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nhl weekend

Toronto Maple Leafs (from left) Morgan Rielly, Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf and Mark Fraser skate during a team practice Jan 14, 2013 at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto. NHL teams hit the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the hockey season following a lengthly labour lockout.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

It is a curious and almost unfathomable number.

A new pair of customized, high-end skates every couple of weeks, over an 82-game season, means ordering, breaking in and going through roughly 20 pairs.

All for just one player.

In a league that's built for speed more than ever, there are few things that players are more idiosyncratic about than their skates, with every dressing room offering a different sampling of just how particular the science of the blades can be.

Not only do trainers have to keep them sharpened before every practice and game, but they need a running list on their computer of who likes what done.

Things are even more complicated for skate manufacturers, who redesign the boots, tongues, heels, blades and anything else imaginable to the exact specifications of the athletes.

"They have to keep a file on every player," said long-time Toronto Maple Leafs equipment manager Brian Papineau, who spends a few hours before every game preparing just the skates in the trainers' workroom at the Air Canada Centre.

"There's a lot of specs that some guys have. Some might have a heel spur so they have to cut out the heel in the back to allow for their foot to sit in a pocket. There's different things with tongues and the cut of the boot. There's a lot of things that you can change."

As with any NHL team, the range of how particular Leafs players are about their skates runs from not at all (defenceman Cody Franson has been in the same pair of Bauers since last summer) to extremely so (captain Dion Phaneuf burns through Reebok 11Ks faster than many players can snap a composite stick).

Which helps explain why there are dozens of "game-worn" Phaneuf skates kicking around on Internet auctions, as the discards end up at the team store or in charity sales.

"I go through a pair probably every 10 days to two weeks," said Phaneuf, who can frequently be spotted strolling around the dressing room in shorts and a T-shirt while breaking in new skates. "I switch when they break down a little bit because once they break down, they're just not as stiff. When they lose that stiffness, I find that you don't have the same push. It's all personal preference for guys and what they wear."

"I wear two pairs a year, he wears like 48 pairs a year," teammate Clarke MacArthur joked of Phaneuf, a friend from their minor hockey days together in the Edmonton area. "I have no idea. He obviously likes the feel of a brand new skate. He's got new skates, new sticks all the time. He's a high-maintenance guy."

"I've seen a few guys go through them literally every week," added veteran John-Michael Liles, who wears through roughly six pairs during an 82-game season. "I can't even imagine."

The quirks go beyond simply liking their skates in mint condition.

Leafs rookie Leo Komarov, for example, uses a special piece of steel made in Finland as the blade in his beat-up Graf skates.

Phaneuf has the tongue of his skate made out of a softer foam than normal, one of several customizations he gets in all those pairs every year.

Other players end up with more practical changes like a lift put in one of their skates if they're running into frequent hip or back injuries.

"Over time, the medical trainers investigate and determine that they have different leg lengths," Papineau explained.

Skate technology and how they're manufactured and cared for has also changed dramatically over the last decade, with Papineau seeing a revolution in his 25 years and more than 2,000 games behind the Leafs' bench.

He points to a new Bauer skate that has a removable blade as the latest game-changing innovation, one that will mean players never miss a shift when their skates get an edge – something that happens once or twice a period.

The most dramatic overall shift, however, has been to skates that are lighter than ever, with high-tech materials making up the boots and helping boost the cost of the high-end models close to $1,000.

"They've taken a lot of the weight out with different materials, but ones that can still create that stiffness the players want," Papineau said. "They're always trying to find a boot that's light but that also offers the best protection, which is tricky, with all the blocked shots.

"You'd be surprised what they're actually made of. A lot of these are almost like a foam with a hard coating on the outside. This skate is almost the material like you'd find in a bike helmet, and they kind of squish it together and compress it."

But even with all the advances, some players simply stick with what they know, wearing the same brand as they did long before making the NHL and never thinking much of it.

"I've worn Bauers since I was a kid," Franson said. "They've always fit my foot well. I like keeping my gear as long as I can. New stuff just feels so different to me."

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