By Matt Carlson Tomorrow’s NHLers won’t resemble Robocops, but they will take off quicker and fly on the ice with lighter, streamlined skates, sticks and protective gear. The future New York Rangers will probably look more the like the Power Rangers, with a dash of Speed Racer. Equipment will help players maneuver more naturally and perform better. And despite the reduction in bulk, gear will be more protective to compensate for faster shots and harder impacts. New materials and technologies handed down from the aerospace industry are already propelling the evolution. They’ll be more prominent as the composites and foams that make a Boeing 787 Dreamliner lighter and fuel-efficient land in the sporting goods industry.
Those new materials will be deceptively rugged. Besides absorbing and channelling collisions and stress, they’ll be tuned to help players better transmit energy to skate and shoot faster. “Advances in raw materials at the high-end to make airplanes will move down the chain,” said Keith Perera, Warrior Hockey’s brand manager. “Aerospace pays top-dollar for them. Even right now, we’re getting access to the best materials we’ve ever seen from a durability and performance standpoint.” Hockey gear-makers aren’t relying just on spin-off technology. They’re immersed in research and development for their sport’s specific needs. Bauer Hockey, which has a new facility in Blainville, Que., has already provided a glimpse of the future with its sleek OD1N gear for players and goalies. It’s not in retail yet, but a handful of NHLers have used OD1N pieces, which include a protective body suit that blends a body-hugging base layer with flexible padding and protection. Skate weight will dip well below the current 700- to 800-gram range for high-end models. Skate boots will rise barely above the ankle for needed protection while providing support for the foot, and maximum knee and ankle flexion for power and agility. “We want the player to have the sensation of not even feeling there’s a blade attached to the bottom of the foot,” said Craig Desjardins, Bauer Hockey’s general manager. “The idea is to have as integrated a feel and fit as possible.” Desjardins predicts that skates, including the blade and holder, will be customized for player strides and styles. What starts with tomorrow’s Patrick Kane or Steven Stamkos will trickle down to ordinary players. Expect greater customization of sticks, too, including funky shaft geometries and new recipes for blending and layering materials. The tapered lower part of the shaft and the hosel – where the shaft meets the blade – will be as thin as the equivalent section of a golf club. That narrow shape permits additional energy loading, meaning the shot velocity from even third-line NHLers will routinely soar above 100 mph. The engineering also means shots will be more accurate, even for kids and beer leaguers. Helmets will offer 360-degree fits that caress players’ heads and absorb impacts from all angles. Transparent shields will completely cover players’ faces, though not conceal them. They’ll actually enhance player vision and never fog or scratch. Hockey gloves are already starting to look like their lacrosse counterparts. But down the line, gloves, pants and underprotective wear will be even more tailored and anatomical while flexing seamlessly with player movements. Despite being thin, the gear will absorb 125 mph shots and cover almost every millimeter of the body. Goalies are a different story. Rules determine the size of leg pads, catch gloves, blockers and other pieces, but everything will be way lighter – 1.5-pound leg pads that can absorb a 130 mph shot. The biomechanics of goalie styles will affect equipment development. At the same time, the evolution of the gear – and making goalies quicker and less constrained – will affect netminders’ styles. “As goalie equipment was mandated to get smaller, it allowed goalies to focus on their techniques,” Desjardins said. “As it gets lighter, it will allow them to move more quickly and with less fatigue. If they’re an inch faster, that’s the width of a puck.” Equipment also will be smart, with sensors providing real-time data to players or coaches on everything from body temperature to hydration levels to shift length. “The player and the equipment will be fully integrated,” Desjardins said. “Sensors will measure performance, too, including player speed and the speed of their shots.” Hockey players will always find ways to push themselves to higher levels. And advances in equipment will help them to do it.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.