. 5/8” if you want more edge control, 7/8” if they feel too sharp).

Player skates are much more consistent with the vast majority of players in my area using a 7/16” grind. Again this is a good starting spot for a new player. It is very rare that new skaters will have problems with this grind as their only point of reference might be the very dull rental skates they used previously. However, if it feels odd, I would suggest the same process as I did for goalies, except in 1/16” increments. (3/8” if you want them sharper, and ½” if you want a little less bite).

Another thing to consider is that a deeper hollow starts sharper, but it is also the quickest to need re-sharpening. Since there is a thinner piece of material remaining on either edge, deeper hollows are more prone to burrs and wear. The deeper hollows also use more steel during sharpening and will shorten blade life somewhat. If the shop sharpening your skates uses the European method and cross-grinds before sharpening, a 3/8” hollow will yield approximately 60 to 80 sharpenings before you need new steel. If they do not cross grind, expect up to twice that amount.

Sharpening frequency is another personal preference. Much of how often you sharpen your skates will be determined by such factors as things you might step on, accidentally kicking the goal posts and even the quality of ice you are skating on. As a general rule of thumb, you will want to think about sharpening your skates after five hours on the ice. Rarely will you go more than 10 hours before noticing that the edges aren’t what they once were.

Hopefully, this has been helpful in addressing some of the questions about purchasing your next pair of skates. As a former manager for one of the busiest hockey retailers in the United States and someone who loves to play the sport, I want everyone who plays to have the best experience that they possibly can. Skates that don’t work right are probably the most frustrating thing that can happen. Don’t let the wrong pair ruin your experience. 

If you have personalized questions about skates, please drop me an email. Questions in the comment section may not be answered for several months as sometimes I don't get alerts when they are posted and sometimes I do. 

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© 2012 Scott Noble
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