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An Inventor's Quest for the NHL Pt. 27
Meeting the San Jose Sharks
This series follows my attempt to develop a product that I dream of getting into the elite levels of hockey. Previously on the Quest: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Concept Launch, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24, Part 25, Part 26
There are some moments that you just know are going to be lifelong memories – even as you’re experiencing them.
I had one of those recently; something deep down telling me to capture every detail. And so the smell of the ice and the cool of the rink are vivid in my memory, even though I was focused on James Reimer, starting goalie for the San Jose Sharks, as he skated onto the ice wearing my Uncage.
Three days before that moment, I’d gotten an email asking me if I was free to come down to San Jose to meet with the Sharks goalies and the legendary Evgeni Nabokov. My answer, obviously, was yes. But a glance around the garage showed me that the only intact cages I had on hand were Frankenstein’d monstrosities, built with only speed in mind.
I wanted to make a good first impression and, though I could see the beautiful potential in my messy prototype, others might not make that same imaginative leap.
So I built a cage that showcased that potential: I replaced the bulky crossbar I’d been using in testing with a slimmer one, and exchanged the visually-busy nut/bolt/spacer combo with dowel pins, J-B Welded in position. The result looked much more presentable.
New cage in hand, I made my way to Sharks Ice San Jose, the team’s practice rink. As I walked in, who should walk out but Joe freaking Thornton. Definitely did a double take at that, even though that glorious beard is unmistakable.
I found a helpful employee, who disappeared into the back to find Mr. Nabokov for me. But James Reimer found me first, coming off the ice after a training session, “Are you the guy with the cage?”
I was, indeed, the guy with the cage, so he took me back into the dressing room, where another employee (very nicely) kicked us back out. I suppose I might’ve been a spy for my hometown Ducks.
I can report though, that despite the glorious stalls and team logo on the carpet, NHL locker rooms still have that familiar hockey stink. It’s almost as if these god-like beings sweat like normal humans. Strange.
We settled on the bleachers by the ice, where Aaron Dell, Evgeni Nabokov, Thomas Speer (the goalie coach), and Mike Aldrich (the equipment manager) all joined us. We talked about the cage — why I made it and how it works — and both Aaron and James took turns trying on the mask. Initial reactions were along the lines of “whoa, this feels weird.” A good reaction; I’d be worried if it felt similar to a regular cage.
More specifically, Aaron said that the vertical ropes between the eyes were less noticeable than the vertical bar on his cage. However, the side of the eye hole (where the ropes intersect) was a bit distracting. The eye holes of the Uncage are a little narrower and taller than in a cateye at the moment, so that makes perfect sense. That’s something I can easily tweak.
The other concerns were about safety. The usual questions about puck impacts, which admittedly I still have to answer, but also some interesting ones about whether the puck might chip or fragment off any part of the cage. I’ll certainly be paying attention to that in future testing. I did pucker a little as they tried to ram a puck and then a stick between the bars of the cage, which I’d only built to look pretty, but thankfully the J-B Weld held firm.
Evgeni really impressed me with his ability to see things from my point of view. He asked the goalies to go out onto the ice so they could tell me definitively if the Uncage was enough of an improvement over a cateye to continue pursuing. Queue the lifelong memory I mentioned at the beginning. I can’t really describe the spectrum of feelings that went through me at that moment, but the dominant one was pride. It’s taken a lot of work, risk, and luck to get to this point and here was validation. NHL goalies wore my invention on the ice. How cool is that? I can’t imagine what I’ll feel when it’s an actual game.
When they skated back over to us, I got more positive feedback, with Aaron noticing a significant improvement in peripheral vision. Good enough overall, they both said, to continue working on.
As we said our goodbyes, I got to hear a crazy story about Evgeni getting stitched up and returning to a game after his cage broke, sending a bar into his nose, and then I headed home, floating on a cloud.
I can’t thank Jonathan Becher and the Sharks enough for such an unforgettable experience. I’m so lucky to live near an NHL organization that, as Jonathan so modestly put it, supports the entrepreneurial spirit.
And to add to the good news, I have some fantastic testing news as well. (I probably should make a separate post for this, but I’m a practiced accomplishment-minimizer.) I finished making the cage with the stiffer frame and crossbar and re-tested. Guess what?
20 lbs dropped from 3.25 ft (same energy as a 72 mph shot)? Survived.
30 lbs dropped from 3.25 ft (same energy as a 88 mph shot)? Survived.
40 lbs dropped from 3.25 ft (same energy as a 102 mph shot)? Survived!
I will confess, I thought the last test had broken the cage. I’m so used to failure that I mistook the loose end of a rope as a broken one. See, I even took a picture of it for documentation before I realized what it was
Sweet, sweet relief. This feels like an immense hurdle cleared. Of course, as you can expect by now, it wasn’t a flawless victory. It turns out the crossbar can still move around a bit. But I’ll tackle that next time and celebrate this big step forward for now.
Thanks as always for reading,