The science of a slap shot is there on a screen, one frame from a high-speed video captured by a row of cameras at a place known as “the NASA of hockey.”
Megan Keller is frozen in the middle of her downswing. A slender, powerful defender clad in black workout clothes, a helmet, gloves, and skates, she’s a silent portrait of potential energy.
As frames are advanced one by one, Keller’s stick connects with the ice a few inches behind the puck. The blade twists open. The shaft bends in the middle from her low hand pushing as her top hand pulls.
Yannick Paquette, a senior product developer at the Bauer Innovation Centre in Blainville, Quebec, is telling her why the stick she has chosen — a Nexus model, 70 flex, P28 curve — is the proper tool.
“See — already, you’re not touching the puck, and you’re getting a ton of it. That’s good,” says Paquette, tracing the bend of her stick on one of his two large computer monitors. “You probably wouldn’t see that much [bend] with a [stiffer] 77 [flex].That’s the extra kick you’re getting on your shots. See how the blade’s bouncing back? That’s normal. It’s not opening up too much. It stays open a little, but since you’re using a P28, you would get that little extra bit of a hook — right there — to hold the puck in.”
They are sitting at Paquette’s desk, which faces the windows encasing the rink where cameras recorded her taking slap shots. At 1,500 frames per second, he can show her exactly how and why the blade and shaft will snap back into place and fire the puck with maximum efficiency, returning the energy she puts in, and how her preferred curve pattern cups the puck until she follows through.
This is a few moments from an afternoon at the Bauer research, development, and design center. Keller, 24, the former Boston College captain and 2018 Olympic gold medalist was there last August as part of Bauer’s women’s hockey sponsorship program. She was fitted for skates, saw them being made, and got a glance at the next wave of hockey gear.
Her stick blade’s tape, showing where she most consistently made contact with the puck, confirms Paquette’s analysis. Even though hockey players are finicky about their gear, she wound up using the same stick all year.
Like many women her age and older, Keller grew up using her brother’s hand-me-downs. This kind of touch was appreciated.
“I’m just used to going to a shop and seeing a standard flex and curve,” she said. “To be able to go in and test them and see what my shot looks like and what stick I need, it’s really cool.”
Behind the scenes
About 130 employees, many with masters degrees, work in a sprawling industrial building about 45 minutes north of Montreal. It is where all of Bauer’s professional custom skates are made, largely by machines guided by hand. Sticks and protective equipment are manufactured in China, but Bauer creates and tests prototypes here.
Bauer is the largest of three skatemakers serving the NHL, owning about 70 percent of that market, according to GearGeek.com. Bauer says it makes about 12,000 pairs of skates a season for some 502 NHLers, as well as minor-league and European pros, Division 1 college, and elite women’s players. CCM, which manufactures its pro stock in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, south of Montreal, has about 18 percent of the NHL skate market. About 11 percent of NHLers use Winnipeg-based True custom skates, which pioneered some of the custom-fitting methods adopted by their larger competitors.
Top-of-the-line pro skates are essentially the same ones found on the shelves of your local hockey shop, and they cost about $1,000. All three companies fit those buyers by scanning a 3D image of the foot, then building a boot that envelops every contour. Pros enjoy exact specifications, with companies able to fit even the most drastically misshapen feet. It is a manual process, not automated; between 20 and 30 people touch every skate.
Before they are green-lighted for mass-production, new Bauer stick designs get 99,000 slap shots and 64,000 one-timers (using weighted orange pucks to simulate the force of a pass) in Blainville, plus 4,500 hours of manual on-ice testing through eight partner organizations, including McGill University, and an adult league at Bauer’s on-site rink.
In the impact testing areas, a machine pounds away at a crash-test dummy wearing a helmet. Another fires pucks at cages and shields. Another rhythmically thumps like a washing machine as it flexes a skate thousands of times, eventually revealing any weaknesses in the design.
The floor of the skate factory, spread out under a mural of Montreal Canadiens fans at the Forum, is about half the size of a rink. This is where the experts work at building boots that wrap around the most unique feet in the game. Plaster and metal molds of feet sit in bins organized by name. Some of the molds, like those of shot-blocking defensemen, can be gnarly. Some look like feet with golf balls growing out of them. Some have baseballs sticking out of their ankles.
It takes a few hours to make a typical pair of skates. Workers cut the main boot piece (the quarter panel) out of Curv, a polypropylene material also used to make luggage, flak jackets, and auto bodies. The components — heat-moldable linings of various thicknesses, and eyelets — are stitched on, bonded together, then pressed around a metal cast of a foot. Next to be stitched are the tongue, toe cap, and tendon guard. The blade holder and its steel are attached with rivets. Laces go on last. The skates are cleaned and carefully inspected before they are boxed.
Pros show up as their offseason schedules allow. Bruins left wing David Pastrnak said he has no interest in going. Jake DeBrusk loves to see the new gear and raved about Bauer’s latest invention, the Nexus ADV with a hole in the blade.
Advanced skate fitting has helped some pros stay in the league. Avalanche great Peter Forsberg, born with extra-wide ankles, needed constant attention toward the end of a Hall of Fame career shortened by multiple foot surgeries. In his retirement speech in 2011, he thanked longtime Bauer pro product manager Jerry Trempe, whose passport bears Swedish stamps from numerous visits with his ailing client. A Forsberg jersey with the Swedish national team’s Tre Kronor on it hangs in the lobby in Blainville.
Forsberg said Trempe, a 36-year Bauer employee, “made at least 200 pairs of skates for me over the last few years.” The average NHLer might go through 4 to 10 pairs of skates a season.
Not all pros want the hands-on treatment. Pastrnak, whose sticks are the same ones you find in a retail store with a little more curve on the toe, gets his Bauer Vapor 2X Pro skates in a stock pattern.
“I don’t like custom skates,” he said. “I just have them straight from the store. It just feels better. I feel like your feet are different every day. From the plane you can get swollen feet. If you have customs, they don’t feel the same. It’s nice to feel a little bit of space. I play with the store skates since I was a kid.”
His teammates have different views.
Bruins center Charlie Coyle, who grew up pushing milk crates on the ponds of East Weymouth, remembers a few early pairs that “just killed,” he said “You’ve got to battle through it. Growing up, we didn’t know any better.”
His coach, Bruce Cassidy, had leather and nylon Bauers with steel runners.
“You had to grin and bear it,” said Cassidy, recalling his skates of the ‘70s. “Breaking them in was tough. Now they’re so soft and fuzzy it’s almost cheating. They’re like slippers.”
The area hidden to most visitors is the second floor, where designers work on closely guarded secrets. It looks like a typical office space, with an open floor and conference rooms.
Their sketches lead to products that may not be released for two or three years, some never at all. They draw inspiration from everywhere: superheroes and cars, video games, motorbikes, warriors, swirls and colors, old-time hockey. You see Marvel characters and Calgary Flames memorabilia.
The buzzword at Bauer and other major retailers is customization. In a recent NHLPA poll, some 41 percent of 530 NHL players wanted to express their personalities on skates, as their NFL, NBA, and MLB peers have been allowed to do with their footwear. The league is getting younger and flashier.
Yes, this means one day, you could see a bowl of Pasta on skates. And then the kids will eat them up.
“Once it comes into the league it trickles down,” Bruins president Cam Neely said. “If you grow up with what the NHL’s been using the last 10 years, you’re not going to know any different.”
Because the high-end consumer wants the next big thing, prices of the best hockey equipment are not trending down. Entry-level equipment has become lighter, stronger and more durable, but the extensive shopping list — skates, stick, helmet, pants, padding for shins, shoulders and elbows, and other necessities — will cost a newcomer at least $500.
“It’s an expensive sport,” Cassidy said. “I think it’s pricing people out. In Canada, everybody used to be able to play. P.K. Subban’s dad did an article [seven] years ago in Toronto about how people are getting phased out. I believe it. I think it’s becoming more of a ‘haves’ sport. I think in Canada that’s what made it so unique is that pretty much everyone — ice time was cheaper, there was a rink on every corner, you just had to get the equipment. You’d usually get some hand-me-downs.”
Street hockey is another way kids can emulate their TV heroes. Meanwhile, Bauer (Canada) and CCM (US) partner with NHL teams to offer packages of learn-to-play lessons and equipment. In Boston, the waiting list is long.
In the office of Marc-Olivier Lessard, Bauer’s custom products supervisor, there is a desk covered in papers and pictures. Above the desk is a shelf with white plaster and clear plastic molds of feet. It is an arresting sight. One pair of feet had one mangled in a lawn mower accident. Others were misshapen because of birth defects.
Another was used to make skates for Nathan Chouinard, a grade-schooler in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He was born with a severe case of ectrodactyly, a rare genetic deformation of the hands and feet. Wanting to play goal like his idol, Canadiens goalie Carey Price, he had to use longer and larger boots that did not properly brace his claw-like feet. His fledgling hockey career seemed at its end.
Bauer was happy to help. Trempe, after showing the mold, picked up a hockey card from the shelf. Chouinard, with tousled blond hair, poses in his goalie gear, smiling at the camera. He looks like a goalie.
“He’s like all the kids,” Lessard said. “He’s playing his sport.”