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Niche Market | Ice Skates

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Sparks fly as the skates get sharpened. (Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC)

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.

Westside Skate and Stick
174 Fifth Avenue, 5th Fl.
New York, NY 10010

Tony Lynch peered at the blade on the ice skate for a few seconds and then looked up, chuckling.  

"Yup, you're right. You've been skating on a goalie cut," he said across the counter to Cory Heinz. "How'd you like that?"

"It was terrible," groaned Heinz. "I knew the minute I stepped onto the ice because I slid about four feet sideways." 

"Let's get you back to a player cut," said Lynch. 

Heinz, who plays hockey in a recreational league twice a week at Lasker rink in Central Park, bemoaned his decision to get his skates sharpened by a competitor. "If only you guys weren't closed on Mondays!"

In six years, Westside Skate and Stick has become a vital way station for those who take gliding, jumping, spinning and chasing a puck on ice seriously in this city. 

Part retailer and part machinist workshop, the store is hidden on the fifth floor of a building in the Flatiron District like a secret clubhouse. But as the popularity of ice skating grows in the city, Westside has built a reputation on its skill in sharpening skates for the ultimate grip and glide. Depending on personal preference, weight, height and experience, for $15-$35 the staff will mold the hollow and profile of ice skate blades using a special seven-step sharpening technique called "maximum edge." Many customers bring their skates back regularly to obtain a fine edge for games. The store also offeres skate fitting and "baking," a process that molds a skate to a customer's foot.

Sitting on a bench waiting for his skates to be sharpened by the boys in the back, Larry "Ratso" Sloman dished praise. "They're on a class above anybody else in the city. And if you don't have good sharpened skates, fuggedaboutit. You can't perform," said this avid recreational hockey player, who also happens to be the author of Thin Ice, a book about a year spent with the New York Rangers.

The sound of blades grinding on a stone wheel pierces the soundscape at the store, and for owner David Healy, it's the high pitch of nostalgia. "I always remember it in the hockey shops, as a kid when you walked in you just knew, from the sound, it was like winter began again," said Healy, who spent his childhood in Massachusetts skating on ponds.  

With walls lined with skates, bulky protective equipment, sticks, and men on benches tying their shoelaces, Westside Skate and Stick has a locker room vibe, albeit a demographically mixed one. Men who play in recreational hockey leagues into their 60s, like Sloman, amble on the carpeted floor, trying on skates, while eight year olds like Phillip Fuhrman poke at gear. But the two were on the same page when it comes to hockey. "It's aggressive, you're always moving," said Fuhrman, who was wearing a Knicks' Jeremy Lin jersey. The boy's opinion was echoed by Sloman: "It's cheaper than therapy. You go out on the ice and you just forget any of your mundane problems, and then you get to hit people too, so you get all your aggression out." (Perhaps the regular release of aggression on ice is why everyone in the store seemed so good natured.)

The testosterone level is tempered by the likes of fifteen-year-old Alana Resnick, a competitive figure skater. She came in with her mother — a professional figure skating coach — to sharpen her edges before the weekend’s competition at Wollman Rink in Central Park. Resnick knew it was time for a tune-up because she had been slipping during her daily practices. "It wasn't sticking and biting into the ice as much as it usually does and I was skidding a lot,” she said.

While the teenager did her homework, Healy dressed his grinding wheel with a diamond and carefully labored over Resnick's skates for 20 minutes, pausing after each pass to examine the blade. A sharp and square edge is even more important for figure skaters, because of the complicated footwork required for jumps and axles. 

Winter may be coming to a close, but that doesn't mean Westside Skate and Stick will shut its doors. Recreational play goes all year round at the city's indoor rinks, and figure skating competitions run through the summer. Many customers are self described ice addicts. "This is my hockey dealer and it's like a drug, so I'm spending all my money on this guy," said Elmar Cellermayer, a regular, giving Healy a wink.

Healy has about 10 employees, all of whom are hockey players. On Friday night, there was no question where they were going: A bar down the street to watch the Rangers game.

Interview with David Healy, owner of Westside Skate and Stick

What is the philosophy behind skate sharpening?

Your skates are your instrument. Ice conditions change, even in indoor rinks, three to four degrees. Humidity can soften ice in the summer and the more quality you can put into a skate sharpening the more control you can give to a skater.  

It's the balance between agility and control. We deal with custom profiles — a smaller profile will give a skater more agility, a flatter profile will give a skater more control. That's usually the difference between the height of a skater — a shorter skater will want more of a radius, a taller skater will want a flatter radius. It also has to do with speed a little bit too.

What's your goal when you sharpen a skate?

You're trying to take off as little metal as possible. You're not trying to make too many adjustments for a skater, what you do as a skate sharpener is you create consistency, consistency, consistency. That's the greatest thing you can give to a skater. So much of skating is muscle memory. That's why figure skaters, their moment in Olympic gold is so much just going through the motions, they've done it so many times. Hockey players, we're following a puck, we're chasing its position, there are breakouts, there are zones, there are cycling. For hockey there's a lot more in the team environment, and to go out there and to be part of the team you don't want to be thinking about your skates, you don't want to be thinking about your stick or your gloves. You really want to get out of the mental part of the game and get into the physicality of the game that's happening now. Skate sharpening and giving that consistency to a skater in hockey is very crucial at a league level, and we're trying to do that at a retail level.

Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
A blade is sharpened.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Cleaning the ice skate.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
David Healy sharpening a pair of figure skates.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
An ice hockey skate for sale at Westside Skate and Stick.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Getting a skate ready.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Elmar Cellermayer trying on his skates after they were baked.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sparks fly as the skates get sharpened.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
A Friday afternoon crowd at Westside Skate and Stick.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Hockey sticks at Westside Skate and Stick.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
David Healy making sure the skate edge is square.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Hockey gloves for sale at Westside Skate and Stick.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
David Healy, owner of Westside Skate and Stick.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
A customer tries on a new pair of ice hockey skates at Westside Skate and Stick.

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Comments [1]

rikkisamuel from NYC

As skating customers become more educated shops like West Side Skate will
become the surgeons and the customers will become the informed patients.
Great story!

Mar. 09 2012 10:05 PM

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