‘Concept car’ gear gives Ovie, Kane advantage

December 20, 2013, 6:51 PM

You can’t freaking believe how light it is.

In one hand you hold a Bauer Lightspeed Edge skate. In the other the brand-new OD1N.

The journalist in you instructs you to be skeptical of the hockey equipment giant’s “revolutionary” new equipment line, OD1N, modestly named after the Norse god of war and the Russian word for the number one.

But then you hold the so-called future of skates in your hand, and it’s as easy to lift as a Triscuit. The difference between the old and the new is immediate and remarkable. You start thinking of ways you can sneak a pair into your knapsack, confident these puppies will help you rack up more second assists on Tuesday nights.

Bauer swears its new skate is the lightest ever invented, a third lighter than any previous. The company claims to have reduced goal pad weight by a full 33 percent and to have shed more than four pounds from a player’s protective equipment, allowing a skater to travel from blueline to blueline a full foot faster.

Bauer calls it game changing, and they’ve only supplied six players with the goods they’ve been trying to perfect for two years: Alex Ovechkin, Claude Giroux, Nicklas Backstrom, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Henrik Lundqvist. Longtime Bauer-partnered athletes and Olympic hopefuls all.

Smart move. Think about it: At least one of those players will be part of a team that wins it all in February, giving OD1N a gold-medal endorsement.

On Friday, we spoke with a couple of Bauer honchos about the new equipment. And we haven’t been this interested in hockey gear development since, well, the unbreakable stick. Here’s what we learned.

The proposition
Two years ago, a challenge was presented to Bauer’s research, design and development centre in Saint-Jerome, Quebec: What if?

“What if we eliminated any and all cost restrictions? What if you were able to use materials never before used in the sport of hockey? What if we could introduce manufacturing methods new to the sport? Could we truly enhance a player’s performance on the ice?” says Craig Desjardins, Bauer’s general manager of equipment. “Could we give them an advantage?”

The team brought back the most amazing concepts, Desjardins says, he’s seen in his 15 years with the company.

The process
Originally, Bauer presented the athletes with concepts that were more farfetched and non-traditional in terms of design. This conversation began about 18 months ago.

“Think of a concept car going forward where you wouldn’t be putting a shoulder pad on, you’d be attaching caps right to your body or the base layer,” Desjardins explains. “The players came back saying, ‘We want the technology under the hood, but we want to remain authentic to the game. They didn’t want to stand out [read: look goofy] in the locker room, but they absolutely are looking for that performance advantage.”

Bauer worked with the players on several occasions to fine-tune the equipment to meet their needs, putting them through on-ice drills “probably more so than they wanted to,” and they’d make changes based on the stars’ feedback.

The personalization
Not only do the pieces give a significant weight advantage but, like a weighted golf driver, each piece can be tuned specifically to the athlete’s unique playing style.

The skeleton of the goal pad, for instance, can be built with either high-density or low-density foams to customize rebound control.

“Henrik Lundqvist wants the puck to hit his pad and fly away as quickly as possible from the crease, and he feels he can control that puck. Other goalies like the puck to hit their pad and drop straight down so they can cover it up,” Desjardins says.

Just as players fine-tune the flex profiles of their composite sticks, Bauer can adjust the flex profile of the skate blade holder in three sections: toe, middle and heel. Based on the athletes’ feedback and the Bauer workers observing them on the ice, they gave the NHLers custom skates.

“Alexander Ovechkin is a heavier athlete with a stronger skating stride, so we needed reinforce the toe area so he could have that force to push off,” Desjardins says. “Whereas Patrick Kane is lighter skater, very nimble. He has very quick feet, so we gave him more flexibility in all three regions of the holder.”

It’s like skating on a running shoe, only it has the performance of a high-end skate. Bauer estimates the new skate will save a player more than 1,000 pounds of lifted weight over the course of an NHL game.

And the size of the holes in the blade holder are actually smaller than the hole on the Lightspeed Edge, a skate worn by more than 80 percent of NHLers. These little details are solved through discussions with the NHL teams’ equipment managers.

The practice
As a lead-up to OD1N’s Sochi debut, Bauer just mailed each player two pairs of skates. On average each player will go through four pairs a season. Toews and Backstrom have been wearing the suit in practices and games for the last week and a half, and Lundqvist has been using the slim pads for over three weeks now.

“Henrik’s been very candid from the beginning, and he said, ‘I can truly feel I’m faster sliding post to post in getting into my positions.’ That’s the edge he’s looking for. He wants to be reacting to the play as quickly as possible,” Desjardins says.

From the very beginning, Toews pointed to other sports. He told Bauer how the players’ protection in football is more integrated and fits tighter to the body. “He gave us a lot of good insight where we could go with the technology,” Desjardins says. “He’s really looking for the ultimate range of motion he can get on the ice.”

The price
Bauer pours roughly four percent of its annual revenue into research and development, which amounts to $16 million. The OD1N initiative, a “significant investment” Bauer is banking will pay off in the future, is funded by part of that $16 million budget every year.

We want some, too
So what about the players who aren’t guinea pigs like Ovechkin or Toews?

“They’re already asking for it,” Amir Rosenthal, Bauer’s CFO, says. “After they saw their teammates putting on the equipment in the locker room.”

Post-Sochi, Bauer plans to expand its roster of OD1N users to some of the other Bauer-sponsored players, but it won’t open the gates to all NHLers immediately.

As for Joey Mensleague, over the next two or four years, some of the OD1N technologies will filter into the products available at retail. It won’t be the exact same as the fully customized gear being designed for the elite athletes.

Of the 20 or so concepts presented to Desjardins two years ago, only three were produced. Expect OD1N technology to be introduced into every category of equipment the brand produces across every prince point over the next two to four years.

“You can imagine elements of OD1N existing in products not only for the elite players but for players of all ages,” Desjardins says.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads
“We’re already thinking about what’s next,” Rosenthal says. “If you think innovation in hockey equipment is over, that’s absolutely not the case. It’s all about reducing weight, making athletes perform at a higher level.”

Bauer is looking to technologies and materials from the automotive and aerospace industries in order to make the gear even lighter and more customizable.

“Wait. So, you think you can make a skate lighter than this thing?” I ask.

“Not only do I think we can make one,” Rosenthal says, “we’re already skating a prototype that’s lighter than this.”

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