Thursday, 21 January 2010

Breaking (Foot) News!

I'm sure you recognize the medical device to the left. The walking cast is a common sight for hockey players due to skates being the one piece of equipment that hasn't seen any sort of major upgrades in protecting the feet. From 100mph slapshots to hacks and slashes across the feet, all of these contribute to foot injuries in hockey. And it's not just players that suffer these injuries. You frequently see officials getting hit with pucks as they are rattled around the boards or cleared out of a zone, and they often come up gingerly on their sore feet if struck there. As of today, though, it appears that protection might be more affordable for all those who may want some additional protection thanks to the vision of one man.

Frank McClelland, a retired school teacher from Michigan, had been looking for some sort of protection for his feet when he played hockey because, like most players, he didn't enjoy the sharp pain in his feet when he was blocking shots. I also share this same sentiment as a defenceman as I find myself the victim of deflections and slapshots quite regularly when battling my check in front of the net. The University of Moncton has determined that a hockey puck at top speed has the same kinetic energy as a 22-caliber bullet (PDF document). Yowza! This might be why players hobble back to the bench when hit in the foot with the puck.

However, where this story takes a turn is when Mr. McClelland contacted me with his idea.

Mr. McClelland has come up with a product originally called "Ankle Armor", a plastic covering for the skate boot that provides added protection to the boot of the skate. His design has seen a number of revisions and redesigns, and an early model of the product is now being used by a couple of NHL teams, and there are a few more teams waiting for their shipment. Needless to say, Mr. McClelland's idea is starting to pick up speed as word gets out.

So how did this entire endeavour start? What does the final product look like? How does it compare to the earlier designs? What is the cost of these skate guards if I'm interested in buying them? Where can I get them? There are lots of questions that one may have, so let's work through this idea from conception to today.

Mr. McClelland started with clay models of his idea. The patent process followed shortly after, and it took approximately three years for the patent process to finally be approved by the US Patent Office. The patent is still pending in Canada, but the wheels are in motion. The key to the patent, however, is that the concept of the skate guards that Mr. McClelland has patented. Because of this, he owns the rights to how the design concept of the skate guards - an ingenious patent idea in terms of a business model.

With patents and prototypes in hand, Mr. McClelland approached all of the major skate producers that he could contact. Easton, Nike, Reebok, CCM - none of them were interested in Mr. McClelland's designs. For something that would be an easy "upsell" for all retailers, it seems like these companies might be a little short-sighted in their rejections. However, Mr. McClelland was undeterred by the lack of interest from the major skate companies.

Paul Boyer of the Detroit Red Wings was the first person to actually respond to Mr. McClelland’s many letters. Mr. Boyer, for those that may not be aware, is the equipment manager for the Red Wings, and he thought the skate guards were a great idea. The problem, Mr. McClelland told him, was financing, manufacturing, and engineering a better skate guard than his first prototypes. With Mr. Boyer’s encouragement, Mr. McClelland persisted in going to one manufacturer after another until finally making a connection with Lake Superior State University and their Prototype Development Center. With this connection, the wheels began to turn, albeit slowly at first.

The first prototype was a two-piece unit that was glued together. They were “ugly” and cumbersome compared to his later designs, and the glued pieces were liable to cracking and breaking apart when struck with a puck. Mr. McClelland even admitted that they were a closer resemblance to Frankenstein boots rather than hockey skates. The goal that Mr. McClelland wanted was a one piece guard, and he kept working toward that goal.

Finally, working with LSSU and getting his design into a CAD format, the engineering students at LSSU worked diligently with Mr. McClelland to improve upon his design. Mr. McClelland had two options: a thermal forming process, or an injection molding process.

Thermal molding was certainly more affordable, but the drawback is that the process has limitations in terms of what can be produced. It only uses one sheet of plastic. That means that the thermal mold will produce guards that have identical thickness over the entire guard, but any additional strength elements will be tougher to produce. While the cost may be lower than injection molding, this version of molding plastics was too limited in what could be done with the design of the guards.

Injection molding allows for the guards to made in large quantities with identical attributes. The drawback is cost as the creation of a mold is high, but large volume productions would counteract that cost.

After going through 14 design revisions and prototypes, Mr. McClelland and LSSU have finally come up with a finalized product. The final skate guard product will look like this, only in a clear plastic form.

Why are the guards clear? As Red Wings equipment manager Paul Boyer reported, the players don't like advertising that they are either injured or protecting a part of their body for the obvious reasons of not attracting attention to it. As Mr. Boyer put it, "the players don't want to wear anything that they don't have to". By making them clear, the skate guard becomes virtually invisible on the skate unless you're looking directly at it.

If you look at the final design of the guards, you can see there is some ribbing in the guards as well as some small rectangular holes. The ribbing provides added strength for the skate guards to protect the foot. You don't want your armor breaking in mid-combat, and the ribbing allows for some added strength in the design.

The small slits on the top of the guard are for ventilation so that you feet can still breathe under the guards. There's nothing worse than sweat pooling in your skates, and Reebok's EDGE design can attest to that. The slits on the side are slightly larger, and these allow for some movement of the straps that secure the guard to the skate boot. These are made to be universal for all skates, do the slightly larger slits will allow the skater to move the straps and fit the guards snugly to the skate. When the straps are done up, the bottom and rear straps are fairly protected by the guard and the boot.

You already know that the Red Wings' players are wearing the skate guards. Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, and Patrick Eaves are the confirmed players from Detroit that have been wearing Mr. McClelland's guards. In fact, the two previous images were taken from a Hockey Night In Canada broadcast from November 28, 2009 when the Red Wings met up with the Montreal Canadiens. During the game, Stuart's guard had the rear strap either break or come undone, and he adjusts it during the play. CBC's website still has the video up, so here's a chance to see the guards in action in the NHL. Kronwall's guards can be seen early in the video after he takes a dirty hit, and Stuart's can be seen at approximately the 1:03 mark.

A second NHL team is also using them now. The Calgary Flames have a few sets that their defencemen are wearing. I haven't been able to confirm who the players are at this point, but equipment manager Gus Thorson has been in touch with Mr. McClelland about the Ankle Armor guards. As of the time of publishing this, both the Phoenix Coyotes and St. Louis Blues have been contacting Mr. McClelland, and both teams are awaiting their first sets of guards.

There have been reports of other teams using them, but these teams have not been in contact with Mr. McClelland. In fact, one team - the Montreal Canadiens - was featured in a Globe & Mail story written by Sean Gordon on January 2. In the article, Mr. Gordon writes,

"I took a shot off the foot in the Washington game [Nov. 20] and it hurt pretty bad," [Travis] Moen said in a recent interview. "That's when I decided to try them.”

“Them” refers to the moulded plastic skate guards he and a half-dozen other members of the Canadiens have taken to wearing in games.

“You still feel it when the puck hits you, it's just that it doesn't do as much damage,” Moen said. “They're pretty light and they don't really get in the way.”
Sound familiar? It did to Mr. McClelland. While he's tracked back how the Canadiens may have acquired his product without going through him, he has also heard reports of players wearing them from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Atlanta Thrashers. When I forwarded this article to Mr. McClelland, he said there was "no doubt whatsoever" that players were using his guards. However, he was concerned about who may be distributing them without his knowledge, but it appears that his sleuthing may have solved that problem. For now.

Perhaps the best part of this story is the partnership that Mr. McClelland has developed with LSSU. Due to their heavy involvement in the design and manufacturing process, royalties off the sales of Ankle Armor guards will be paid to the University as thanks for their hard work. While there is no doubt that the economy in Michigan can use a boost, helping out an institution such as LSSU will go miles in both the education side of the school as well as various other endeavours. All of the guards will be made in Michigan, and the product will carry a "Made in Michigan" motto as a reminder that this innovative product is a home-grown idea.

In terms of using the prototypes sent to me, I cannot say enough good things about the Ankle Armor skate guards. I no longer fear getting hit in the foot by a shot while playing defence, and blocking shots no longer leaves me black-and-blue reminders of my work. These may not prolong my career in the beer leagues, but they might be the difference for someone else out there. I fully and completely endorse the Ankle Armor product, and will be recommending the guards to everyone.

As a cost, Mr. McClelland couldn't nail down an exact price point at this time as he is still examining the market versus the manufacturing costs. He said that he would like to keep the price point below the $50 USD mark, but he is still researching the costs at this point. In comparison, the carbon-fibre skate guards that Saku Koivu and Josh Gorges of Montreal wore over the last couple of seasons or the guard that Daniel Sedin wore for a while this season will run you anywhere from $1000-1500 in total for maximum protection. While NHL players may be able to afford this cost, the average hockey parent probably doesn't want to pay for skate guards that cost more than the child's entire set of equipment.

As for production, the Ankle Armor skate guards are not yet on the consumer market, but you're not that far away. Production is supposed to start within the next four weeks, and the first set should be shipped out by mid-February, according to Mr. McClelland. Of course, that schedule could change, but that's where Mr. McClelland stands today with the product.

Without a doubt, Mr. McClelland has found a niche in an industry where the big boys generally have all the ideas. With his affiliations in the NHL, it appears that the skate guards may become popular faster than anyone could ever imagine. Mr. McClelland needs to decide on a new name for the guards but I will keep you posted when he decides. He says he’s open to suggestions, so if you have a good name for the skate guards, email me here and I'll pass on your suggestion!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

***All skate guard photos are property of Frank McClelland, and may not be used without Mr. McClelland's expressed written consent under any circumstance.***


Anonymous said...

Awesome article Teebs. I love how in depth it is.

Jon in SLC

Anonymous said...

Very nice article. I am hoping the anterior ankle will be protected high enough, that's where I would get the injury- just below the shin guard on the laces. I can't wait to try a pair. I think $40-50 is the right price point for most parents. Clear plastic won't look quite so cumbersome/ bulky.
PMZ in Evansville IN

Brian said...

Are these guards available to regular consumers yet? If so, where can I buy them?


Teebz said...

These guards are available to the public. They are marketed as Skate Fenders, and there is a website for them.