Since time immemorial, man has tried to reinvent the wheel.
In a manner of speaking, Steve Wilson did just that.
Wilson and his father, Murray, are the co-founders of Black Stone Sports, a small Kingsville, Ont., company that manufacturers skate-sharpening equipment. Last year, they introduced a new sharpening technique, designed to increase speed without sacrificing grip, that is rocking the hockey world.
Known as the Flat Bottom V for the shape of the cut in the skate blade, it is currently the rage from beer leagues to the big leagues. In all, players on 22 of the NHL's 30 teams are using the technique, some of them - from San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton to New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise - among the top players in the game.
"There's never been a change in ice-skate sharpening before, so to be able to bring something new to the market that focuses on the bottom of the blade and how that can enhance your performance has been a really neat thing," says Wilson, who developed the technique over a three-year period, in conjunction with his father and company's engineers.
According to Wilson, there has always been a trade-off in the traditional method of sharpening skates.
"Before, when we had a circle in the blade, you either had a deeper cut or a shallower cut," Wilson said. "It was either more speed or more agility. Now, we have a flat in the blade, so that more of the blade is on the ice. Two small fangs come down to grip the ice - and that new bite angle is what holds you; and gives you the speed and the agility.
"It took us years of banging our heads against the wall to realize this: If we dress the [skate-sharpening]wheel a different way - which means putting a different shape on the wheel - we can sharpen skates differently, too," he said.
"The fun part was when we started bringing it out to the players. As soon as the players started saying, 'This is fantastic,' we realized we might be on to something."
For the Wilsons, the breakthrough came in September of 2008, when Steve Wilson took the prototype down south to test it with the Florida Panthers equipment managers.
Panthers forward Cory Stillman was passing through the dressing room as they were about to go on the ice and volunteered to act as the guinea pig.
"Stillman said to us: 'I can tell you in three strides if it's good or not,'" Wilson recalled. "So he got out on it and took three or four strides and turned to me and said, 'What the heck is this?' I said immediately: 'Hey, it'll take two minutes to sharpen your skates back to where they were. It's something new that we're developing and we don't know much about it.'
"He said: 'No, this is weird, but interesting.'
"Stillman was on a really shallow hollow, so what he gained on the Flat Bottom V was more agility. He went out and started to do these really tight turns, which he hadn't been able to do that for a long time because he was on such a shallow hollow, like Paul Coffey used to skate on," Wilson said. "The neat thing about Flat Bottom V is, when you go into a corner, you maintain your speed. You have that agility to pull you out, but you still maintain your speed."
The Panthers, Sharks and Devils all have multiple players using the Flat Bottom V. And while it is popular with players of all experience ranges, many of the first-time users are older NHL players.
"It's because we're all looking for an edge," said Calgary Flames centre Craig Conroy, 38. "Let's be honest here. If you can get an edge when you're older, you need every little thing you can get."
Conroy tried the Flat Bottom V earlier in the season, and was intrigued by the enhanced speed, but wasn't prepared to make a switch in mid-season.
"The gliding feels better," Conroy said. "It feels a bit different when you're turning. I felt I was a little loose in the turn, but that was just barely trying it for a few days.
"I think it would just be a matter of time to get used to it, but with the condensed schedule, I never really had three or four days to practise with it, so I just thought I better go back to the old one. But it's pretty interesting and it's kind of neat how they do it. I'd definitely try it in the summer."
Wilson said his company was unprepared for how quickly the new technology was embraced. Much of the chatter was spread by word of mouth.
"Really, this came out way before we wanted it to," said Wilson, who, against his father's wishes, left the original prototype with the Panthers when he came home from that Florida junket.
"We had to go into full production and get them going. In the meantime, we had retailers doing testing for us too - and they couldn't sharpen skates fast enough."
Wilson acknowledges that the Flat Bottom V may not be for everyone, but the overall response has been largely positive.
"My feeling is, the more progressive players, the ones that are trying to do everything they can for their games, they are the ones looking at this. They either try it and don't like it, or try it and like it," he said.
"We think the younger crowd, the minor-hockey crowd, the players that eventually will get to the NHL, this will become the standard for them."Report Typo/Error