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North country businessmen create training device for U.S. Olympians

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MALONE - Olympic athletes in Sochi are currently training on a product designed, produced and beautified by two north country businesses.

Mark Eldridge of Brasher Falls-Winthrop spent the past twelve years perfecting the design of his hockey treadmills while Corey Smith of Fort Covington used his several years of design experience to spice up their outer appearance with custom vinyl wraps.

Over a dozen of the final product have been shipped over to Russia, putting a little bit of the north country at the feet of accomplished and novice Olympians alike.

The concept of a hockey treadmill is exactly what it sounds like: a belt made from slats of high-grade cutting-board plastic runs at speeds upward of 20 mph, allowing players wearing hockey skates to work on their speed and endurance without the limitations of an actual rink. There’s even a stationary area where an athlete can practice his or her stick handling at top speed.

For years companies produced fairly low-quality hockey treadmills — nobody seemed able to produce one truly worth the cost, Mr. Eldridge said. That history made it a struggle for Mr. Eldridge’s small-town business to break into such a specialized market, but once it did the product not only blew the competition’s quality away but did it at half the price.

Mr. Eldridge says his company, Blazing Thunder Sports, is now the only remaining producer of hockey treadmills worldwide.

“Comparing ours to theirs was like comparing a Mercedes to a Pinto,” said Asa Moulton, one of Mr. Eldridge’s employees. “And I’m not just saying that because they’re ours.”

The treadmill comes in a variety of sizes, with a belt from 48 to 94 inches wide. Prices for a single unit range anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000.

Mr. Eldridge has been building training equipment to improve the speed of track and football athletes since 1973. It all began with the thought, “How hard can it be to make a treadmill?”

“It turns out, really hard,” Mr. Eldridge said with a laugh. Even as a certified specialist in speed and explosion training, as well as sports conditioning, it took him years of tearing designs apart and putting them back together to get things down to a perfect science.

“There aren’t two treadmills out there that are exactly the same,” he said of his hockey model. “But now we’re at the point where we’ve figured it out.”

It was during the experimentation period that Mr. Eldridge reached out to Mr. Smith, asking him to wrap a control panel for the treadmill that has since been designed out of the product. When Mr. Smith came back with a vinyl wrap of carved-up ice, Mr. Eldridge was delighted and asked if he could do something with the actual treadmill.

Turns out, he can. And now he does — every single treadmill Blazing Thunder sends out is hand-wrapped by Mr. Smith.

“You can pretty much wrap anything,” Mr. Smith said, listing off walls, cars, boats, snowmobiles — he even wrapped the head of a lacrosse stick the other day. But the treadmills are the coolest item by far he’s done yet, he said, at least conceptually.

Mr. Smith’s company, Unique Wraps, is the only one of its kind in the area. He can reproduce any high-quality graphic or photograph to create custom vinyl designs on any flat surface.

He first learned how to do vinyl wraps from a friend when he lived in Las Vegas. When he moved back to Fort Covington about three years ago, he decided to put those skills to good use.

“I wanted to do it because it’s fun, and it’s always different,” Mr. Smith said. No wrap is ever the same design, and every surface presents different challenges.

Even with Blazing Thunder it’s different because the treadmill design has been changing –– from big things like how the controls work (it now runs from an Apple application on a iTouch or iPad) to the hinges on the back that allow the machine to incline.

While Mr. Eldridge says he’s pretty much done messing with the design, Mr. Smith is still expanding his personal touch on the machine. The next step is to see if they can infuse a logo into the stationary plastic where the stick-handling is done — just like the logo in the middle of a hockey rink.

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