A select handful of NHL players are about to begin using heated skate blades produced by a Verdun, Que., company to enhance performance.
Thermablades use a rechargeable battery and a microprocessor within each skate blade to maintain a temperature of 5 C. The warm blade increases the thickness of the water layer between the blade and the ice surface, and the company says its tests have shown this reduces gliding friction and starting resistance for skaters.
"The NHL is very interested in confirming the data provided by Therma Blade Inc. to establish the safety and reliability of the blade under NHL game conditions and we have agreed to allow a small group of players to test these blades in practices over the next few weeks," says Kris King, the NHL's senior manager of hockey operations.
Six to 10 players will try them first. If there are no glitches, the blades then would begin appearing in NHL games.
King says once he receives from the company a list of players who want to participate, he and Stu Grimson of the NHL Players' Association will review it and decide who'll be asked to wear the blades.
Wayne Gretzky was so impressed with Thermablades when he tried them more than three years ago that he invested in the company.
"I should still be playing," a smiling Gretzky said while skating on the blades for video shown during the product launch at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Tuesday.
The head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes says he wishes his players could get them first because Thermablades will "revolutionize the game of hockey."
The blades will be available in specialty stores in Canada at $399.99 retail. Buyers will have to get the blades installed on their skate boots and only adult sizes will be available at the start.
"We are at the crossroads of hockey history," stated Therma Blade Inc. president Patrick Francey.
Inventor Tory Weber, the company's founder, brought his prototype model along with him and described how he, quite accidentally, came up with the original idea in 1985. At the time, he was a student who also worked in a Calgary lumberyard.
"I had just finished taking a class in thermodynamics," he explained. "It was a cold February evening and I had my running shoes sitting on the heat register next to the front door.
"I slid my running shoes on, opened the door up, and there was frost on the stairs. When my hot running shoes hit that icy step, I went flying backwards and fell on my can.
"Over the next couple of days as I was nursing myself back to health I thought, 'I wonder what would happen if we did the same thing to a skate blade? If we heated a skate blade, would we get that same reduction in friction?'
"Sure enough, here we are."
The prototype - an extension cord plugged into a home-made device on a blade - was given to the Hockey Hall of Fame during the news conference.
"Back then, the technology was too big to encompass it in a skate blade," Weber explained.
Time marched on and technological advances led to the current product.
"We were patient and stayed with it," Weber added.
The NHLPA welcomes trials for the heated blades.
"There is a lot of interest among players throughout the NHL right now to see how Thermablade performs under game conditions," says Grimson, the union's associate counsel.
The charged battery in each blade will last for about two games. Fingers placed on sensors on either side of the rear of the plastic blade holder for three seconds activates the battery to warm the blade. The system automatically turns off when a player is idle on the bench, and the energy of returning to the ice reactivates the system. The system is turned off by repeating the process used to turn it on.
Weber used an analogy to explain just what Thermablades do.
"Put an ice cube in your hand and the ice cube slides around in the palm of your hand and that's because the heat from your hand melts the ice cube," he said. "The layer of water between your hand and the ice cube allows the ice cube to slide around.
"It's the same principle with the skate blade. The heated blade creates a thin film of water between the ice and the blade and acts as a lubricant."
Weber said he was never much of a hockey player.
"I just loved the game, but I was a run-of-the-mill player," he said.