(UPDATE 4/26/2016: the VH Hockey Skate is covered along with many of the other skates for 2016 in the Reboot Hockey Off-Ice Training Manual. The Manual is available for purchase at this link. Thanks.)
Conducted by Jack, Reboot Hockey
In my continual efforts to find a skate that will fit my warped feet, I began to investigate custom hockey skates, as it seemed that none of the current retail offerings would work well for me moving forward. After some investigation, I came across VH Hockey, which stems from a very successful manufacturer of speed skates called VH Footwear.
What initially put VH on my radar was the number of NHL players, particularly Winnipeg Jets, who were sporting VH Skates during the 2014-15 season. I believe I first noticed VH Skates on Jets Captain Andrew Ladd, but quickly noticed gigantic Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien also opting for VH Skates, as well as fellow American Olympian Blake Wheeler (thanks to Getty Images/NHL):
The Winnipeg Jets certainly don’t receive the same exposure in the U.S. as teams like Chicago or Pittsburgh, but for an NHL savant such as myself, it was hard to miss these unique, sharp-looking skates on many of the Jets’ top players.
Dustin Byfuglien, in particular, drew my attention. Not only because he’s just a mammoth player, but also because Dustin has seemingly had difficulty finding a pair of skates to fit his frame. I had previously seen Dustin sporting Easton Mako skates amid a number of other choices before settling on his impossible-to-miss VH Hockey skates.
I e-mailed VH Hockey, and VH was gracious enough to not only respond, but also to answer all of my questions in great detail. Below is my e-mail interview with Garth Smith, Vice President of Sales & Marketing for VH’s Hockey Division. Additional information about the VH line of skates can be found at http://www.vhhockey.com/. You can also Like VH Footwear on Facebook, or contact and follow VH via their Twitter handle @VHfootwear.
Reboot: Can you first tell Reboot Hockey readers a bit about how VH started and came to be involved in Ice Hockey?
VH: VH founder Scott Van Horne has been making skates for about 25 years (speed skates to start), and was incorporated in 1999. He designed a hockey skate about 8 years ago (MLX), which was well received in some circles. Scott left that company and it was ultimately sold to Easton. Van Horne went back to making custom speed skates – until he was approached by Jonas Hiller about getting back into hockey skates about 3 years ago. Scott refined his process, applied for new patents, and re-entered the hockey business.
(Note: Jonas Hiller is a goaltender for the Calgary Flames, and is well-known for continuing to sport Koho goaltending equipment.)
Reboot: There are obviously a ton of skate options available via the Retail Hockey Equipment market, and many modern skates are completely heat-moldable. Which fitting or construction issues do your customers cite mostly often when contacting VH about custom Hockey Skates?
VH: I will start by contending that there are very few skates that are “completely” heat-moldable. Of the modern skates, there are very few areas of the boot construction that are heat-moldable. We believe the VH boot to be the most moldable that there is – but even our boot is not entirely moldable. Because our product is very heat-moldable, our customers cite the great “wrap” that they are able to achieve with the boot – thereby providing most skaters with the best fit they have ever experienced.
(Notes: I’m not arguing, but almost every hockey shop employee I’ve spoken with over the past few years begins her or his pitch by talking about how “heat-reactive” or “thermo-moldable” a particular top-model skate is. Retail Hockey salespeople are getting their information directly from the manufacturers, and are clearly being told to push how heat-reactive respective skates are.
While I agree that the liners of skates conform like never before, I have not seen the overall reactivity I am looking for from a Retail skate excluding the Easton Mako. Most of the contemporary top-end skates I’ve used over the past few years require trial-and-error boot-punching, and very few of them provide the foot-wrap that I’m looking for.
In the past, I’ve used the exact same technique Scott uses in this video to personalize fit. However, as noted elsewhere, the Eyelet Cuff/Row of contemporary skates is often so stiff that this technique only damages a $600-$800 skate.
If you look at this video from VH on speed-skate molding, you get a better idea of the sort of reactivity I’m looking for from a hockey skate. In fact, I think most people would be well-served by watching the entire VH video series to get a better understanding of what a proper hockey skate-fitting entails.)
Reboot: I began investigating custom Hockey Skates after failing to adjust to newer-style composite boots. I find most modern boots not only too restrictive, but also painful. Can you briefly explain to readers the advantages of the Monocoque boot used on VH Skates in comparison to the separate boot/outsole seen on most other modern Hockey Skates?
VH: Sure…first of all, when posing the question, you are assuming that all boots will mold and move for a skater. With many boots, they are made from very hard plastic molds that are seeking to be light and durable (not necessarily being focused on fit). Monocoque construction allows us to construct essentially an entire boot to the shape, length and width required by a skater.
Reboot: A major appeal of the Monocoque boot to me is that the single-piece construction would seem to help players have a much greater feel from the boot to the holder. It would also seem to me that a Monocoque boot would optimize the transfer of power from the skater to the skate blade. Does the Monocoque boot aid in both speed and the player’s ability to feel the ice?
VH: Correct on both counts. By creating a boot with very little “volume”, the boot becomes an extension of the player’s foot. This allows for maximum force transfer from the stride through the ice – in many cases creating more speed, and providing a feel of instant cuts and turns.
Reboot: Can you elaborate on how VH is able to identify foot abnormalities that can’t be seen with a foot tracing? For example, if a player has pronounced bone spurs on his foot (as I do), how can the player best relay this information to VH?
VH: For sure…if you have look on the website, there are some instructions on what we ask people to send in. The tracing allows us to set up an anatomically correct starting foot last on top of it to get the length, width, and shape of the foot. We also ask for customers to mark the location of ankle bones, abnormalities, navicular, etc. Then, we ask for the measurements to the middle of any trouble spots – and some pictures to support the measurements. Also, we ask for circumference measurement of both the forefoot, and the ankle area. Once we have received all of this information, we essentially have a “map” of the skater’s foot. This information is then used to make a custom foot last, and the boot is then built from the inside out in a very unique process.
(Note: this video from VH does a great job explaining how to size yourself for an order.)
Reboot: I will be writing a future article for Reboot Hockey on the differences in sizing between boots made by Bauer, CCM, Easton, etc. What I have noticed is that a Bauer Size 9 is not very close to a CCM Size 9, and to correctly size myself, I’ve resorted to using European units of measurement.
For example, a CCM/RBK Size 9 is Euro 44, while a Graf Size 9 is a Euro 43. I’ve found that a few millimeters is all it takes to separate a great-fitting boot from one that fits poorly.
Can you discuss the way in which VH standardizes length and width measurements? Or does VH mainly rely on the foot tracings and pictures submitted by customers?
VH: Good question. As I mentioned in the previous answer, we use a very anatomically correct starting foot last. We ask for current skate make and size so we can get a sense of what a particular skater is used to (and sometimes to keep the holder size consistent). However, because our boots are custom made for each player, we don’t really have a problem with sizes.
Reboot: My biggest issue with modern composite skates is the inability to achieve necessary Forward Flex (Dorsiflexion) and Foot Wrap due to the stiffness of the eyelet rows. Many modern skates are so stiff that amateur players not only skate poorly, but expose themselves to orthopedic issues because they can’t properly flex their ankles.
Can you please discuss how VH has tackled this issue? Is this a problem customers commonly cite when contacting VH?
VH: Another very good question. Because of Scott Van Horne’s background as a Canadian National Speedskater, he is acutely aware of the mechanics of powerful skaters. He also completed a Masters Degree in Biomechanics – with his thesis focusing on the skating stride. Because of this, Scott has designed the VH skate to allow specifically for what you reference in your question – the set up of the boot allows for skaters to get their knee over their toes for maximal stride force.
Reboot: I grew up in Pittsburgh, and was of course aware of the MLX line of skates due to their affiliation with Mario Lemieux. The VH Hockey Skates of course bear a strong connection to the MLX. Can you talk about some ways in which the VH Hockey boot has improved and progressed since the original MLX was released?
VH: Far better materials. Far better fit because of the process to build the boots custom for a player. As Scott would say “The MLX boot was like a prototype version 1.0…the VH boot is like version 8 or 9 from all of the experience, feedback, and learnings over the years”.
Reboot: Time has shown that the MLX had some strong and weak points. Can you please talk about the lessons learned in constructing the MLX, and how lessons learned from the MLX were applied in the construction of the current VH Hockey Skates?
VH: Proprietary Information.
(Note: Instead of just Being Vague all of the time, I’m going to start responding “proprietary information” every time someone asks a question I don’t want to answer. Thanks, Garth.)
Reboot: Can you talk at all about the current relationship between VH and Easton Chief of Speed Dave Cruikshank?
(Note: Cruikshank was a former Olympic-level speed-skater who used VH skates while he competed. Cruikshank worked with VH President/Founder Scott Van Horne in the construction of the MLX boot before he was brought in to overhaul Easton’s line of skates.)
VH: There is no formal relationship. I personally don’t know Dave, other than that he was/is a tremendous skater. He and Scott were the founding members of the MLX company, and when Easton acquired MLX, Dave joined Easton (Scott had left MLX prior to that time).
Reboot: Can you or Scott discuss some of the biggest differences between the VH Hockey Skate and the Easton Mako Skate? Is there a type of player of type of foot that would be particularly better served using a VH skate rather than a Mako, or vice-versa?
VH: To my knowledge the Mako is a fine product that is produced overseas in a standard sizing range. I do not believe that this skate is customized for individual skaters as the VH is which is produced in Winnipeg, Canada. We make custom boots, so I don’t think there is a particular foot that we can’t accommodate – I won’t speak to which type of feet are served well by the Mako.
Reboot: In my efforts to find a skate that fits properly, I have looked to professional players who may have had similar fitting problems. In my investigation, I noticed Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets wearing Easton Makos for a time before switching to VH Skates. Several of his Jets teammates, notably Jets Captain Andrew Ladd, also switched to VH. From what I have seen, Ladd had been using Bauer skates almost exclusively since he entered the NHL before switching to VH this past season (2014-15), while Byfuglien has seemed to have a difficult time finding skates that fit since entering the NHL.
First, can you talk about some of the ways in which the VH boots fit differently than the Easton Mako, and maybe talk about the process between VH and Dustin Byfuglien in particular?
Second, can you speak about how several of the Jets players ended up in VH boots, even after years and years of using Bauer, CCM, etc.?
VH: We don’t speak about how the VH skates fit differently than other brands, primarily because that is a very individual experience. It is not an apples to apples comparison – again – because we are making a boot to fit the player. In theory, if we do a good job, any player should find that the VH boot is the best fitting skating boot that they have ever used.
There are a number of Jets using the skates primarily because of proximity and opportunity. We generally find that if one or two players are using the skates, then there are a number of their teammates that are intrigued and willing to try. The same thing has happened in San Jose and Columbus and some other cities…it just takes some time.
Reboot: The Jets made the playoffs in 2014-15 for the first time since the NHL returned to Winnipeg. This was obviously for a number of reasons, but I can’t help but suspect that VH played a small part by getting a number of the Jets’ key contributors into their skates. Has the success of the Jets led to more interest from more professional teams and/or equipment managers?
VH: Haha, that is nice of you to say. I’m not sure we draw the same straight line to the Jets success – but we are happy to have someone else make that contention! I’m not sure that the interest is related to the Jets success – just a function of time and other players noticing what peers are wearing and talking about. Sometimes equipment managers will contact us because players have issues or problem feet. We don’t want to be known as the “problem skate”, however, sometimes it can be a nice entrée into a dressing room
Reboot: What do younger professional players most commonly cite as the best feature or biggest advantage of the VH Hockey Skates?
I’m specifically thinking of young NHL players such as Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheiefle, who grew up using full-composite skates. How did VH manage to win over young professional players like this who seemingly have their choice of the best equipment available?
VH: You may have answered your own question. Because players do have their choice of the best equipment available, many have chosen our product. In the case of young players it is often an older or respected teammate that is using our skates that has told someone that you really have to try these.
Reboot: Are there certain types of feet or players that VH commonly deals with? For example, do larger players gravitate toward VH? Or players with flat feet, large ankles/forefeet, etc.?
VH: Not really, we think any skater could benefit. However, as I mentioned before, sometimes we get a try from someone that is having issues with their current skates.
Again, I was thrilled with the depth of the responses I was given by Garth, and I can’t thank him enough for taking the time to answer all of my questions so thoroughly.
The intent of this interview from my perspective is to create awareness of VH Hockey for those who might be having fitting problems similar to my own. Most of the time, I leave the average hockey store more frustrated than when I arrived, because none of the $800+ skates seem to provide the fit I’m looking for. I wanted similarly-frustrated players to know that for the amount of money being asked for high-end hockey skates at the Retail level, there’s a price-comparable alternative in VH Skates.
Selfishly, I also wanted to know more about the VH product as a potential customer. I fully plan to invest in a pair of VH Hockey Skates, and will update this article after I receive and review them. I may be waiting a while, because it seems business is booming for VH as more and more players become aware of their product.
Thanks for reading. As always, you can support Reboot Hockey by re-posting this interview and Liking Reboot Hockey on Facebook.