So you want synthetic ice – what’s stopping you, buyer, confusion?

Canada is a hockey nation. America is certainly becoming one. This game is our culture. For as long as I can remember, my children have played hockey. Like the typical hockey dad, I was very involved in junior hockey, and even to this day I still love going to the rink to watch my kids play. Throughout this time, I have seen dramatic changes in hockey. It has become a year-round sport with spring leagues, summer camps, personal trainers, specific sports equipment, and even synthetic ice for training at home throughout the year.

People have all kinds of opinions on synthetic ice. Some love it and can’t get enough of it. Others hate it and don’t want to try again. Let’s face it here, it can be hard for an adult caught in their ways to believe that they can actually skate on plastic, especially for adults and purists. The questions are endless. "Do you wear regular skates?"? "Can you stop" "How close is it to real ice?" "What is maintenance?" "How does it compare to company ABC and XYZ?" "What makes your product better?" ‘Why is yours so expensive?" "Why is yours so cheap?" And so it goes on and on. The debate will continue. I can tell you all this. My two sons grew up training at home on synthetic ice and they are two of the most beautiful and strongest skaters you will ever see. So yeah I’m biased, but it certainly helped my kids and they love it.

First of all, no matter which brand you buy, none of them are "cheap" in the mind of the consumer. You’re taking your hard-earned money and putting it into the future of your children’s skating, whether they’re hockey players, ringette players, sled hockey players, or figure skaters. You are likely to spend thousands of dollars if you buy the best or worst product. Frankly, it’s worth doing a little research and understanding a few things that will make or break the purchase and the user experience. And it’s okay to buy a cheaper or more expensive product as long as it meets your application and expectations, and you understand it from the start.

Based on the survey research we have completed, one of the main reasons people are hesitant or simply not buying the product is because they simply cannot get what they believe is credible information from the supplier. For example, when a consumer asks "Why should I buy from you versus your competitor?" and the answer is "well I’ve been in the industry for 30 years". Well that’s not really an answer, is it? Think about it. GM has also been in the auto business for a long time, but that didn’t stop them from filing for bankruptcy and needing a complete overhaul of the company. It is an indicator, it is not the only indicator.

The consumer expects good information. The problem is that they may not always know what good information is. They don’t know what they don’t know. So what do they do? Often the price will be predetermined. Price is something that they understand and it is something that they can easily compare from one product to another. The problem with that, though, is that they won’t always, or maybe never, get the product quality and skating experience they expect. So what should a consumer do?

Well, let’s think about this logically. You hardly ever get the best product for the lowest price, that’s a fact. So what about the low end of the market in terms of product quality and price? What would they get for the lowest price? Well, worst case scenario, they’ll get something to skate on and shoot the puck. At best, they will get a product that can be skated on and could actually be quite suitable for the small skating rink at home. Again, consumers must manage their own expectations. Meanwhile, product sellers must do so with integrity and reliable information backed by facts … not just ego and opinions. There is a market at the lower end of the product scale. However, the reality is that these products will never be the best nor should they be marketed as such. That would be irresponsible. The likely price range for this category will be between $ 6.00 and $ 8.00 per square foot and frankly, there will be a significant difference even between $ 6 and $ 8 per square foot product, so use this as a guide.

The next level, for simplicity, let’s call it mid-level performance, will be the vast majority of products available from a large number of companies. These are their HMWPe (High Molecular Weight Pe) and HDPe (High Density Pe) products which are typically sheets of extruded material produced in bulk but machined into a panel that, when assembled, can probably be used for skating. Results will vary widely, of course, because there is a wide range of product materials within these categories. There are also differences in how injection and extrusion molding materials are manufactured in the lower to mid range of this category to sintering pressed material in the upper end of this category. We can debate the differences and it would be a long debate, and it is in this very debate that consumers’ eyes go glassy when talking about molecular weight, coefficient of friction, etc. The simple thing that the consumer should know in general is to buy an intermediate product that has a molecular weight specification of 500,000. If you do that, you will be able to skate on it and it should last quite a long time. Expect to pay between $ 9.00 and $ 12.00 per square foot. This will become the majority of purchases from homeowners looking for a decent product to skate at home and in all likelihood would be a satisfied consumer. Again, however, do not assume that a $ 9.00 product is the same as a $ 12.00 product. One can be extruded, one can be sinter pressed, so durability, quality, and skating performance can still vary widely. Ask the seller for a certificate of material authenticity, which will quickly separate the package because most will not have it or are not willing to show their "patented material". I always suspect that.

Now forward and up. The last product category to consider is high-end products. There may only be three or four really worthy products in this category, sorry for sellers who think yours is the only one on the market worth considering, but it’s not. Most homeowners really don’t even need to consider them if their home is going to be less than 200 square feet in size. Save your money and choose a low or mid-range product as already described. You can’t really appreciate a better skating product if the surface area is so small that you will never get to full stride. On the other hand, larger home rinks like 1000 square feet or more or certainly commercially operated synthetic ice surfaces should really pay attention to this category alone. If your business income depends on the quality of the skating and the durability of the skating surface product, steer clear of anything other than this category! In this category there are essentially two types of material. One is classified as VHMWPe (Very High Molecular Weight Pe) and the other is UHMWPe (Ultra High Molecular Weight Pe). These products are generally sinter pressed because the molecular weight is very high. As a buyer, if you are not sure what you are getting, just ask the seller for the material specification sheet and also ask to see the manufacturing quality certificate such as ISO 14001 or ISO 9000 or similar. This will at least ensure that you will most likely get what you should be getting in terms of consistent high quality material within these classifications. Again, the debate can rage over which material is best suited for long-term skating, but you can expect to pay between $ 18.00 and $ 24.00 per square foot for these materials. Even in the high-end category, prices can vary. The material will be different but so will the joint connection system. There are at least five very different, but effective in their own way, systems out there. The joint connection system must be based on an adequate knowledge of the application. There is no one system that is best at everything, so ignore those who claim that theirs is theirs.

So there you have it. Three somewhat simplified product categories for shoppers to better understand what they’re getting into. Hopefully this can help you focus on at least one of these categories to help you make better, more informed decisions and set buyer expectations. It may be worth looking for and talking to companies that actually sell all three categories; at least then you can get better information.

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