Synthetic Ice: Growing the Game of Hockey in 2023
The game of ice hockey has been around for just over a century.
During that time, hockey has produced some of the best athletes and moments in sports history.
How about in Game 2 of the 1928 Stanley Cup finals when the New York Rangers lost their star goalie, Lorne Chabot, to a nasty eye injury?
Since substitutions were not allowed then, in steps the coach and general manager, Curtis Lester Patrick, pads on, ready to defend his team.
It was down to Patrick since the opposing coach of the Montreal Maroons refused to let more capable players in the crowd help.
Patrick, a former successful hockey player, was 44 years old and never played goal.
That didn’t matter. As they peppered his goal, he saved 19 shots, leading the team to an overtime win.
They went on to win the Cup.
Or what about “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, blowing Rocket Richard’s 50-goal record out of the water during the 1981-1982 season in just 39 games (finishing with 212 points in the process)?
He then repeated the feat a few seasons later.
And who can forget the miracle comeback from the Flyers in 2010?
Down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins in the playoffs, they came back to win the series 4-3.
There is so much skill, resilience, heart, and joy in hockey.
At every step of the game’s evolution, players and coaches have risen to the challenge.
Today, many can be optimistic about the future of hockey.
However, if it is to grow, stakeholders must work together to create a "New Ice Age."
This ice age must start from a grassroots level with the right resources available for skating.
In this article, we will ask and answer a pressing question and talk about the role of synthetic ice in its future.
Is the Sport of Ice Hockey Growing?
The growth of any of the major sports relies on those who support, attend, view the games, follow their teams, and emulate their heroes.
Starting with the latter, as with every sport, aspiring young players hone their skills with the hopes of one day enjoying the accolades and achieving the goals of their favorite players and teams.
With each sport different skills are required to excel at each position, both mentally and physically.
For the most part with most sports, not a lot is required to begin the process.
Basketball requires simply a ball and a hoop.
Baseball requires a bat, a ball, and a glove.
Football requires a football and an open field or schoolyard.
Soccer is just a ball.
Ice Hockey, on the other hand, is a whole other animal.
Sure, you can hone your stick-handling and shooting skills with a puck and a stick, but now try doing it on the ice.
Besides the skill, there are other challenges that bring friction for young players and their parents.
The Numbers Speak For Themselves
Taking a 30,000-foot view of the sport, we can see a few factors are working against hockey.
According to The International Hockey Federation, there are roughly 1.2 million registered hockey players around the world today.
More than half are from the USA and Canada, with thousands more moving up the youth ranks.
At first glance, these figures look promising, but the popularity figures reveal a different story.
A recent survey revealed that soccer recently passed hockey as the country’s 4th most popular sport.
Ampere Analysis found that 49% of sports fans like soccer compared to 37% for ice hockey.
Today, over 17 million Americans participate in soccer compared to the less than 3 million in hockey.
Even Toronto, a city known for its hockey, aims to install more soccer pitches, basketball courts, and even cricket pitches instead of ice rinks.
The number of ice rinks per capita is in freefall.
Some of the reasons for this shift include:
Declining ice time
For kids to learn how to skate and play ice hockey, they need time on the ice.
And lots of it.
That means their parents must find an available rink and sign them up with a team.
But, unfortunately, most teams have limited ice time to practice and play on commercial rinks.
Parents must get their kids ready to meet these times, often early in the morning.
This time could be inconvenient and discouraging for kids to brave the cold.
It builds character, but for how long?
Some rinks are designed solely for hockey but are used for other ice sports, decreasing the time for hockey even further.
Added the fact that middle schools and high schools cannot provide ice hockey, some parents eventually come to a crossroads.
The effort vs. reward is not worth it.
It is a joy to fly across the ice, stick in hand, bearing down on the goalie.
To achieve this feat, you need equipment: hockey sticks, skates, pads, helmets, and clothing.
You need to replace the equipment as they grow and sharpen those skates from time to time.
When you add coaching and other costs, hockey begins to add up (especially if you have more than one child).
The cost of hockey and lack of access means the sport is often out of reach for lower-income households and minorities.
While the NHL and pioneers like Willie O’Ree - the first African American NHL player – work to close the diversity gap, hockey still adds up.
On average, it can cost between $2000 - $2500 per child.
The Ice Is Melting
There are fewer commercial and community ice rinks today than a decade ago, but there is an added concern for hockey enthusiasts.
During winter, thousands of families make their own backyard rinks.
All it takes is some water, plywood, tarp, and some ingenuity.
Once you fill up a cordoned-off space with water, The First Freeze turns a makeshift pool into a fantastic rink.
Families (and their neighbors) can then skate on the rink for months.
There is only one degree between ice and liquid.
Warmer temperatures are making ice rinks more difficult to make.
Climate change has its deniers, but the numbers speak for themselves.
Researchers have seen temperature increases around wintertime compared to the 1970s.
These subtle changes mean ice takes longer to freeze and thaws well before expected.
They estimate that 15,000 lakes in the Northern Hemisphere thaw faster than they used to.
It’s already starting to impact backyard rinks in Canada, as rinks are melting as much as 10 days earlier year over year.
Event planners for sports like ice fishing tournaments are delaying start dates.
Scientists estimate that in 30-50 years, with increasing greenhouse emissions, there will be no more frozen rinks.
So over time, more families will opt-out of making rinks.
Despite these challenges, it’s not all doom and gloom. TV broadcast rights doubled over the last year thanks to new deals with Turner and ESPN.
And although it’s not on First Take or The Herd, revenue is also moving well past pre-pandemic levels.
The goal for all stakeholders – including companies like ours – is to do what we can to keep up the momentum of the game we love.
How Do We Grow The Game?
Growing the sport of hockey starts at the youth level, introducing a new age where ice becomes more accessible.
When there is less friction, more kids and parents will be eager to try hockey.
Start With Synthetic Ice
There is a second coming of the "Ice Age" in the form of synthetic ice plastic that has breathed new life into growing the sport of Ice Hockey.
Now aspiring young players in warm climate areas and anywhere else for that matter can learn the skill of ice skating in the privacy of their own homes.
Though the original investment in these portable ice panels may be considered costly, it pales in comparison to the constant schlepping back-and-forth to the rink, paying for gas, private lessons, clinics, and camps.
A home synthetic Ice rink offers players the ability to train and become better skaters in the comfort of their own home and would pay for itself when parents do the math.
Understanding Synthetic Ice Plastic
Synthetic ice for the purposes of skating has been around for decades.
Thanks to advancements in technology, these tiles or panels emulate the look and feel of natural ice.
And yes, you use your metal blades!
Our PolyGlide ice is made of a High Molecular Weight Polyethylene, a technology we have spent years perfecting.
This polyethylene is infused with a special slip agent additive to allow the skates to glide across the surface easily.
In the past, synthetic rink owners applied this skating agent to the surface before skating.
Our technology infuses the agent into the panels, giving you a smooth skating surface right out of the box.
You simply connect the dovetail edges of each panel to create the rink size you need.
This allows the user to practice basic skating and stick drills.
Add a few more panels, and you can convert a spare room or other space into a remarkably effective rink.
For commercial spaces, several large panels combine to make a rink that hundreds can use daily.
Here are some other benefits of synthetic ice that will bring a new age to hockey:
Hockey All Year Long
Ice hockey needs ice.
But not anymore.
Synthetic ice means you can skate and practice year-round with your own rink.
Concerned parents no longer worry about how long their at-home rinks will stay frozen.
They no longer must find a rink for their kids to practice.
An at-home rink allows anyone anywhere in the country a chance to skate.
Skating all year opens the door for more practice and fosters skill development.
It also helps your young children develop a passion for the sport.
As a result, they can be more expressive and creative, a necessary component for growing the sport.
It’s not unusual for customers to have some sticker shock for synthetic ice.
Yet, when compared to the costs involved with refrigerated rinks, it is significantly cheaper.
Installing a personal refrigerated rink can cost several times more.
It’s also more cost-effective compared to the time, effort, and cost it takes for a wintertime rink that lasts for a only a few weeks.
Synthetic ice rinks are durable and built to last many years.
Over time, there are cost savings in travel, gas, coaching, and much more.
These cost savings can make skating more accessible as it takes an upfront investment that the family can use for years.
Lower Surface Friction Means Better Results
Developments in new technology have improved the quality and performance of synthetic ice plastic tremendously in the last 10-years.
The old-school "cutting board" type surface has been replaced by high-tech infused panels that lesson the surface "drag" or coefficient of friction (COF) to make skating on synthetic ice a more ice-like experience.
There is no part of the world the recent Covid pandemic has not touched.
The hockey world had to adjust, with kids no longer able to access rinks for over a year.
This change birthed the use of Zoom for training in all sectors and hockey was no exception.
As many countries reopen and learn to live with Covid, the merger of tech and training will remain.
Hockey is a game that requires advanced skills.
Thanks to technology, players can now connect with some of the best coaches in the world to learn the game or improve specific moves.
Online training will also open the door for a new wave of kids interested in the sport but prefer online education.
More Summer Fun
The pandemic birthed another interesting concept.
Because of lockdowns, the NHL had no choice but to play games in the summer.
Although the ratings were higher than expected, we probably won’t see professional hockey in the summer again.
But the idea of playing hockey when it’s hot does not sound so far-fetched anymore.
With synthetic ice (and some more breathable clothing) kids can add hockey to their outdoor games in the summer.
Don’t forget sunglasses for the glare off the ice and sunscreen!
Synthetic Ice Rinks In Schools And Universities
The Rose Bowl.
The College Football Playoff National Championship.
We can argue that college basketball and football have similar interests and fanfare to the NBA Finals and NFL playoffs respectively.
Significant investment has gone into these college teams as they all bring in billions of dollars in revenue yearly.
There is an NCAA hockey tournament, but the average Joe does not know that it exists.
In fact, there are only 60 Division 1 ice hockey teams, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest.
Compare that to the 130 Division 1 football and 350 Division 1 basketball programs.
If there is no clear path from youth to college level, kids will lose interest.
By increasing the available facilities in schools nationwide, the chances of growing the game increase.
It can be as simple as installing large synthetic rinks in schools, making hockey a viable option.
Accessible Training Equipment
Hockey sticks and gear has made leaps and bounds over the years.
Helmets for goalies were unheard of until the 1970s.
Today, we have carbon fiber sticks and high-quality materials to make us faster and safer.
Advancements in materials ultimately reduce the price of hockey equipment.
The best way to grow the game of hockey is to lower the barriers to entry.
Trusting the Technology
Technology and analytics have pushed sports forward in ways that were unimaginable.
Athletes are breaking records and playing well beyond the expected age of retirement.
High performance training tools have allowed players to maximize their performance, skills, and recovery.
Technology is creeping into hockey and it will only grow the sport.
Hockey players are wearing sensors in their uniforms to track movement and collect data that can be used to improve the game.
This technology will soon be accessible to everyone so build specific training plans for all ages.
Soon, it will not be unheard of for kids to use apps, videos, and even virtual reality to help them with skating fundamentals at home or in small training centers.
Communities can be built around the sport at younger ages through a medium they understand.
Adding training aids like synthetic ice will give the sport a much-needed shot in the arm.
These new developments will go a long way to help grow the game of Ice Hockey and reach those players and families that may otherwise consider another sport.
This may well be the "New Ice Age" that helps put Ice Hockey into the mainstream of professional sports.
Now aspiring young players in warm climate areas and anywhere else for that matter can learn the skill of ice skating in the privacy of their own home.
The development of synthetic ice plastics through modern technology has breathed new life into growing the sport of ice hockey.
There is hope on the horizon for the growth of this great sport!