Skate sharpening hasn’t changed much since the first hockey players hit the frozen lakes and rivers of Canada in the 19th century. Running a stone or wheel along the surface of the blade grinds the blade allowing it to bite into the ice.
These days, the process is handled by grinders that carve a hollow into a skate blade – the deeper the groove, the more explosive the acceleration, while a shallow groove improves player speed. Nathan Chan, a trained commercial lawyer, felt there was an opportunity in improving the skate sharpening process for the 21st century. So he launched Skatescribe.
Skatescribe uses high-tech computer-aided machinery capable of milling a skate blade to a sharpness impossible to achieve with a grinding wheel. Instead of rubbing a blade, Skatescribe’s technique essentially carves a new blade out of the old one. Not only does it adapt the hollow of a blade or the groove of the blade, but it can also change the radius and pitch of the blade. Players who have tested the work of Skatescribe have found the result to be a radically better skate.
Skatescribe currently has a location in Scotiabank Pond and a facility in Markham, but Chan has much bigger plans for the company. His roster of executives includes three-time Olympic gold medalist Jennifer Botterill and former NHL star Eric Lindros, and Chan says he already provides blades to some of today’s professional players.
Chan spoke to the Star about the science of honing, competing, and working with former pro players:
You have a background in corporate and commercial law. What made you decide to get into automated skate sharpening?
It all started when my son was six or seven and playing competitive hockey. A friend of his got on the ice and fell right away — his skate blades weren’t sharp. I asked his parents what was going on. They said they just bought the skates and had them sharpened at the store instead of taking them to a skate sharpener to get a custom sharpening.
This started my thought process. If we sharpened the skates in such a way that they always met the specifications of the skater, it would make a great sharpening. It got me thinking about the science behind skate sharpening. Until then, it was considered an art. My goal was to automate the sharpening of skates so that the human element no longer comes into play.
Where did the idea for the automated process you use come from? Was it something you imagined or was it one of your collaborators?
My biggest contribution, at the beginning, was to analyze. I started researching laser vision systems that could take an accurate digital image of the skate blade. Without this image, we’d be guessing how to sharpen or reshape the skate blade. With this digital image, we then instruct the machine – in our case, a CNC (computer numerical control) machine – to sharpen the blade in a certain way.
How much better do blades sharpened with Skatescribe technology perform than a standard hand-sharpened skate?
Oh, it’s day and night. The glide is different because the surface condition is different. The surface roughness is much less than your traditional manual grinding done with stone grinding wheel. It’s very precise.
The edges are different because we mill and machine the skate blades. When you mill and machine – exactly the same technology used for automotive and aerospace parts – you are actually cutting a piece of metal to a very precise tolerance. It just makes for a better product.
Since we know what the blade looks like and can tell the computer and machine what to do, we can cut out crazy shapes that suit a player better. Not only do we cut a great product, but it has the potential to match a person’s skating style or physical attributes.
There are other automated sharpening companies, including Elite Blade Performance Technology. How is Skatescribe different?
These companies still use grinding technology. Each technology distinguishes between honing, which creates that dimple in the skate blade itself, and profiling, which adjusts the shape of a blade where it contacts the ice. They are separate processes. We will profile at first and then we will sharpen them.
Grinding technology provides a much coarser finish. I don’t think the edges are as durable as a machine edge. Existing technology uses jig bars to profile skate blades. The problem is that each skate size requires a different size model bar. All our models are digital. You just changed a number here or there. This is where I think we have a clear advantage. It is the ability to profile on a whim.
Your investor pool includes a few NHL veterans. Eric Lindros is one. How did you convince someone like him to join this company when you have no hockey experience?
Eric is one of the most passionate people I’ve met on this project. We had a mutual friend and I persuaded Eric to try the blades. I believe he fell in love with the feel of the blades, and he just became interested.
What perspective do former players like Jennifer Botterill or Steve Thomas bring to Skatescribe?
They have the ability to understand the hockey side of things and what teams can look for and how they operate. This idea was very useful to Skatescribe. You have to have a great product, but you also have to understand the business side – how the equipment managers run their rooms, and how they evaluate technologies and how they adopt technologies or not.
We talked a lot about hockey. What about other sports like figure skating? Could your technology adapt to it?
Absolutely. Our technology and the way we sharpen skates is 100% transferable to the world of figure skating. It’s a little difficult. Figure skate blades don’t come out of the boot – they’re fixed. We need to find a way to reliably mount a figure skate in our machine. But once that’s done, our technology is absolutely transferable to the world of figure skating.
Do you plan to go full-time to Skatescribe at some point? What will your business look like in the next two years?
Nobody really does what we do. It’s so exciting in that regard. There is no growth plan or roadmap that we can follow other people. We just create our own direction. I love this project with all my heart. It’s so much fun. I would like to change to a full time opportunity, but we will need more people involved. Our growth potential is through the roof.
Our patents have been issued not just in Toronto, not just in the GTA, but across Canada and the United States. And we are waiting for patents to be issued in European hockey countries like Germany and Sweden. We really believe this technology should replace traditional grinding. It’s so fast. It’s so precise. The performance is there, and so the sky is the limit. It’s about identifying the best opportunities, making sure we’re properly funded, and seizing them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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