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Behind the Bench, January 20th Junior Hockey News

Published: Tuesday, 19 Jan 2021  
By: Michael Moore



Hi everyone,

So, this week I wanted to go another route. My work perpetually puts me in front of Facebook as many players and their families interact with me there. It is certainly a mixed blessing. I appreciate the fact that I can quickly and easily engage a player regarding an evaluation or a parent about a plausible Junior opportunity. On the other hand it is Facebook and all the awfulness that comes with it. 

In a previous life, I worked in advertising on Madison avenue in New York. This was way before the internet had truly learned to monetize itself. I am always amazed by the length and depth a product or service will go to in order to grab just a few seconds of your attention. This is none more readily apparent than what is delivered to you via Google and Facebook. It is almost creepy. I get bombarded by advertisements for training seminars, hockey coaching and extending my car warranty. 

One topic I see regularly be pushed on me is hockey equipment. Makes sense. Sticks, skates, bags, gloves, sweaters, toques and pucks are all represented. I am sure that the purveyors of these products likely just got a big boost through the holiday season. Which means that many of you reading this likely purchased such items. 

One subcategory that is of particular interest (to me at least) is the new products and innovations. Gloves where the palms zip out or mini target nets probably are not considered exactly groundbreaking. Then again the supposed groundbreaking items are not always very “groundbreaking”. Yeah, I tried the stick with the hole in it last year… not impressed.

Though, one thing I have not tried but I remain curious about is the Marsblade. It's a system that allows the boot to pivot along the ice skate or rollerblade blade holder. It is an interesting concept and players seem to genuinely like it. Thankfully Coach Littler had stumbled across an article about it and its creator and inception. NO, THIS IS NOT SPONSORED CONTENT. I just thought it was interesting to learn about something relatively new and how it came about. Hopefully you will as well.


MARS
On ice or off, Per Mårs believes he’s found a way to change the sport of hockey
By Aaron Portzline Dec 2, 2020 


Like all good ideas, Per Mårs’ brainchild was first formed and articulated on the rail of a bar.

Three years after his promising hockey career ended due to a back injury, Mårs was back in Östersund, Sweden, ruminating well into the night on how skates could be better, how skate training could be improved and how the game could be changed by reconsidering the most important equipment any player wears.

“It was probably 2007 or 2008,” Mårs said. “I didn’t have any actual plans to take it further, just some strong opinions. But my friend (and drinking buddy, Petter Bahlenberg) is a really smart guy, and he was really enthusiastic.” 

Not 2:30 a.m. and too-many-Carlsbergs enthusiastic, but truly, soberly enthusiastic.

“(Bahlenberg) told me, ‘You really have to do something about this,'” Mårs recalled. “And that triggered me to make the first step.”

More than a decade later, Mårs’ skate company, Marsblade, has become all the rage with NHL players, with more than 300 — and possibly far more — using his rollerblades and trainers to stay in shape since the COVID-19 pandemic halted games around the world in March.

Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Brent Burns and Aleksander Barkov have endorsed the product. Auston Matthews liked them so much he bought into the company as an investor. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and other clubs placed large orders for players throughout their organizations.

There seem to be only two types of NHL players right now: those who have tried Marsblades and those who can’t wait to.

Many of them are also anticipating a new Marsblade skate blade, due out sometime in 2021, that Mårs believes can dramatically change the game for many players.

But it’s not just pro hockey players, Mårs said. An explosion of sales is any entrepreneur’s dream, but it would have been nice, Mårs jokes, to have a little warning. The stalled supply chain during the pandemic — his products are manufactured in Sweden and China — acted as a restrictor plate.

“It was a crazy spring and summer,” he said. “We had a 10-fold increase in inquiries and visits to our website from last year. We had two people working in customer support, and all of a sudden we have 1,000 unanswered messages one morning (last spring).

“It was a challenging spring and summer for our team, keeping up with demand. It was impossible to keep up with everything, but we managed. Our sales increased four times from last year, but it could have been 10-fold if we had the product.”

There are three Marsblades products: a roller-hockey chassis for competitive off-ice play, an off-ice roller chassis designed for training and an ice skate blade holder (no boot include) for on-ice competition.

There’s no question that Mårs’ drive and determination have carried him this far. His friend and fellow investor Niklas Kronwall, the former Detroit Red Wings defenseman, described him as an “absolute perfectionist in everything he does.”

But serendipity has also played a major role in Mårs’ success.

Niklas Kronwall of the Red Wings wears the Marsblade technology during the 2018-19 season, his last in the NHL. (Courtesy of Per Mårs)


A new dream

Mårs’ name may sound familiar. Was he a 1980s heavy-metal guitarist? A Bond villain? No, he was a third-round draft pick (No. 87 overall) of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2001. He was selected eight picks before Philadelphia took Patrick Sharp.

Like so many other Blue Jackets picks in those days, Mårs’ youthful trajectory could not be sustained. The season after he was drafted was spent between Sweden’s top league and minor league, and then came a season with the Lincoln (Neb.) Stars in the United States Hockey League.

He was planning to return to North America and play in the East Coast Hockey League, but a back injury while playing in Sweden’s minor league in 2003-04 effectively ended his career.

“I came to two development camps with Columbus,” Mårs said. “I hung out a lot with (Blue Jackets farmhands) Raffaele Sannitz and Janne Jokila. I have some old press pictures from those days. It would be fun to see them. Good memories.”

Unbeknownst to Mårs, his passion for his next career had already been kindled.

“One of my teammates in Lincoln, (goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux), did a lot of training on these stability balls,” Mårs said. “I thought it looked fun. So I started doing it with him, more for fun than anything else.

“But then I noticed a huge improvement on the ice with this balance training, and that sparked an interest in what stability and balance training could do.”

The spark flickered for a few years before that night in the bar with Bahlenberg.

“I tried all of the traditional inlines, but I never liked the feel of them,” Mårs said.

“Like most ice hockey players will tell you, it doesn’t replicate the feel of the ice closely enough. I’d try them a couple of times and then put them aside."

“I started putting two and two together, with the balance training I had and the experience with the regular inlines. Perhaps there could be a more efficient way of training my balance when I was skating. So I started experimenting with the wheel setups, removing wheels to create more instability.”

This is how Marsblades’ first product, the off-ice roller, was born. It started with Lamoureux’s training and Bahlenberg’s encouragement, but it came to life — more serendipity — thanks to Mårs’ proximity to Mid-Sweden University in Östersund, home to an elite sports-engineering program.

These off-ice rollers weren’t made for playing roller hockey or even for recreational rollerblading. The idea was off-ice training, and it all sounds counterintuitive: increased instability off the ice would lead to better balance and more stability on the ice.

Part of the problem with traditional rollerblades, Mårs believed, is that the biomechanical stride was too different from ice skating.

Also, rollerblades provided significantly more support than ice blades, so bad habits were formed and it was harder to get acclimated back on ice.

It’s why so few NHL players have done much rollerblading, while strength and conditioning coaches have typically steered players away from the activity as anything more than recreation.

But Mårs wanted to change that by creating a product that could make off-ice skating both recreational and beneficial.

“I came up with this idea to implement instability between the wheels and the boot,” Mårs said. “That became the base or the foundation of what we now call our Flow-Motion Technology, which is, essentially, a rocker.

“Think of a rocking chair, with a round surface at the bottom rocking against a flat surface. I started testing that and building the prototype. The first one wasn’t very good (laughing), but the second one worked really well and I felt right away that this was something special.”

Mårs, with the financial backing of a local incubator, made hundreds of tweaks and changes. Smaller wheels. Thinner wheels. Different bearings. A longer chassis. A shorter chassis. Fewer wheels. More wheels.

Eventually, he found the perfect match.

“It’s exciting to be on the rollers and feel as if you’re skating on ice,” Mårs said. “The things you can do on ice … you can take these outside and work on your skating wherever and whenever you want.

“It’s the same biomechanical movement, so you can improve your endurance and speed very closely as on ice.

Always, when you train, you want to spend as much time as possible doing the actual movement you use when you compete, but for hockey players, you don’t always have access to ice.”

This is where Marsblades found traction last spring when the pandemic shut down the NHL, closed rinks and abruptly sent players into isolation. They needed to stay in shape for when the season resumed.

“It was hard to get ice during that time,” Blue Jackets forward Gustav Nyquist said. “We were doing everything possible to get ready for the bubble.

“I put a smaller wheel on the toe wheel, so it feels like you’re pushing off on ice skates, too. It’s great. It’s way better than a regular rollerblade. You’ll never be able to replicate a full skating sensation, but it’s definitely much more similar.”

Nyquist was so impressed with Mårs’ invention that he, too, bought into the company.

This trainer boot has been a big seller for Mårs since the pandemic struck. (Courtesy of Marsblade)


The next wave

Kronwall, 37, was looking for any advantage he could find in 2018-19, his 15th and final season in the NHL. He was never regarded as a good skater anyway, and the league was getting younger and faster.

“As an older player, you’re just trying to stay in the game, and that means finding every benefit you can find,” Kronwall said. “At the time, they were a little bit heavier than the blades I’d used, but they gave me such an upside in other aspects.

“I loved going backward on them because it just felt so effortless. Coming out of turns I had way more speed. I’m not a speedster, but it gave me a benefit compared to the regular skates. I skated on them for two games, then I went back to my old skates to see if I could tell a difference. It was 15-20 minutes before I was like, ‘It’s not even close.'”

Kronwall soon became an investor, along with former Wings teammate Henrik Zetterberg. In fact, Zetterberg and Kronwall met with Mårs in Östersund last month to try out the new blade holder, which will be out at some point in 2021.

The technology used in the off-ice skater — Flow-Motion Technology has been trademarked — is also involved with the on-ice model, but the skater can adjust the front and back of the blade for the right feel.

The “rocker” allows for the blade to be on the ice longer during a skater’s stride than a classic blade, which moves precisely with the rest of the boot.

“As you shift your balance, it gives you more blade on the ice at all times,” Kronwall said.

The off-ice trainers and rollers have done big business, but Mårs believes the new ice-holders are going send the company into a different stratosphere. He also thinks they can bring revolutionary change to hockey. 

As a proud Swede, he made some interesting analogies.

“We believe it has the potential to do for skating what the carving ski did for alpine skiing or the clap skate in speedskating,” Mårs said. “We think it can take over the entire market.”

NHL players seem keenly interested, but they’re also beholden to their tried and true skates and, in some cases, paid handsomely to use blades and other equipment from bedrock companies like Bauer and CCM.


Will it be hard to crack the market?

“It all comes down to the product,” Kronwall said. “If they feel the difference and the improvements it can make, once one guy starts using it, it’s just going to spread.

“The younger guys know their flex inside-out. They know the profile of their blade in a different way than we (older guys) ever did. I think it’s changed a lot in that way. The younger guys now all want the latest thing: ‘What’s out there? What’s out there?’ They’re extremely curious to try new things.”

Nyquist is among the players eager to try them, though it’s unclear when the skate blades will be available. Then again, it’s unclear when the 2020-21 season may start.

“Sticks have changed a lot in the last few years, right?” Nyquist said. “Helmets have changed … almost everything in the game has changed. But that part of the game (the skates), it hasn’t really been touched. I mean, the boots have gotten more comfortable, but creating a better edge on the ice? Nobody’s thought about that.

“I told Mårs right away, ‘This is a great idea.’ It goes a long way, too, when a guy like Auston Matthews is on board. For me … (laughing) maybe it can help me keep up with the young guys.”

Mårs continues to work almost daily in his workshop “up in the woods” in Östersund. He tinkers and designs and reconsiders aspects of the sporting world that could be enhanced with the technology he has brought to life.

The career he wanted as a player was never realized. But his second act seems on the cusp of being bigger than anyone imagined.

“This is a great way to still be involved in hockey,” Mårs said. “We’re building our own team here, great people. In this way, I’m able to impact hockey much more than I would have been able to with just my own playing career.

“I definitely have a big passion for doing this, and it’s incredible to see all the amazing feedback we get. The people are so thankful for the products we’re making. We’re helping hockey players all over the world. It feels very special.”

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Thank you,
Team VHC

Author: Michael Moore
Michael is a professional hockey scout and advisor with Victorious Hockey helping North America’s top hockey prospects fulfill their ultimate playing potential.


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