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The most important item in your equipment bag is your skates. Poor quality skates, or ill-fitting skates have a serious impact on your ability to skate well.
SizeCanadian skate sizes run anywhere from one and a half (1.5) to two sizes smaller than US shoe sizes. If you wear a size 8 shoe, your skate size will 6.0 or 6.5, it depends on the manufacturer. If you have small feet (shoe size 7 and below) you can fit into junior skates, which are priced at half what senior skates cost and they have exactly the same build quality and features as the senior skates.
You should go to a hockey store and be prepared to spend up to two hours trying on skates. Wear the socks you intend to wear when skating. Put on both skates, and lace them up properly. Walk around on the skate mats all stores provide. Squat down and determine how the skates feel. Walk around some more. See if you can stand with both skates parallel to one another. If your ankles sag inwards, the skates are too big, and possibly too wide. Try another smaller size. repeat the process until you feel comfortable.
Do not get the skates sharpened until you are certain they fit. You cannot return skates that have been sharpened. When they fit correctly they will initially feel slightly tight. Your toes should be just short of the front of the toe box. This is the proper length.
BakingAll modern skates are made from synthetic materials which can be placed in a special oven at the store which softens the material. When they have cooled enough lace them up the same way you will when you skate. The laces toward the toe should be snug but not too tight as this will cut off circulation to your toes and you'll have cold toes whenever you skate. As you progress upward towards the ankles, the laces should be progressively tighter. The third eyelet from the top should be the tightest, very tight, since this area is what keeps your foot firmly planted against the back of the boot. Ignore the advice that says don't tighten the laces too tightly or you'll pull out an eyelet. That may have been true with earlier synthetic skates, but it no longer applies. The skates must be tight enough so the softened material will conform to the shape of your foot.
PunchingIf one area of your skates rubs or presses excessively, you can have that area "punched". This is the term used to describe the process where the skate is heated, and special tools are inserted inside the skate to expand (punch) that area. You may find that the boot places excessive pressure on your ankle bones, or the toe box presses on the side of your toes. This can be addressed rather easily through punching.
SharpeningThe most important concept you need to understand is that of the skate hollow radius. Skates are hollow ground creating a concave surface with two distinct edges. The larger the concave area, the smaller the radius. The rule of thumb is that if you do not specify a radius, they will be sharpened to the median radius which is 1/2 inch. This radius is fine when you are just starting out. Make certain when you get the skates sharpened that the person sharpening the skates uses the Blade Master BR200 Pro Square (or the BR100) which checks whether the edges are ground true. If the edges are not true, one edge will be higher than the other and you will have trouble skating correctly. I have had skates sharpened improperly so many times that I actually purchased the Blade Master BR200 Pro Square ($79) and unashamedly use it after they are sharpened to check if they are true. It's astonishing how many times I discover that they are not true. If you do this immediately after sharpening they will re-sharpen them at no charge. Since sharpening costs between $6-$8 improper truing can cost you more than the Blade Master BR200 Pro Square over time. For information go to the Blade Master web site. Here is a photo of the BR200 base attached to one of my player skates using the set-screw, without the magnetic measuring plate attached so you can see the amount of white space. Here is a photo with the BR200 measuring plate centered on the skate blade showing an even amount of white on each side. This blade is true. If there is more white showing on one side than on the other the blades are not true.
As you get more skating skills under your belt you can experiment with the radius. Smaller, lighter people can use a larger radius, which is denoted by a smaller fraction. That's correct, a smaller number. 3/8ths of an inch radius is larger than 1/2 inch. To see why this is true you have to remember that each blade has two edges: an inner edge and an outer edge. The space between them is an arc. The more arc (smaller the number) the more the skate will bite into the ice. The less radius (bigger the number) the less the skate will "bite" and the easier it will be to glide. The edges actually sink into the ice slightly. If they did not you would be unable to turn or stop. The more the edge digs into the ice, the sharper you can turn, and the harder you can stop, The trade off is that gliding speed will suffer. But for smaller/lighter skaters this is a good trade-off since their edges do not sink into the ice as much as heavier skaters, who typically will want a radius value greater than 1/2 inch, usually 5/8ths to 7/8ths. Some goalies use a radius of 1-inch (but goalie skates are a different story). For more in-depth information of radius go here.
Break InAll skates, even properly fitted ones, may hurt your feet initially. Over time, sometimes as little as the next time you skate, this discomfort disappears. You may have noticed that NHL players, during the national anthem, are constantly moving their feet. This is because it is uncomfortable to be standing still when wearing skates.
Skate FendersIn 2010 I noticed that an Anaheim Ducks defensema (Luca Sbisa) was wearing a transparent device on his skates. I inquired and found out they were designed to protect the feet when blocking shots and were called "Skate Fenders". I ordered a pair from the manufacturer because no store carried them at the time. Since I block shots (everybody must contribute, and since I'm not going to make people forget Bobby Orr with my other skills, at least I can block shots) and also get in front of the net to screen the goalie, I often got hit in the skate boot by hard shots. I never suffered a serious injury, but it always hurts like hell. So I decided I would give the Skate Fenders a try. By the way, the are called "Skate Fenders" and not skate guards, because skate guards are used to protect figure skate blades when off-ice.
Well, I can report that these things do protect your feet not only from pucks, but from the occasional player who whacks you across the skate laces because that is a vulnerable area and a slash there can be very painful, as in "I got to get to the bench" painful. They are also available in most hockey stores and on-line hockey resellers. List price when I bought them was $69 and they are worth every penny. Here is a photo of my skates with the Skate fenders installed. They are held on by military-grade Velcro closures which can be trimmed.
Custom Foot BedsThe foot beds (aka insoles) that come with all skates are very thin and provide almost no arch support. The good news is that you can replace them. You can buy off-the-shelf replacement foot beds which must be trimmed to fit. Or you can buy custom-made foot beds through a Shock Doctor reseller that has the machines to make them. They are pricey, at $149 pair, but they are woth every penny to me. I don't even feel my skates anymore they conform so well to my feet.
Skate CareWhen you come off the ice use a skate towel to wipe the water and ice from your blades. Although they are made of high grade stainless steel, they can rust if you repeatedly store them wet. Use "soakers" to protect the blades when they are not on your feet. This protects the blades from damage which causes burrs, and chips in the blade edges.
Air the skates out by loosening the laces, pulling the tongue back as far as possible, and removing the foot beds to allow for complete drying. If you need the skates dried quickly purchase a Shock Doctor Power Dryer. With the optional octopus adapter you can dry a pair of skates and gloves simultaneously. The Power Dryer uses ionized air (and heated air if you desire) to kill odor-forming bacteria.
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