When to Sharpen Skates?

Ask the Hockey Coach…


As a coach, this is a question I get asked fairly often. And, as in most questions in hockey, there is a simple answer and there is a more complex answer.

(A little sidebar before we proceed. It’s worth noting that I’ve been coaching hockey for 18 years. Here’s my coaching bio. I have also worked in a hockey pro-shop, where my job included sharpening skates. I’m also very, very picky about how my own skates are sharpened, and even who I let sharpen my skates.)

The Simple Answer

A good rule of thumb for active hockey players is to get their skates sharpened after 15–20 hours on the ice. If you’re really pushing hard on your edges, you may want to sharpen them a little more often. As a coach, I tend to go a little longer between skate sharpenings (25 hours or so), because I typically don’t push that hard on my edges.

But, if you think you need to get your skates sharpened, you should get your skates sharpened. It may boil down to your state of mind more than the actual sharpness of your skates, but investing in a skate sharpening for the sake of confidence in your gear is always a good idea. (Just be careful not to blame your skates for your inability to skate.)

Off course, this goes out to window if you have a nick in one of the edges of your blade. You should get your skates sharpened as quickly as possible. A nick along the edge of your blade will catch the ice differently than what you’re expecting and will most likely cause you to fall. Nicks can sometime be difficult to see with the naked eye. Running your finger down both edges of the skate blade is a better way to determine if you have a nick. You’ll be able to feel if there are any spots that feel different than the rest of the blade.

Nicks can occur during the course of a normal practice or game. However, in the case of inexperienced hockey players, nicks often arise from accidentally stepping on a piece of metal in the locker room or on the way to the ice, or by not adequately protecting your skate blades while your skates are in your bag. (Invest in good skate guards! You’ll thank me later.)

The Complex Answer

The ‘complex’ answer to the question of when to sharpen skates is the dreaded: “It depends”…

To really understand why the sharpness of skates is important, let’s take a step back and understand what skates do for us as hockey players and how the sharpness of our skates affects how we skate and, ultimately, how we play hockey.

The Blade

A hockey skate is made of a boot, a runner, and a blade. The boot is where the skater’s foot is held. The runner connects the blade to the boot. And, the blade makes contact to the ice. The friction of the blade running across the ice melts a very small amount of water on which the blade can glide. (We don’t see this water after a skate goes past because the water turns back to ice as soon as the blade has passed.)

The blade itself is very interesting. Let’s take a closer look. You’ll notice that the blade has two separate edges that can cut into the ice. The edge towards the inside of a skater’s foot is referred to as the ‘inside’ edge. And, the edge towards the outside of a skate’s foot is referred to as the ‘outside’ edge. Two-legged hockey players have two inside edges and two outside edges. (Hockey coaches often say ‘on your flats’ when trying to indicate to players to have all four edges on the ice.)

Sharpening Skates

Sharpening skates involves cutting out the steel of the skate blade between the two edges. This is done by running the center part of the skate blade along a spinning grinding wheel to remove material. As the material is removed, the edges of the blade will become more pointed, thus gaining ‘sharpness’ on the blade’s edges that will be used to cut into the ice.

The area formed by the grinding wheel running along the blade is referred to as the ‘hollow’ or the ‘radius’. The face of the grinding wheel can be altered to create a different size hollow in the skate blade. Think of the hollow as a long cylinder running along the bottom of the blade of a skate. This cylinder’s radius can be changed to create more pointed or less pointed edges along the edges of the blade.

A ‘typical’ radius for a recreational hockey player is 1/2". However, many hockey shops have a “house cut”, or default radius to which they will sharpen all skates. This may or may not be 1/2", and may or may not be the same as the hockey shop down the street. (In Chicago, most ‘house cuts’ are 7/16", while in Detroit, most ‘house cuts’ are 1/2".) Ask before you get your skates sharpened!

The Effect of the Hollow

At this point, most people start rolling their eyes and thinking “Who cares?”. But, understanding the impact the hollow has on how your skate behaves on the ice is important. Have you ever run into a situation where you just had your skates sharpened and you can’t stop? That’s the hollow at play. (You probably ran your blades over the plastic at the bench door, thus eliminating part of the hollow you just paid to get!)

There are a few factors that impact how much the skate blade will ‘bite’ into the ice — the hollow of the skate blade, hardness of the ice and weight of the hockey player. Let’s start with the hollow. The smaller the radius of the hollow, the sharper the edges of your skates will be, and the more the edges will bite into the ice. The larger the radius of the hollow, the less the edge will bite into the ice. (Both small radius and large radius skates are considered ‘sharp’ when first sharpened, but the size of the radius defines the level of ‘sharpness’ of the skate sharpening.)

The ‘hardness’ of the ice on which you’re skate will also have an impact on how much your edges ‘bite’ into the ice. The ‘harder’ the ice, the less the skate edge will bite into the ice. The ‘softer’ the ice, the more the skate edge will bit into the ice.

But, isn’t all ‘ice’ hard? The truth is that though all ice is solid, not all ice is ‘hard’. Different ice rinks have their temperature at different temperatures. The difference can be due to many factors, include the type of refrigeration equipment used, design of the rink, and the outside temperature. The ‘hardness’ of the ice can, and will, change from rink to rink, or even within a rink. In the winter, the ice will be ‘harder’, while in the summer the ice will be ‘softer’. (A place where I spent a lot of time, Yost Ice Arena, would make the ice ‘harder’ if the Varsity hockey team was playing there that weekend, and would make the ice ‘softer’ if they were away. It made it difficult to get comfortable on that ice.)

The weight of a hockey player also has an impact. The more a hockey player weighs, the more the skate will bite into the ice. The less a hockey player weighs, the less the skate will bit into the ice. (I’ve found myself ‘tweaking’ the hollow on my skates as I’ve gained a little more weight over the years.)

So, how does this all impact how I play the game? Typically, the less a skate bites into the ice, the more the skate will ‘run’. (Technically, the shallow hollow make more contact with the ice when the player is gliding. This additional surface area creates more water on which the blade will glide, therefore reducing the friction with the ice.) Players that have skating speed in a straight line will be able to use more of that speed when their skates bit less into the ice. However, they will be at a disadvantage when it comes to changing directions and accelerating. Skates that are good at biting into the ice are important when performing those techniques. So, it’s a trade-off.

At the end of the day, this is what it means. When you first step on the ice right after getting your skates sharpened, test your edges. If you’re having trouble stopping and your edges are digging in too much, go with a larger radius. (Instead of a 1/2", try 9/16".) If you’re making a tight turn and your skates are slipping out from under you, go with a smaller radius. (Instead of 1/2", try 7/16".) I always recommend only making changes in 1/16" increments. Even with only that small of a change, you’ll still feel a difference.

When Skates are Not Sharp

Skates loose their sharpness as you skate on them. The edges on the blade will ‘round’ away from the hollow due to the weight your body places on them, and due to the friction that is generate with the ice. This ‘rounded’ results int he skates not being able to bite into the ice as well as they could when they were first sharpened.

There are a number of products on the market that purport to enhance the sharpness of your skates — like a skate stone or a Sweet-Stick. The way these tools work is by addressing the metal that has been rounded away from the hollow on your skate blade. These tools can help make sure you have a ‘good’ edge right up until your next sharpening, but they should never replace a skate sharpening. The material in the middle of the blade does need to be ‘removed’ every so often to create ‘new’ sharp edges.

(The only reason I called out Sweet-Stick specifically is because its inventor used to sharpen my skaters. And, he’ll be the first to tell you that you need to get your skates sharpened often.)

Wrap-Up

Your skates are very important in hockey — they make the connection between you and the ice. That connection between you and the ice is what allows you to move effectively during a game. If you can’t move well, you’re as good an orange cone.

So, pay attention to that connection! If you’re having trouble moving, there’s a high likelihood that making an adjustment to your skates will help. But, it’s up to you to realize that a change needs to be made. And, to determine what change is needed — re-tie, sharpen, change hollow, change contour and/or bias, get new skates, etc.

(Changing the ‘contour’ or profile is another way to tweak your skate blade to fit your game. Changing the ‘bias’ is as well. More on those later…)

Have a hockey question?

The point of this isn’t to just write one story and be done. I’ve been around the game of hockey for long enough to know which questions come up on a regular basis. I will be attempting to get to answering all of those questions as time progresses.

But, if you have a hockey question to which you’re just dying to find out the answer, please add it to the comments. I’ll try to answer your question with an upcoming story. I’ll let you know when the story answering your question is published. (By submitting a question here, you are allowing me to use the story answering your question on #9 Hockey as well.)