Norman sharpens his last skates
Matthew French set to take over business
Veteran skate sharpener Eric Norman put stone to blade for the final time last week, as he is stepping away from the business after close to 30 years. Matthew French is stepping in to take over the business and is being hailed as a quick study in the craft of skate sharpening.
Eric Norman’s last day sharpening skates started like any other at the Bay Arena in Bay Roberts.
Opening the door to Eric’s Sharpening Services and flicking the light switch, a pair of male hockey skates lie on the counter top. This pair he finished the previous evening, but it isn’t unusual to find a couple of pairs waiting for Norman’s expertise.
Moments after raising the blinds on his office window, a customer breezes through the door. She’s looking to have her daughter’s skates sharpened. They were done in town, but she trusts Norman.
Flipping a switch, the machine roars to life and Norman prepares to do something he’s done for the past 30 years.
Last week he retired from the skate-sharpening business after close to 30 years. Chances are if you’ve had your skates sharpened in the bay, Norman was the man who gave you an edge.
Eyeing the blade of the figure skate, Norman places it in the clamp and gets to work. Figure skaters need to have a level edge, and Norman adjusts his machine to accomplish this.
A couple of passes with the grinder does the trick. A quick rubdown of the blade with a stone and they’re ready for use.
There have been some changes in the time since Norman started.
“When I got started, it was tube skates. I had all of the old parts for them,” said Norman. “You used your blade straightener a lot then because they used to curve.”
It wasn’t only the skates that have changed in the past three decades. The machine used for sharpening skates changed too.
Fabricators altered the design and made away with a time-consuming clamping mechanism, replacing it with an easier system that sped up the process.
“It was so much easier. Where you could do 15 pairs in an hour, you could double it or better with this,” said Norman. Late night skate runs Norman got his start sharpening blades at the Bay Arena shortly after the stadium opened in 1985. It was in 1987 that he started the business.
Back then, he was working where the elevator is now. After a couple years there, the operation moved upstairs. There was a balcony then, and a group of offices.
That operation proved to be problematic. The high traffic area wasn’t ideal for sharpening skates.
“I had to suspend the motor with bungee cords because it kept bouncing because of the people walking around,” said Norman.
The operation then moved to the basement of his home. There he did skates in the evenings after returning from his day job. He’d sharpen skates till the wee hours of the morning, making several trips to Ultramar where customers could pick them up.
“Of all the pairs that I’ve done, I’ve never lost a pair of skates,” said Norman.
The final years were spent at the Bay Arena.
When the door to what used to be Eric’s Sharpening Services opens in the New Year, there will be a different face greeting them on the inside.
Matthew French, well known around these parts for his involvement in the game, bought the business from Norman. The sale was all set to be finalized Friday.
“I’ve always been a rink rat. I’ve always wanted to be around the rink. If I know there is a game on, I’m usually here,” said French. “Even when I was the technical director (with the Bay Arena), it wasn’t about getting paid. It was about being around the rink. “This seemed like a natural fit.” French was the last apprentice taken by the experienced skate sharpener.
“I think he’ll do alright with it,” said Norman. “He’s been a good student.”
In a twist of fate, French has had plenty of skates sharpened by Norman over the years. When he played hockey on the mainland, French made sure to sign a framed picture for Norman with the inscription: “To Eric, thanks for everything.”
He smiles thinking of the memory.
“I hope one day someone thinks enough of me to give me a picture to put on the wall,” said French.
While Norman focused primarily on skates at the tail end of his career, there was a time when he dabbled in equipment, sticks and other pieces of hockey paraphernalia.
It’s something French is looking to get back into. He wants to make it more of a pro shop then just a skate sharpening service.
He’s already ordered a machine that cleans equipment and has played with the idea of bringing in a skate oven.
“I’d rather have it here and no one use it than have someone come in and I don’t have it,” said French.
There have been plenty of pictures over the years. Players thanking Eric for everything he’s done for them.
“I can remember them coming in and barely being able to see them over the counter,” said Norman. “Now, they’re bringing their own kids in to have their skates sharpened.”
The pictures will hang in his garage for now, along with plaques from the St. John’s Junior Hockey League and pictures of teams that he coached.
“I’ll be sad to see it go,” Norman said with his eyes on the space where the pictures hung.
Thursday evening marked the last night for Norman. After a couple of last pairs, longtime friend Glenn Littlejohn strolled through the door. He had the final game of the evening.
“We started together, so it only makes sense you’re my last pair of skates,” Norman told Littlejohn.
Eric Norman rubs a stone over the blade of freshly sharpened pair of figure skates.
Matthew French (left) will be taking over the skate sharpening business from Eric Norman.