Rick Welts is bracing for a challenging 2009 season, both on and off the court.
The Phoenix Suns play 17 of their first 22 games away from their home court at US Airways Center, and Welts knows how important that tough stretch will be for the franchise — and its bottom line.
The Suns, notorious burners out of the gate, will have to do it again this year, not only to ensure a playoff run, but to make the season financially stable.
“Anyone who says the economy isn’t what they’re focusing on is on a different planet,” said Welts, who was named team CEO in April, taking over the position from Managing Partner Robert Sarver. Prior to his promotion, Welts was president and chief operating officer of the franchise. He remains president.
New Skate-Sharpening Method Takes Hockey by Storm
The technological history of hockey is littered with elaborate ideas that did not pan out, like the Fox network’s glowing puck, the heated skate blade and Cooperalls.
But since last November, a simple innovation that costs next to nothing has become popular among N.H.L. professionals and weekend warriors alike: a skate-sharpening method called the flat-bottom V.
“It’s been great for me,” said Jack Johnson, a defenseman for the Los Angeles Kings and a candidate for the United States Olympic team. “It’s sharper, but at the same time, you can get just as much glide as with the old sharpening, so you get the best of both worlds.”
BlackStone Sports, the Ontario manufacturer of skate maintenance equipment that developed the flat-bottom V method, says players on about 20 of the N.H.L.’s 30 teams have switched from the traditional sharpening method in use for decades. The list of notables includes Zach Parise of the Devils, Joe Thornton and Rob Blake of the San Jose Sharks, Jason Arnott of the Nashville Predators, Milan Michalek of the Ottawa Senators and Doug Weight of the Islanders.
“It started with Cory Stillman in Florida,” said Steve Wilson, who founded Blackstone with his father, Murray, and developed the flat-bottom V cut with him and with company engineers.
“I was down there last year with a prototype to show the Panthers’ equipment manager, and Cory said, ‘Hey, I want to try it.’ He went out, loved it, and demanded that I leave the prototype there.”
Word spread through the Panthers’ dressing room, Wilson said, and other teams picked up on it.
“You know how hockey players are,” Wilson said. “They talk to each other.”
Proponents of the new method say this combination provides a sharper bite on turns and a freer glide in straight-ahead skating.
Conventional skate sharpening uses a grinding stone that creates a concave arc in the bottom of the blade.
The flat-bottom V uses specially made spinners to carve out tiny fangs along the skate blade’s ridges that bite into the ice for turns. The flat bottom between the fangs, similar to the flat cut of a speedskater’s blade, puts more of the blade’s surface in contact with the ice and is supposed to increase speed.
“Having the angles instead of the arc was quite intriguing,” said Wilson, who is awaiting the results of a University of Ottawa kinesiology study on the effects of the flat-bottom V. Depending on the angle at which the fangs are cut, he said, “when a player stops, he doesn’t have that ‘chattering’ effect.”
The dimensions involved are minuscule. A flat-bottom V cut of 90/75 means the width of the flat bottom between the “fangs” is 90 thousandths of an inch, and the height of the fangs is 75 ten-millionths of an inch.
Tiny, yet some players swear by it.
“My turns feel good, and I don’t feel slow coming out of them, so I’ve got no complaints,” Johnson said.
The Devils’ David Clarkson said: “I feel like I have more of a stride, that I glide a lot better when I push. So far I like the way I feel.”
Clarkson’s teammate Paul Martin started using the cut at the end of the preseason.
“It’s a little more efficient, so you glide better — you’re not working quite as hard,” Martin said before he sustained a fractured arm that will sideline him for up to six weeks.
Beyond the different feel, the flat-bottom V costs next to nothing in a sport where one player’s equipment can easily exceed $1,500.
“It cost me $10 to get my skates sharpened this way instead of the usual $5,” said Mike McBride, a 53-year-old recreation-league player in Detroit. “I had it done about two months ago, and I noticed a little difference right away. It didn’t make me go faster, but it provided me with more stability; it made me firmer on the ice.”
Internet message boards for rec-league players have been alight over the cut for several months.
The last innovation in hockey skates came about five years ago and involved heated blades, which were meant to create a thin layer of water between blade and ice to add speed. But it never caught on, because of its expense and the cumbersome battery pack players had to carry.
There, in the dustbin of hockey history, it joined Cooperalls (long pants of early-1980s vintage to replace the customary shorts and socks, and worn briefly by the Philadelphia Flyers and the Hartford Whalers) and the glowing puck (a visual aid on Fox telecasts of the mid-’90s meant to make it easier for American viewers to follow the action).
The flat-bottom V seems more likely to have a longer shelf life.
“I’ve got four sons,” Wilson said. “I know how much it costs to outfit a player. The nice thing about this is that it costs pretty much the same as regular skate sharpening. It’s definitely not like buying a pair of $800 skates or a $300 stick.”
McBride, who said he never played organized hockey as a youth and considers himself “no better than the average weekend player,” recalled that he heard about the flat-bottom V from someone at his office whose 12-year-old boy was playing at the pee-wee level.
“His son was raving about it, as were the other kids on the team, so I decided to try it,” McBride said. “I’m going to stick with it.”