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Would the inventors of ice skates have believed in miracles?

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By Paul Niemann

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[FEB. 19, 2004]  Twenty-four years ago in Lake Placid, N.Y., our American hockey team shocked the world. First we defeated the Soviet Union in the early medal round, and then we beat Finland to bring home the gold medal. It was the first time an American hockey team ever won gold, and many of us remember announcer Al Michaels proclaiming, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

The just-released movie about that 1980 Olympic team made me wonder how some hockey-related inventions were created. Let's take a look at three of them.

Ice skates

You'd probably think that ice skates were invented by a Canadian. After all, that's where hockey originated, right? And hockey is the national sport of Canada, right?

I grew up playing "pond hockey" on our farm -- we even used the Jeep to plow the snow off the pond one time -- and then went on to play hockey at the University of Kentucky. Many people think hockey in Kentucky makes about as much sense as a Jamaican bobsled team.

The Dutch word for skate is "schenkel," which means "leg bone." A pair of primitive skates from around 3,000 B.C. was found at the bottom of a lake in Switzerland. Believe it or not, these skates were made from the leg bones of large animals, with holes bored at each end of the bones. Leather straps were used to tie the skates on.

During the 1300s, the Dutch developed skates that were attached to shoes by means of leather straps, and the skaters used poles to propel themselves forward. Around 1500, a metal double-edged blade was added, which made the poles unnecessary because the skaters could now push and glide with their feet.

A number of innovations have been made to ice skates since then, such as attaching the blade directly to the boots and adding toe picks (known as teeth). While figure skates allow a skater to make the jumps that you see in competitions on TV, the toothless hockey skates allow a skater to change direction easier and to stop quicker.

Hockey may or may not have originated in Canada. Just as in baseball, there are different versions of how and where the game originated. Some believe that its roots go all the way back to the 1500s in Europe, with the word "hockey" being derived from the French word "hoquet," which means "bent stick."


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North American hockey originated in Canada, and it may have evolved from a game called ice hurley in the early 1800s in Nova Scotia. The first official hockey game was played in 1886 on a rink that had a grandstand in the middle of the ice. The "puck" was actually a lacrosse ball cut into the shape of a square. After that came wooden pucks; today the pucks are made of hard rubber.

In-line skates

Like ice skates, inline skates also have a Dutch origin that goes back several centuries. In the 1700s, a Dutchman tried to simulate ice skating by nailing wooden spools to strips of wood that he attached to the bottoms of his shoes.

In 1980, an NHL player named Scott Olson bought an old pair of in-line skates at a sporting goods store in Minnesota because he thought they would be a good training device for hockey during the offseason. (No, they weren't the same Dutch skates left over from the 1700s.)

Olson named his in-line skates Rollerblades and later sold the rights to an established company. The skates became a hot-selling item after they were introduced in Southern California.

Zamboni machine

Just as Rollerblades made their mark in Southern California, so did the company that Frank Zambone founded to build the machines that bear his name. Zamboni Machines cover the rink with a brand-new layer of ice between each period of hockey games and during figure skating competitions.

Since the Zamboni factory is located about a mile down the street from the ice rink where they test them, local residents sometimes get to watch a Zamboni employee drive one of these machines on the road. They have a top speed of 9 miles per hour.

By the way, hockey is not the national sport of Canada. Lacrosse is. And in case you didn't know, there really is a Jamaican bobsled team. They placed 14th at the 1994 Olympics, ahead of the U.S. and Russian teams.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at niemann7@inventionmysteries.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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