Attempts to imitate the glorious gliding of a frozen ice rink have been around for 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, sulfate of copper, and lard — and the Glaciarium closed within the year. Luckily, artificial ice has come a long way since those early beginnings, and you no longer need to wear a mask over your nose to enjoy a skate.
The first true synthetic ice surfaces — formed from a plastic known as polyoxymethylene — arrived in the 1960s. But, with rough, draggy surfaces that required skates to be re-sharpened in less time than it takes to play an NHL period, they were slow to catch on.
You also couldn’t skate across the plastic polymer without applying silicone on top. As you might expect, the oily compound on top of the surface was a magnet for dirt and grime.
The origins of modern synthetic ice aren’t pretty, but they paved the way for today’s self-lubricating and non-smelly product that reproduces roughly 90% of natural ice feel.
Things are different now.
There are a variety of products on the market, some claiming a coefficient of friction roughly the same as real ice, while others claim 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 a frozen pond.
Many NHL clubs, as well as semi-pro and amateur leagues, use synthetic ice rinks for practice these days while regulation games are still played on natural ice, that used to be the case for grass football fields as well.
Time was that only natural grass was used in professional games and stadiums, or championships like the Super Bowl. Then, artificial turf got better and better, coming closer to the performance of real grass and outperforming it in others. Now, 32 NFL teams play their games on artificial turf.
NHL hockey may not be far behind as synthetic ice continues to advance in glide, performance, and durability. A top-of-the-line KwikRink Synthetic Ice ® rink installation is much less expensive than installing and maintaining a natural ice rink.
The cooling costs to keep the rink at the proper temperature and humidity are very high for a natural ice installation, leading more clubs to use synthetic ice as much as they can. In the NHL now, synthetic ice is a reality.
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. Garages, basements, driveways, and decks can all become practice rinks to keep specific key skills up to par, and it’s not just for the pros.
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 a portable net. But there’s no real puck, no ice skates, and no opportunity to work on many of the skills you’ll need on the ice.
When you train, you build muscle memory, so you want your muscles to learn the way the skill feels under the conditions you will use it. Practicing shooting in your tennis shoes or even on roller blades isn’t the same as putting on your skates and working with the glide and friction of 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.
You won’t have to worry about rising temperatures, melting ice, or unsafe surfaces when you use synthetic. You also don’t have uneven spots or dips from different temperature levels.
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.”
Pay attention to the kind of synthetic ice you plan to install. There are varying levels of quality, durability, and glide. Thinner panels are less expensive, but wear out much more quickly. Inferior polymers lead to higher friction and resistance and less ice-like feel. Smaller tiles instead of larger panels lead to additional seams that can trap dirt.
KwikRink has helped install synthetic ice rinks for NHL teams and players for years. We’ve also helped private citizens convert a garage into a practice rink and communities that have never had access to ice skating learn the fun and sport.
With synthetic ice from KwikRink, more people around the globe can become skaters. Maybe the next Stanley Cup MVP will be from Barbados, and he learned to skate on synthetic ice.
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.