Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Making Strides

For most hockey fans, a player’s skating ability is an afterthought. Sure, some players are faster or shiftier than others, but so are players in sports where running is the preferred form of propulsion. Skating ability is assumed; if you can’t skate, you can’t play ice hockey at a high level. But for the professional hockey player, it isn’t that simple.

On March 11, 2010, Dan Steinberg of the always excellent D.C. Sports Bog write an article entitled ‘Brooks Laich is a skating scientist’ in which he profiled Brooks’ off-season sessions with Liane Davis of Liane Davis Power Skating in Regina, Saskatchewan to improve his skating technique. The article also focused on Brooks’ constant analysis of his own skating technique to ensure he hadn’t “reverted to his wide-track”, inefficient stride as the season progressed.

Being a skills-based coach, the article intrigued me. So I decided to contact Davis and ask her a few questions on the subject of skating. Liane was very generous with her time and thoughtful in answering a Minor League blogger such as myself, and I thank her for that. She said that she has “never had so much feed-back from an article as I have had from the Washington Post blog.” Good job Dan!

With the Caps having several European superstar players, I started off wondering if she thought North American skaters had a different approach to skating than their counterparts from across the Atlantic. “I don't get a lot of European players, and I don't want to generalize, but I think that their approach is very different. I think that most of them consider themselves athletes as opposed to hockey players and are very willing to break skills down and put them back together.” I found that answer enlightening, as Caps fans always see pictures of Alex Ovechkin's off season training routine, which rarely feature on-ice training. Perhaps the Europeans are on to something?

I also wondered about the toll an 82 game season takes on skating technique and efficiency. Davis broke my question down to explain: instead of a full season, look at one shift. “I think that the players with the most efficient stride have minimal break-down during a shift - we have all seen players flying around for the first 15-20 seconds of a shift and then struggling to make it from one end to the other the next 15 seconds.” She also used Coach Boudreau’s favorite drill, the ‘bag skate’, to explain how a player’s technique starts to deteriorate. “If you have ever watched players getting 'bag-skated' the bad habits are unique to each player - knees straightening, upper body dropping forward, stride recovery very wide, skates kicking up, wild/no arm motion, etc.” Davis also mentioned how an injury can play into a lapse in technique. “Injury, minor or major, is another reason. 'Playing through' an injury often results in a compromised skating style.” Considering most players are nursing, at minimum, the bumps and bruises of the game, it’s easy to see how a player’s stride can start to be affected over the course of a season.

With the Caps defense under intense scrutiny this coming season, I was interested to see if defensemen get enough credit for their skating ability. “My players would be the first to tell you that I favour defensemen! Because their position is more reactionary I think they have to be able to execute a wider variety of skills. I am a big proponent of forwards skating all the same skills as the d-men in my classes.” The next time Caps fans pick on a defenseman for his perceived lack of mobility, just remember: most NHL defensemen are skating backwards as fast as the other team’s superstar is coming at them, then pivoting to stay in position without losing speed. It’s harder than it looks.

Since Davis is a technique-oriented skating coach, I wondered if there were skater’s who were faster than their technique would indicate they were. “I think that lots of players are faster than their style should support but I don't think that any player is more efficient than they should be.” Then she mentioned a key part of a skater’s stride: the player’s own personality. “It has been my experience that a player's personality shows up in their skating eg. Every big, smooth skating d-man that I've met has a calm, relaxed personality, at least on the ice.” This idea makes a lot of sense. The next time I watch a Caps game, I’ll definitely be looking at the players’ skating styles to see if it matches their off-ice personalities.

Davis also mentioned the Pros’ own views on skating. “I had a discussion with a group of my pro players a couple of weeks ago and they had a couple of interesting views. They all agreed that every good skater that they knew worked on their skating. They also said that once they had skated with a more efficient stride, actually felt the difference, they were hooked on working on their skating.” Davis finds that “most people think that it's the weaker skaters that spend the most time on their skating, but that has definitely not been my experience at a pro level.” It’s heartening to know that players already skating at an elite level are still never satisfied that they’re “good enough,” and especially nice to know that some of our own Caps (Davis has also worked with Boyd Gordon, Quintin Laing, D.J. King and Anderew Gordon) are those kinds of players.

Davis grew up around the video machine of the Edmonton Oilers in their dynasty seasons. With all that experience looking at film, does anyone in particular stood out as being ‘the best’ skater? Obviously those Oilers teams left an impression. “I could never pick one skater as most technically solid but I think the Oiler teams in late 80's were an interesting combination of skating styles with the effortlessness of Coffey, strength of Messier, pure speed of Anderson. The first time I saw Pavel Bure skate (at World Juniors) I was amazed, and continued to be every time I saw him play. Not often that a player can maintain high speed and pull off the moves he did with the puck.” With Ovechkin's power, Chimera's speed, and Laich's efficiency, I can start to see some similarities between those Oilers teams and the current Caps roster. And those Oilers did pretty well for themselves.

Finally, I just had to ask: Is there anyone in particular on the Capitals that Davis would say had exceptional skating technique/ability?

“If I answer your Caps question with any name other then Brooks Laich I will hear about it!”

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