Attempts to imitate the glorious gliding of a frozen ice rink have been around a long time.
In June 1844, the Glaciarium opened in London, after a couple of smaller rinks concocted by inventor Henry Kirk convinced investors a bigger venture was commercially viable. It wasn’t, as the public never quite adjusted to the smell of the “ice” — a mixture of salts, sulphate of copper and lard — and the Glaciarium closed within the year.
The first synthetic ice surfaces — formed from a plastic known as polyoxymethylene — arrived in the 1960s. But, with rough, draggy surfaces that prompted skates to be re-sharpened in less time than it takes to play an NHL period, they were slow to catch on.
Things are different now.
There are a variety of products on the market, some claiming a coefficient of friction roughly that of real ice, others claiming no reliable scientific comparison exists. But inarguably, synthetic ice is gaining wider acceptance as a tool for NHL players — as well as amateur skaters of every stripe — to augment their time on frozen pond.
Unlike most rink alternatives, synthetic ice allows the use of a real puck. Thus, many around the NHL have embraced such surfaces as an economical way to extend opportunities to shoot and handle the puck.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs installed a synthetic pad at their training center — a shooting range next to their main rink, displayed as a 60-foot zone from the blue line (pictured above).
Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, who this year became the youngest Lightning player ever to score 100 points in a season, works on his shot on a synthetic pad in his two-car garage — 20 minutes per session, twice a day during the offseason.
Many other current and former NHL players have installed synthetic ice for personal use as well.
Training’s Friendly Faux
Most of us, when we can’t afford or access ice time, have limited training options: a slide board, roller blades, maybe a nice tile floor and portable net. But there’s no real puck, no ice skates, no opportunity to work on many of the skills you’ll need on the ice.
Synthetic ice affords the opportunity to practice shooting, stick-handling and skating on a surface that closely mimics a real rink. Some of the training benefits of synthetic ice include:
- It’s easier than ice. With synthetic ice, there’s no refrigeration and no climate control necessary to maintain a surface that can be installed in virtually any indoor setting from a basement to a garage to a warehouse. And a vacuum is a lot cheaper than a Zamboni.
- It’s harder than ice. You see runners doing sprint training harnessed to parachutes. Baseball players swing weighted bats. Pro hockey players know one of the great benefits to synthetic ice workouts is that the material isn’t quite as smooth as the real thing — it takes more effort to get where you want to go. It’s a subtle boost to your workout that will make you feel that much faster when you hit the ice.
- It’s cheaper than ice. Especially in warm-weather months and climates, real ice is hard to find, and time on it can get expensive. Synthetic ice is one way to clear the cost and availability hurdles, and can even be installed on a smooth outdoor surface.
When it comes to skating surfaces, it might not be ice — but synthetic products are still pretty cool. At least, that’s the take the Florida Panthers came away with when hosting the first hockey clinic in Barbados during the summer of 2017.
On a 60-foot-by-35-foot synthetic surface, locals showed some impressive skills.
“It’s a little bit different skating on,” defenseman Alex Petrovic said. “But some of the kids that come here regularly are actually really good at skating on it.”
Which is really the point, isn’t it? Synthetic ice can help create better skaters — and shooters, and stick-handlers — anywhere by reproducing the playability characteristics of ice at a fraction of the cost.
Author bio: AJ Lee is Marketing Coordinator for Pro Stock Hockey, an online hockey store that offers pro stock hockey equipment. He was born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and has been a huge Blackhawks fan his entire life. AJ picked up his first hockey stick at age 3, and hasn’t put it down yet.