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Skates are the number one most important piece of equipment that a hockey player has. Without them we aren't playing ice hockey. Without proper support, we aren't playing ice hockey very well. Without proper fit we aren't playing ice hockey very comfortably and we will likely need the rest of the required equipment just so that we don't hurt ourselves.
It can take 15 minutes or several hours to properly fit a skate, so don't go to the Hockey Shop to buy skates unless you have some time to do it right. Skates also don't come sharpened so don't expect to walk out of the store with a properly fit and sharpened pair of skates without spending some time.
Experienced skate fitters will make your season so much more enjoyable.
To fit skates to a player that is still growing, allow one finger's space behind the player's heel when the toe is touching the end of the skates and the player stands flat footed. To check width, when the skate is laced, the distance between the bottom eyelets should be consistent up the skate. Skates that are too large will break down quickly and will not provide the proper support to the foot and ankle. One pair of socks should be worn and they should be pulled up snug so that wrinkles are eliminated once the skate is put on.
A great video for finding your hockey skate size and fit at home (to order skates online): How to Find your Hockey Skate Size & Fit at Home
When lacing skates, they need to be just tight enough that the player's foot will not move around. A big misconception is that wrapping the laces around the ankle gives more support. If the laces are too long then cut them or find shorter laces. Lace the lower portion of the skate snug, the middle ankle a little tighter and the top snug. Lacing should not be so tight that the player's feet hurt, lose circulation, go numb or get cold very quickly. The player must be able to flex the ankle and when standing should be able to push the knees forward past the toes without discomfort.
A skate blade works like a ski. Well is doesn't flex like a ski to allow turns but there are two edges on the blade that cut into the ice. Unlike a ski, a skate blade has a hollow or groove down the middle of the blade. The radius of the hollow will vary depending on the player's weight, ability and preference. A smaller radius hollow will grip the ice better, but will not glide as well. A larger radius (flatter blade) will have more edge strength and will last longer against nicks. The radius setting can also vary from rink to rink, some arenas keep the ice harder than others. Players can experiment with different radii to find the one that suits them the best. Most players will get a 1/2" hollow.
Great (but a bit lengthy) video that goes into great detail of skate sharpening (the key chart is at 5:05) - Skate Sharpening 101
Another radius chart for reference:
The rocker of the blade is actually the shape of the blade when viewed from the side. The rocker will change with subsequent sharpenings. This rocker is measured in feet, anywhere from 6 to 11 feet in radius. Shorter blades will generally have a smaller radius. The center of this radius is just behind the mechanical center of the blade. The radius, length and center can be changed to change the characteristics of the skate. With careful analysis of skating mechanics, changing the rocker can greatly improve a player's skating. Reducing the radius will typically increase manueverability, but can reduce some stability and will reduce glide.
Breaking Them In
Skates are the most important article of gear a player has. If they don't fit then replace them. There's nothing more harmful to a players skating progress than skates that don't fit properly or comfortably.
Very few skates are comfy right out of the box, they need to break-in to the players foot. Many new skates offer heat molding technology that significantly reduces the break-in. If your player isn't fortunate enough to have those then a proper break-in will ensure many hours of enjoyable ice time. New skates usually cause some blistering, and some foot discomfort, but if it lasts more than a few ice sessions, then you need to re-evaluate the fit of the skate.
There are tons of "Short Cuts" that can reduce the break-in period. Some of them include a near scalding hot tub of water, baseball glove softeners, home ovens and even hair dryers. None are factory recommended and all will void any manufacturers material defect warranty.
The best way to break them in is to simply wear them. Be sure to wear your skate guards as well. Wear them watching TV, doing homework or just kicking back with the family. It is usually a really good idea to wear the skates around the house and get them most of the way broke in before skating on them. That way, if they truly aren't a good fit then the retailer won't have much problem with exchanging them or taking them back. If your retailer won't take them back, you've skated in them, or you really like them because they are cool, then you can have them fit for you. Many rinks offer skate fitting services like boot stretching, custom insoles, foam inserts and boot baking (let the pros do this in specially designed ovens), they'll usually guarantee their work.
Getting hand-me down skates is very often less painful than getting new skates, so don't balk at your older brother's old skates, he's already gone through the pain for you. However, another player's skating style and habits are also molded into the skate along with the shape of their foot and may not give the proper support when and where it is needed. If you aren't saving a significant amount of money with the used skate, then it likely isn't worth it at all. When in doubt be sure to ask someone to evaluate the fit and the player's skating mechanics.
Here's a very important subject. Blades should be kept sharp for proper skating, dull or nicked skates can cause injuries because of unexpected falls and collisions. Your player shouldn't be surprised by anything on the ice... we really need to build confidence on skates and any surprises will set us back a great deal. Young players tend to be rather abusive and negligent with their skates so you'll need to check their condition everytime you take them off. Many people recommend that skates be sharpened every 10-15 hours of skating time. That depends on a lot of things such as how far they walked in the paved parking lot before practice or how many times they kicked the steel supports holding the dasher boards together. It also depends on the quality of ice, something that we don't have much control over. Since Los Alamos has an outdoor rink the ice is typically very dirty compared to indoor rinks. Dirty ice will dull skate blades very quickly. If you run your finger nail across the blade your should be able to shave up a little of your nail, if not then they will likely need sharpening. Don't run your fingers along the blade, as a sharp blade can cut quite easily, instead run your thumb and index finger along each side of the blade to feel for nicks.
Skate Guards are just a great idea. Most kids hate them because they forget to take them off before stepping onto the ice, but they'll learn after a few spills to remember them. These guards are used for protecting the blades while walking and not for storage.
Not all skate blades are made of stainless steel. Infact most youth skate blades are made of carbon steel. That requires you to dry them thoroughly before putting them in the hockey bag. A wash cloth, hand towel or a chamois are all excellent and necessary accesories to your hockey bag. Terry cloth skate blade booties are great for storing the skates in. Be aware that even though you dry off the water and slush after a practice or game, the blades are still cold and water will continue to condense on the blades until they are warmed up. It's not a good idea to trap in the condensation.