I grew up figure skating, but I am also very comfortable on a pair of hockey skates. (Please don’t call them women’s vs men’s as this perpetuates stereotypes that just aren’t true.) When I taught learn-to skate lessons I was often asked about the differences between the two types of skates and when this question popped up again recently I thought I’d do a little formal investigation. What I found made me sad. There is no research that I could find a things like how the rocker of the blade (which I’ll explain in a moment) affects things like turns. The information about the types of steel and coatings are typically proprietary and therefore just a little more suspect. And the layman sites I found often had straight up misinformation. So here is my take on the differences from the perspective of a skater who has used both, a skating coach, and as someone who has taught physics.
Let’s start with the similarities. They are both typically made of carbon steel, although there are some stainless steel blades available. Both hockey and figure skate blades need to be sharpened so that they have an inside and outside edge separated by a concave hollow.
A common misconception is that the pressure of the skate causes the very surface layer of the ice to melt which creates the water layer that enables a skater in either skate to glide. However, a skater does not provide enough pressure in order to actually trigger this phase transition between solid and liquid water (White, 1992). It is still possible that friction plays a role, in that the heat generated from moving the skates melts a small amount of ice but something called premelting is probably a large contributor (Li & Somorjai, 2007). Premelting is basically a difference in the structure at the surface of a solid even when that solid is below its melting point temperature. Thus, there is a very thin layer of liquid on the surface of ice, regardless of whether or not there is any friction or pressure applied. The thickness of the layer is affected by many factors including ambient (surrounding) air temperature.
After that aside on how skates interact with the ice we are onto the differences. Figure skates have a longer blade (extends past the foot) and the blade has less of a rocker. One way to think of the rocker is it affects how much of the blade is in contact with the ice at one time. A figure skate has more blade-ice contact. The other main difference is the pick, or serrated claw at the toe of the figure skating blade. There are other differences in how the blades are attached, but that has less impact on how an athlete moves in each.
So consequences. Hockey players don’t glide the way figure skaters do. They tend to do more stop-start and quick changes of direction using whatever technique works best. This is easier on the shorter, more rockered blades. Less ice contact = smaller turning radius. Figure skaters, on the other hand, need to do clean edges and turns. This basically means they need to clearly be on one edge or another and they need to be able to hold those edges for a duration, something that is easier on the longer, flatter blades. The toe picks are mainly used for certain jumps but may also be involved in other movements like footwork.
You will sometimes hear people talk about figure skaters liking slightly warmer and softer ice compared to hockey players. I couldn’t find anything that made sense for this online so here is my thought. Because figure skaters need to do those clean edges and turns, we like our skates to get a little more dig in the ice. You risk skidding across the surface a bit if the ice is too hard. This would also make it easier to land jumps cleanly.
In terms of learning to skate, they each have advantages and disadvantages, so I only ever recommended one over the other when there was a specific challenge (for example, someone who drags their toes will struggle to learn in figure skates) or if the individual has a specific sports goal. Until the comfort figure skate boots came out I did recommend hockey skates because they are generally a bit more forgiving if you need to wear a thicker sock. But the comfort boots have changed that. Personally, I love my hockey skates for outside but save my fun moves for my figure skates.