Pretty much every kid who has laced ‘em up to play hockey has experienced that agonizing sensation of taking a shot off the ankle or foot.
Sometimes they can walk it off, other times it’s game over, or even a stint on the injured reserve.
The risk only increases as players develop and get stronger. Aided by the latest one-piece composite stick technology, top shooters can exceed 100 mph, and anyone who has been hit by six ounces of vulcanized rubber travelling at that speed can attest to how much it can hurt.
With more and more players missing time with these sorts of injuries, a pair of Vernon entrepreneurial foot specialists teamed up to create protective foot guards called Shotblockers.
Working under the company name Exterior Skate Protection, Vernon’s Bruce Booth and Larry Jensen are making Shotblockers, using a polypropylene graphite material to ensure they are light (roughly 80 grams per skate) and have a low profile which doesn’t obstruct a player’s stride.
They are available in a variety of shapes and models to protect certain parts of the skate. There is a one-size-fits-all piece that covers the soft tongue, as well as custom-fit guards that attach to either side of the boot.
Prices range from $50 to $190, depending on the model. Players can further customize the equipment by having a team logo or jersey number imprinted on it.
“We had lots of people tell us they’ve been absolutely hammered, but we haven’t had anybody be injured with our stuff yet,” said Jensen, who is also the owner of the Central Okanagan Orthotic Lab. “We haven’t had anyone call us and say they got hit wearing our stuff and it didn’t help.”
Shotblockers earned some notoriety a few seasons ago when former Vancouver Canucks’ forward Ryan Johnson, then one of the team’s best shot blockers, was recovering from a foot injury. Hockey Night in Canada’s Scott Oakes did a small on-air segment during a CBC broadcast, detailing how Johnson was using the product to protect his feet.
“Johnson wore them for six or seven games, decided to take them off right before the playoffs and broke his foot again,” said Booth, a podiatrist who operates the Vernon Foot Clinic.
“It’s been that way with so many of the players. Management wants players to wear it, and unless the players want to wear it, you can’t make them.”
Booth first contacted the Canucks after seeing the rudimentary skate protectors Johnson was originally experimenting with. Seeing an opportunity, he fired an e-mail to Pat O’Neill, the Canucks’ longtime equipment manager, thinking he probably wouldn’t get a reply.
“I heard back from him the next day,” said Booth, who then travelled to Vancouver to meet the training staff and present his product.
O’Neill loved the product but was quick to warn Booth and Jensen the players would likely resist.
“He (O’Neill) said ‘I’ll warn you right now, these players will take it off,’” recalled Booth. “The trainers are on board completely. Management loves it. The players…”
Not so much.
Said O’Neill: “I wish our guys would use it because it’s the best thing going, but they all choose not to, unfortunately.”
For the Canucks that did try Shotblockers, O’Neill heard predictable complaints: “A little bit heavy, a different feel to when you’re tying your skates and sometimes they trip over them when they’re crossing over.”
Booth believes the resistance towards the product has more to do with hockey culture. He likens Shotblockers to visors when they were first introduced to the league.
“When visors first came out, it was a great idea…but even years later there’s only about 55 per cent of players that wear them.”
Booth and Jensen estimate there are anywhere from 30 to 50 NHLers using some form of Shotblockers today. Mayson Raymond is the lone Canuck to wear them, and he only wears the tongue insert.
“To me, you’ve got Weber (Shea, Nashville Predators) and Chara (Zdeno, Boston Bruins), the two hardest shots in the NHL, and they’re both wearing them,” said Booth.