A Brief History of Hi-Lo Inline Skates

Back in the early days of inline skating, that is the late 80’s into the early 90’s, it was easy for skate companies to decide on what size wheels came on each skate in their product range. In general entry level skates came with 4 x 72mm wheels, mid range skates came with 4 x 76mm wheels and high end skates came with 4 x 80mm wheels. Then there were the specialty skates for competitive disciplines. In that arena is was basically hockey skates with 4 x 76mm wheels and speed skates with 5 x 80mm wheels.

That stayed as it was for a while, but as the market became flooded with skate manufacturers and brands in the 90’s the manufacturers were always looking for differentiation from their competitors, especially if there was some implied performance benefit (*cough* ABEC ratings *cough*). So it appears that some crazy designer/engineer/developer/marketer at a company that made hockey gear looked at the design of their hockey skates and had an ‘aha’ moment. Exactly how it came to be I don’t know as I wasn’t a fly on the wall, but I think it went a little something like:

Person 1 at hockey company (probably a marketing person): We need to come up with something to make our skates different from those other guys making hockey skates:

Person 2 at hockey company (probably a designer or engineer): What are you thinking?

P1: Um, well we need at least the same performance but some other implied value for the user.

P2: Um, how about we make them lower like aggressive skate for better balance. Maybe smaller wheels would do and we could claim it gives you better acceleration and manoeuvrability.

P1: But people will realise that their top end speed may be lacking.

P2: Ooohhh (light bulb in head goes off)…let’s make the front of the skate lower by putting small wheels on the front two spots, and make the back two wheels 80mm. Look at the profile of the skate, there is dead air under the heel.

P1: And we can say that averages out 76mm like all the other skates out there. And maybe we can spin that the little wheels also make your skate manoeuvre better and the big wheels are faster.

P2: OK. I will finalise the design. What are you going to call this.

P1: Ummmm….Biggee Small. No wait, we can’t sell that on the west coast. I’ll work on that. Can you also put of the spec sheet that the skates need ABEC15 bearings? We need to make sure these suckers are fast.

P2: They don’t make ABEC15 bearings, not that ABEC means anything.

P1: Shhhhhh…don’t say that, the place might be bugged.

Now many people, including me until tonight, think that this happened at Mission. After a little research this conversation may have taken place at Labeda, Kuzak or Mission. Perhaps it was all 3 at once.

According to a user with handle MDE3 on the message boards at Inline Hockey Central and Mod Squad Hockey, Labeda and Kuzak may have had their hi-lo frames out on the market a few months before Mission. He suggests that they bought the Labedas in May 1997 and the Missions showed up on skates in July of that year. Another user on the IHC boards in the same thread MDE3 suggests that even Mike Rike-he of Rike frames had a hi-lo frame before all of them. It is also worth noting that ‘Justin1933‘ on the Mod Squad Hockey board is Justin Hoffman and he was a designer at Mission for 10 years and also worked, I assume on a consulting basis, for other inline hockey companies. He had some interesting comments in the Mod Squad Hockey thread on the Hum’mer including a dis of the marketing spin for the straight 80mm Hum’mer frame Labeda was releasing at the time. Hoffman has now founded Alkali Hockey along with Joe Cook. Interestingly Alkali use a straight 80mm frame much like the Labeda Hum’mer! Um, Justin, eating crow now or just some fresh marketing spin?

Now the juicy bit in all of this is the patenting and alleged infringements that happened after this. I had previously done a patent search on this a while ago and found Mission’s patents for the Hi-Lo frame. The details are not important right now, but if I find the patent/s again I will edit this post. The short of it is that no matter who drew up the hi-lo frame first Mission had the money to both patent the design and defend the patent. They took that defence seriously when they took Tour to court over the infringement (or was it an alleged infringement, I haven’t actually seen a judgement). Sometimes in patents and trademarks it is not always who came up the idea first but who was first to the patent office and then had the money to back themselves (Bont learnt a similar lesson with 688 bearing spacers and Ninja’s patent). Ultimately Tour and Labeda were forced to go back to the drawing board somewhere around the 2002/2003 mark and went to straight 80mm frames with th Hum’mer. Other companies tried skirting around the patent by having three diameters on their skates such as 76/72/76/80, but they have all moved on to straight 80mm frames too.

Beyond this, all kinds of companies tried variations of ‘hi-lo’ set-ups in different areas of inline skating. Xenan was the first speed skate company that I remember doing it on speed skates, and that was around the 2000/01 time frame. The Xenan set-up was a benchmark in my final year engineering thesis that I did with Bont. It also made it’s way down into the high end fitness, aggressive and FSK markets with Salomon running 76/80mm hi-lo on their high end FSKs in the mid-2000’s and Rollerblade having an aggressive frame that had 72mm wheels in front and back and small wheels in the middle in recent times (although I would suggest that was not so new either…we did that in the 90’s).

That’s it, a brief history of hi-lo. I have not included a discussion on the merits of hi-lo and it’s draw backs as that is a whole different discussion. For the record, my first hockey skates were Tour TR9000’s running 72/80 hi-lo and I currently have a pair of Salomon FSK’s S-Labs and Mission Axiom T8s that are both 76/80 hi-lo.

Edit: The original Mission Hockey patent that covers their hi-lo frame design is US6,276,696 B1. The patent was filed on July 12th 1996 by Jon G Wong and patent approval was granted on August 21st 2001, which is why it took Mission a while to go after Tour for an infringement. For me, it is an interesting read. For others, maybe not so interesting.

8 comments ↓

#1 Mark Jensen on 07.22.13 at 5:31 am

I would love to hear your thoughts on the merits and drawbacks of the hi-lo wheels.

my own experience, having owned a pair of mission proto vi’s for years (80 72) and then a few years back making the mistake of buying a newer Mission skate (80 76) is that with the less aggressive forward stance, you are slower to start moving forward. 4 mm might not seem like much, but it makes a completely noticeable difference. With the 80 76’s I just felt paralyzed, slower to loose pucks, slower to the net, my whole game suffered. Top speed isn’t what’s important in roller hockey, getting to the puck first and being able to increase speed quickly (getting around a defenseman on the outside) is. The real mystery worth solving is why Mission doesn’t even make a 80 72 chassis for those who want one. Also worth considering… if 80 72 is a superior pitch (imo,) what about 80 68? Could you take a straight 80 skate chassis and run 80 76 72 68’s on it?

#2 Matt Hooper on 07.12.14 at 3:19 am

I have 100K miles in inlines. Played 1000’s of Roller Hockey Games. Expert Skater that rode the wave all the way from the mid 80’s when Scott Olsen got Rollerblade off the ground. After immense research and skating in every configuration known to man- the very best, most efficient, best balance, tightest turning, best grip and best *top speed- the BEST configuration is : Non rockered frames with 4 identical wheels- preferably 76-76-76-76. On the lowest and shortest wheelbase you can find. *Technically you can get a better top speed with 80mm’s but I still prefer the 76mm across the board because you reach top speed quicker which is more important in hockey. Huge disadvantage to Rockered frames / different size wheels—> super tight turns, you lose quite a bit of grip on the floor. 4 – 76mm wheels all touching and spinning the same speed grab that floor like an Eagle’s talon. Kids weighing 140 pounds and under will see little difference in configurations because they do not stress the wheels like heavier players. If you’re 180 lbs and over, you will be all smiles if you take my advice. Four 76mm wheels on a straight frame. No rocker. Have fun. I sure have.

#3 Roland Whelz on 02.06.15 at 12:08 am

I do not like HiLo. I do not like different sized wheels on the chassis. They are spinning at different RPMs – which affects grip on turns. I am back to a Sure Grip 505 frame I found at Play It Again Sports. Had it attached to a pair of CCM 1052 Boots….I use ABEC 7 Bearings on Labeda 76mm 78A wheels. The 505 Frame wheelbase is short- the wheels are so close they almost touch. I am in heaven. So much better than any HiLo I tried. And- the wheels are very close to the bottom of the boot. It appears the companies with the earliest frames got it right. I think the HiLo’s are all gimmicks to allow Companies to offer their own unique product. Large and small wheels on the same frame never ever made any sense to me. I have confirmed my suspicions.

#4 Alex D. on 04.20.15 at 7:42 am

I prefer all the same ( 76mm) wheel sizes. HiLos ? Smaller wheels are being driven / forced faster by the larger wheels….making them slippery on turns.

#5 Jason Figone on 02.22.16 at 3:20 am

Hi Low frames are a horror for rotating and I find them to be slippery on tight turns. When I was very young I loved them. Didnt really feel any difference. At 200 pounds I need all 4 wheels touching. Tour Skate lover.

#6 Corey on 12.11.16 at 1:50 am

On a hi-lo frame all 4 wheels do touch the floor. You may be thinking of rocker.

#7 Jon on 04.12.16 at 4:41 pm

Incredible ! I love your blog post. This is very useful and informative. Helpful for the readers who love inline skaters. I really enjoy it. Thanks for the sharing the blog post. 🙂

#8 Sean Thornton on 09.13.16 at 8:04 pm

I do not like HiLo’s. People are coming back to “straight frames”, meaning all wheels the same size.

I converted old ice skates ( CCM 1052 ) using a Tour Frame. 80mm wheels. Results ? I can turn better, the wheels stick far superior to my HiLo set up. Not sure why, but I am happy as hell with the performance. Skate faster turn much better. There is something odd about a smaller wheel and a larger wheel turning hard over in a steep turn. There is pronounced slippage unlike all 4 same size wheels gripping at the same time, angle, and revolutions. The difference is undeniable.

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