Inventor chases dream of heated skates
Bringing an invention to market can be a challenge in the world of sports
CALGARY, Alberta -- Tory Weber worked the midnight shift monitoring the boiler room in the basement of a posh hotel in Banff National Park. It was a boring job for a college student in his early 20s, but the pay, and the dollar-a-day room and meals, made it hard for him to quit, especially with a new silver Mazda RX7 parked outside.
So Weber put his feet up on the desk, his hands behind his head, and thought, "God, you'd just about have to kill me for me to change my life."
Seconds later, a chunk of concrete fell from the ceiling, which was being remodeled. It severed the hotel's main gas line, just 20 feet from Weber's desk. Natural gas hissed out of the punctured 1-inch steel line near two flame-shooting boilers.
Firefighters said it was pure luck the hotel didn't explode.
For Weber, that second chance was a catalyst to follow a dream hatched in childhood.
Inspired by Spud Gun
A few years before the hotel incident, Weber had an idea that stemmed from another accident. Painful, but not nearly as dangerous. It was a cold February day at his parents' house in Calgary. He stepped into his shoes, which had been sitting on a heat vent, and walked out onto the icy stairs to get the evening newspaper. His warm shoes melted the ice and sent him reeling onto his rear end.
The same thermodynamics class that eventually landed him the boiler room job made Weber ponder the effect his heated shoes had on the ice. Like most men in Canada, Weber had grown up with a stick and a puck and a number of idols in the NHL. As Weber nursed his aching back, the idea struck him: What would happen if hockey players could skate on heated blades?
That sort of "aha" moment puts Weber in good company with other would-be inventors. Applications for patents pending with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office relating to sporting equipment number in the thousands. About 6,600 pertain to golf, which includes 1,900 related to golf balls alone. For what seems like a relatively simple device -- a hockey puck -- there are 22 applications alone.
It's a tough market for the backyard inventor, going up against the scientists and engineers with the big-time research departments for companies such as Nike, Callaway and Russell. Some ideas are minor modifications on existing equipment, such as a football glove with a better grip. Others are more novel. Think of antibacterial chalk used in weight rooms, basketball rims that project holographic ads with every swish, and a robot that scurries after stray table tennis balls.
Bringing any invention to market is a challenge. Pioneering a new sporting device comes with the added hurdle of getting it accepted by any of the major leagues or governing bodies that set the rules for each sport. Weber found that out the hard way.
Over 25 years, Weber's idea for a heated hockey blade would propel him to stardom, hobnobbing with hockey legends Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Clarke. And it would drive him to despair, after a decision by the NHL sent him into bankruptcy. And finally, a last-minute salvation came to fruition just a few months ago, with a shot yet again to make the pros.
Weber's idea -- like many others -- was quite rudimentary in its early iterations. He first tried using a blowtorch to heat the blades. One version involved a motorcycle battery and the heating element from a vehicle's rear-window defogger. Weber thought that a new invention would be his ticket to fortune -- just like it had been for E. Joseph Cossman.
Cossman was an inventor who made millions from turning simple, often bizarre ideas into lucrative products. Remember the Spud Gun? Or the Plastic Ant Farm? Weber learned about Cossman from books and cassettes his mother bought to help her and her husband, who was a carpenter, market a line of designer playhouses.
"That's what I really wanted. To invent anything I could, to get out of the lifestyle I was in," Weber said. "In my young, little mind I thought if you invent something, you can get yourself out of a big hole."
As a child, the middle brother of three boys, Weber and his family lived in the basement of an unfinished house with no running water in the rural countryside outside Armstrong, then a town of about 2,500 people in south central British Columbia. The boys played hockey on nearby frozen ponds using donated, used equipment. When money got scarce, Weber's stepfather would drive to a nearby grocery store and fish through trash bins for loaves of moldy bread, brown bananas and other discarded food to get the family through the week.
"It wasn't good where we were growing up," Weber said. "I thought if you worked your ass off you could get out of the mess, and that's really what it was."
His first foray into inventing was a weighted hockey puck he tried to develop in the late '80s with the help of his soon-to-be wife, Shawna. Just two months into their courtship, Weber asked Shawna to go on a picnic. He picked her up in the garbage truck he used for his part-time job hauling trash. The truck was loaded with 1,000 pucks, a kettle and 20 pounds of lead fishing weights, pilfered from his grandfather's garage. He got a few weights melted over a raging bonfire before a park ranger kicked them out.
"It was kind of exciting," Shawna said, recalling the fiasco. "I've never been on a date where somebody melted lead before."
Weber had planned to pour lead into the hollowed-out pucks to create a weighted training puck that would help players build muscle. The pucks had a habit of shattering sticks, however, and they got relegated to the Webers' garage, alongside his beer bottle collection. (Several years later, Weber sold the pucks and bottles together for $15 at a flea market.)
But that first failure didn't deter him, because he could always go back to that day in the basement boiler room for inspiration. It was no coincidence that he had just recently begun to accept Christianity -- mostly at his older brother's urging. He even had a Bible hidden in his top desk drawer.
"I just thought, 'OK, God, it's not often that you speak to people this bluntly. I'm so thick I need to have it spelled out to me that way,'" he said. He quit his job at the hotel. In the summer of 1988 he moved back to Calgary with a renewed confidence in God and his own ingenuity.
"That's really where I got the ability to take on these huge, huge projects. I felt I could do anything. As long as God can, I can."
Blades reduce friction
Weber began tinkering with his blade in earnest -- running tests, crafting prototypes and asking for advice. Shawna described how he once froze ice on one of her cookie sheets and rigged up a device to warm the blade using an electrical cord plugged into a kitchen outlet.
"It started on fire," he said, laughing.
Weber then made a crucial ally in retired NHL right winger Rich Sutter, who was buying lumber for an outdoor ice rink from the building supplies store where Weber worked. And Weber talked Sutter into a test ride.
"I got one of those batteries and I taped it onto the side of his blade and put the element on the outside of the blade and asked him to go for a skate," Weber said. "He said, 'Wow, this is something awesome.' He said if you can contain this thing you've got a hit."
But that was the problem; all of the batteries with enough power to heat the blade were too big to conceal inside the skate. It just wasn't feasible to strap a half-pound battery -- about the size of a camcorder battery in the early 1990s -- to the outside of a hockey player's boot.
Chasing the dream
Innovations nip at the heels of almost all major sports, forcing a debate over where to draw the line between advancing the competition and diminishing the importance of an athlete's ability. Story
"They looked really ridiculous," Weber said. The development stalled. Every few months, Weber would check battery catalogs and call manufacturers to see if anything smaller had been developed.
In the meantime, Weber was learning the business, and the art, of taking inventions to market. In just a few years with Totem Building Supplies, Weber had ascended from fetching lumber in the yard to becoming one of the company's most successful regional managers in Alberta. He devised almost two dozen building products. One was a wheelbarrow with a hinged-grip handle that reduced back strain; it was sold in stores, including Home Depot, across North America.
"His saying always was, 'Where there's a problem, there's a product,'" said Ken Crockett, who worked for Weber at Totem for about five years. Crockett said his boss would carry some everyday product, such as a chair, down to his basement, where he would dim the lights and just stare at it, scribbling notes on how to make it better.
Crockett knew to come armed with a notepad on their three-hour drives between stores in Edmonton and Calgary to jot down ideas Weber would toss out about building supplies or his lingering passion: the heated hockey blade.
"It was just the fun of thinking and dreaming of something that seems so far out of reality," Crockett said. "Yet Tory never thought it was too big. It was just a step away. And he made you believe that."
In 2000, an engineer whom Weber and his wife had befriended at church described a newly developed lithium battery that could power the heating element in his skate. Most important: It was small enough to easily fit into the blade casing.
Almost 15 years after Weber slipped on his parents' porch, the development of the blade was back on. In 2001, he and his friend applied for a U.S. patent for a device called Thermablade.
To pay for more professional development, Weber sought out investors all the way from Sutter's contacts in the NHL to the owner of a nearby skate shop where Weber bought his test blades. Weber and his wife also appealed to relatives, including Weber's older brother, Troy.
Troy had dual degrees in science and theology, which is just what his brother Tory needed in an investor -- someone with an appreciation of both physics and faith.
"It was a no-brainer," Troy said. "If you can reduce friction on a skate blade, that player is able to skate more efficiently."
Weber rented ice at a rink about 10 miles from his house at 2:30 in the morning, when rent was cheap and no one would be wise to their experiments. They rigged up a device that pulled two blades across the ice -- one heated, one not -- to prove that the heated blades reduced friction.
Through Weber's NHL connections, he got the cooperation of several minor league hockey players to skate a precise, timed route once wearing Thermablades and then wearing regular blades. Their blood was drawn each time to test for lactic acid -- an indication of exertion -- and the levels were generally lower in players wearing Thermablades, Weber said. And so was their heart rate.
The Great Endorser
Armed with their data, Weber and his colleagues tried to shop their idea to the major skate manufacturers, but no one was biting. At that point, one of Weber's contacts with Hockey Canada, the country's governing body of hockey, suggested they try to recruit a big-name endorser. The biggest name. The Great One. The one and only, Wayne Gretzky.
The company used its last $30,000 and had a pair of blades made from scratch, just for Gretzky to try.
The hockey legend was so impressed by the blades that he decided to invest in the company, endorse the product and film several promotional videos. He also said he hoped that the Phoenix Coyotes, whom he coached at the time, would be the first team outfitted with the blades.
"It's a natural evolution of skate blade design and technology whose time has come," he said in one of the videos. "I think Thermablade will create a positive change in the game as we know it from the NHL right down to the Friday night men's leagues.
"Its performance benefits will help make the game more exciting to play and to watch. Hockey games and championships can be won and lost in half a stride and fractions of seconds. Thermablade gives the user an advantage that fits into today's style of game."
As encouraging as Gretzky's endorsement was, it still wasn't enough to persuade a skate manufacturer to buy the idea. Thermablade's initial $500,000 was spent, and the only way forward for Weber and his colleagues would be to raise enough money to manufacture the skates themselves.
Weber was at a crossroads. It was July 2005. He had a 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to support. And it just so happened that he was up for a lucrative promotion to vice president at work. He and Shawna would be financially set.
Just as he did seven years earlier, he quit his job and put his faith in God that he could make something of this new adventure.
"This is what he's always dreamed of. It was like, you know, we've got to go for it," Shawna said. "I just wanted to see him go for his dream."
They invested $50,000 of their own savings and grew their investor pool using all their contacts, from parents of their children's classmates to big names in the NHL, including Harley Hotchkiss, part owner of the Calgary Flames and then-chairman of the NHL board of governors. He invested more than $100,000.
"I thought the idea had some merit for improving the game of hockey," Hotchkiss said recently. "If it actually did help in the person's skating you could make a case it would make some improvement in [reducing] injuries."
Weber and his colleagues raised $17 million. With momentum building, the company's public relations firm executed a big media launch at the Hockey Hall of Fame ceremonies Oct. 17 in Toronto. Stories about Thermablade appeared in local and national media in print, on television and online.
Dozens of players would end up testing the blades out in practice and several agreed to publicly endorse Thermablade, including Martin Erat, Jarome Iginla, Jason Chimera, Simon Gagne, David Legwand, Craig Conroy and Mike Modano.
"The biggest difference I noticed was when ice gets chewed up, and very snowy, you still maintain a good glide, a good stride and you're not slowing down because of the snow," Modano, then center for the Dallas Stars, said in an endorsement video. "You still have that ability to turn well, glide better."
Calgary Flames center Craig Conroy agreed to try out a pair in the summer of 2008.
"All it is is a little bit of current going through the blade to keep it warm, and it's supposed to help you glide a little bit," Conroy said. "For me, anytime you can get a little bit of help or bonus, why not go for it?"
When doing laps, Conroy said he felt he could glide and turn better wearing Thermablades. "It just felt comfortable. You know, you just take off and it's an easy skate. It wasn't like you were working hard all the time."
Conroy was planning to wear his Thermablades during the team's 2008 home opener.
But just before the game, "I came in and they were gone," he said. The equipment manager had removed the Thermablades from his locker and replaced them with his old blades. "He said they've got a league mandate around that they're not approved by the NHL. I didn't even think skate blades would have to be approved by the league."
Thermablade officials had been well aware of the NHL's scrutiny for several months.
In August 2008, the NHL released results of a survey that showed that 28 of 30 general managers had concerns about Thermablades. Some reported that players allowed to test the blades didn't like them. Other managers were worried about the cost to the NHL and to youth hockey players. Another said that athletes didn't need any "artificial" improvements.
In response to concerns about the blade's impact on the rink, an NHL representative oversaw a test to measure whether Thermablades, which warm to about 38 degrees, deteriorated the ice. They didn't.
The company also tried to deflect concerns about cost by agreeing to sell the blades to the NHL for $140, less than half the current retail price of $299.
With those concerns addressed, Weber said the company felt confident it could move forward. It also had signed letters from officials with Hockey Canada and Hockey USA -- the governing bodies for amateur hockey and Olympic teams in both countries -- to permit the blades. And it had already shipped 120 blades out to NHL players who wanted to use them that season.
It looked as if their investment was going to pay off. At a rally in Calgary in September, company officials were discussing how they could keep up with the growing demand when a fax came in from the NHL saying Thermablades would not be allowed during the 2008-09 season.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league's 30 general managers still weren't comfortable with the blades.
"One of the issues was a concern about whether you're changing a fundamental aspect of the game by putting a battery on the skate and melting the ice, which may be too simplistic but it was certainly something that troubled our GMs," Daly said.
In an effort to persuade the GMs to reconsider, Thermablade representatives sent multiple documents outlining statistics behind their claims of increased performance, the results of a survey stating that fans supported new technology in hockey, and a cost breakdown showing that it would take less than $7,500 to outfit an entire 21-man team with Thermablades. They also included signed surveys from 17 NHL players who wanted to use Thermablades.
"No other company in history of hockey has gone as far as we have to educate that crowd," said Mike Chiasson, who was the head of product development for Thermablade. "It's not from a lack of information. It's from a lack of willingness to let product do what we say it can do."
Kris King, senior vice president of NHL hockey operations, said some people worried that Thermablade would give players too much of a boost.
"It wasn't rocket-powered skates, but it was a skate blade with an element that sent a charge to a piece of metal that would cause melting of the ice," he said. "They wondered if that would cause too much of an increase in speed."
After its denial, the NHL suggested that Thermablade test its blades on players in the American Hockey League, but the minor league declined.
The worst year
Thermablade had been counting on using its acceptance in the NHL to market the blades and persuade banks to loan it money to start production. Unfortunately, the league's denial coincided with a poor economy in 2009 and new lending restrictions. Thermablade's stock value plummeted and the company couldn't pay the bills.
Weber and others tried to raise more money. Several employees worked without pay. Weber cashed in his retirement savings, maxed out his credit and even sold the midnight blue 1966 Ford Mustang he had bought Shawna just a few years earlier. But the company couldn't hang on and was forced to file bankruptcy in July. More than 500 investors -- all those friends, co-workers, relatives and friends-of-friends -- lost money.
"It was the worst year of my life," Weber said.
It was time in Weber's life for another sheared gas pipe, another slip on the ice in front of his parents' house, another happenstance meeting that leads to a valuable connection. This one happened to come in the guise of a Calgary businessman by the name of David Hamm, a young entrepreneur who developed a prominent Dell dealership and invested in a handful of other companies.
Hamm grew up playing hockey in his hometown of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, but gave it up as a teenager because coaches kept trying to make him fight. He may have fit the role physically -- at age 15 he was already a fit 220 pounds -- but it wasn't his nature.
Although he gave up playing competitively, he stays involved by coaching his 11-year-old son's hockey team, through which he met retired NHL player Morris Lukowich, who was a friend of one of the other hockey dads.
Hamm was walking out of the steam room at his gym in Calgary one afternoon last November when he bumped into Lukowich. Lukowich had heard about Thermablade's financial fate and asked Hamm if he'd be interested in helping revive the idea.
Hamm fell in love with the invention. "I put it on my feet and it was just amazing. There was a difference in so many ways -- how it turned, how it glided," he said. "They haven't done much to a blade in 30 years. More R&D was put into this than all the skate manufacturers combined."
The company was $3 million in debt. Hamm paid an undisclosed amount for the company's remaining assets, which included the rights to the Thermablade patents, and formed a new company. Eighty of the original investors, including Weber and his brother, have stayed on as well.
As the new CEO, Hamm plans to operate with fewer executives selling to a wider audience and tackling the global professional market in a strategy that sounds like something hatched in a war room.
"We're going to attack Russia," he said. "We're going to attack Europe. And we're going to sell direct. By selling direct, nobody can stop us."
With the price lowered to $250, which includes a set of blades, a charger and shipping, he also hopes to market Thermablades to more youth hockey players through advertising at hockey camps, hockey magazines and word of mouth.
"What hockey player wouldn't want this under their tree at Christmas?" he said. "The last corporation was focused on NHL players. That's great. I'm glad, but I have to give you guys skates. Those parents are going to buy them."
A personal Stanley Cup
Although Weber, now 46, is still invested in Thermablades, he's not an employee and doesn't have an official role with the company. It was tough to see someone else take over his dream after more than two decades, but he says he has ultimate faith in Hamm.
"When you owe someone your life, a lot of those feelings of, 'Hey, this should be me or this is mine,' are totally gone," he said. "It's nothing but pure awe that we're still in the game."
It's been less than three months, but Hamm and his new partners already have 60 players in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League testing the blades. Jari Kurri, general manager of Team Finland and former NHL star, has also requested a pair to try out. And the company has begun selling direct via its new website, thermabladehockey.com. The company also has plans to create a detachable rechargeable battery, so players can continually have a freshly charged skate. Further afield is a computer chip that would record movement, speed and other performance factors. There's even talk of a mobile app.
When asked when Thermablade will take another stab at the NHL, Hamm's response is: "The NHL will come to us. They will."
Gretzky said in a recent e-mail that he still supports Thermablades and believes that education and evolution of the blade will eventually lead to its acceptance into the pro leagues.
"I think the traditionalists will always have problem with change. You could make a case that battery-operated blades give an unfair advantage, but you also need to be open-minded enough and let the game change with the times," he wrote. "There is no doubt technology has touched and changed all sports. This is just a natural progression."
NHL officials Daly and King confirm that the door is still open to Thermablade and that perhaps acceptance in other hockey leagues could increase its chances.
When that day comes, it will be Weber's personal Stanley Cup.
"I get choked up even thinking about it," he said. "There's a lot of people who call and ask me if they should take their big step and go after their dreams. I just want to say yes. It's been so tough, you think, 'Would you ever want to send someone down this path?' But I say it's still worth it and you have to go for it and follow your dreams. I really would love to help people follow their dreams through our story."
Weber continues to brainstorm ideas with Hamm and the other Thermablade executives when he can, although he now works full-time on another one of his inventions -- Sigmadek, a prefabricated do-it-yourself kit to build a deck that is getting lots of interest from big-name licensees and distributors.
In his Sigmadek office in Calgary, Weber's true passion is never out of sight. There are framed signed photos of Clarke in his Flyers jersey on his wall and a hockey stick resting in the corner. He doesn't stash that Bible in his desk drawer anymore; now it's on his iPhone.
Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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