It’s possible that one of the hardest slap shots in the National Hockey League was partially honed while water skiing on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.
Sound crazy? Not to former star defenseman Reed Larson, who wowed teammates and coaches with upper-body strength developed after summers spent at his family’s cabin. Water skiing was just one of the many sports Larson took an interest in outside of hockey that likely contributed to his overall athleticism and success in the sport over the course of his storied career.
Larson led Minneapolis Roosevelt to the 1974 Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, before winning a NCAA national championship with the Golden Gophers and embarking on a 15-year NHL career. In addition to his shot, Larson was known for his strength, conditioning and grit. He shared his thoughts on the importance of young players taking a break from the ice and trying out other sports in the offseason.
Minnesota Hockey: Do you feel it’s important for hockey players, especially young players between the ages of 6-14, to take a break from hockey during the offseason?
Reed Larson: Yes, I think it’s good to take time off to play other sports and build different muscles and reflexes. Some can never get enough. But for others, by the time they’ve reached 17 or 18 they’ve already had a career in hockey and there’s not as much excitement for them. They can get burned out. So for those reasons, it’s great to get some time off.
Minnesota Hockey: What sports should hockey players try to improve athleticism, or enhance skills that may translate to hockey?
Larson: I really believe in timing and balance aspects and building muscles that you can’t get in every sport. Any activity is good that can help you work on explosive muscle training or that require fast, strong reactions. Track and field, lacrosse and football come to mind. Things happen fast, you need balance, peripheral vision and in football you learn how to take a hit. Gymnastics is a fantastic sport. The high bar, floor exercise, trampoline, rings… anything you can do to work different muscle angles and isolate upper- and lower-body muscles. Soccer is great for building leg strength. Water skiing was great for my back and upper body. When running, sprints are better than long distances.
Minnesota Hockey: Is there a right age to start mixing in other sports?
Larson: When I got busy with hockey in high school and college, I couldn’t participate in other sports as much. I was 6 feet, 200 pounds but really felt imbalanced much of the time. When I was 11, 12 years old and doing other stuff it helped so much. I think starting early is better. A lot of guys start later and that helps, but I think it’s best to build athleticism when you’re maturing, when you’re going through changes and growing up.
Minnesota Hockey: You were really into sports like water skiing and gymnastics. Did you have any teammates who had some non-traditional sports or unusual activities to keep active in the offseason?
Larson: Our family went to the cabin every weekend and hardly left the water the whole time. Other kids did water sports, nothing too unusual. Some went hunting, or golfing, some played baseball. My high school golf team was a lot of hockey players.
Minnesota Hockey: Can multisport athletes have an advantage over those just playing one sport?
Larson: Some of the best pro hockey players also played football or baseball or basketball and could have played at high levels at all of them, and had to make a choice. Hockey players who play sports like lacrosse or football or rugby will get you ready for the ice. Even boxing or wrestling get your mind and body ready. It’s about competing, determination and toughness. Playing multiple sports can help inside as well as outside.
Minnesota Hockey: Do you think there’s too much pressure on kids to play competitive hockey year-round?
Larson: When I think about my childhood, I did everything for fun. You want to do what you’re passionate about and be with your friends and compete. But you don’t need a drill sergeant or someone telling you to do it. I was fortunate to grow up in a time where my dad said if you’re going to do it, work hard. But I never had someone telling me you had to do it. You either wanted to make the team or you didn’t. I’m not saying there wasn’t pressure back then, but not to the degree that there is now. Sometimes you just need to be a kid.
Minnesota Hockey: How much responsibility do coaches and parents have to say “no” or remind their more intense athletes to ease up a bit and try something different?
Larson: I can see both sides. I coached in the Elite League and at the high school level and can tell when parents are too involved. Reminding them of other opportunities is important, but there are so many good experiences to have playing more and a lot of fun involved. There’s a value in participating. On the other hand, parents can put the reins on a little bit. You can’t manufacture a pro athlete, no matter how much you play, practice or lift. I try to talk to parents about the value of participating for the right reasons. You can guide them, but can’t make them, so might as well enjoy the journey.
Minnesota Hockey: What are some ways to stay in “hockey shape” without overdoing it in the offseason?
Larson: We did a lot of scrimmaging at Bloomington Ice Garden when I was younger. It was called ‘Denny May Open Hockey.’ We picked teams, skated and shot around all summer. It was all about having fun and a much better, low-pressure environment to play hockey. We didn’t wear full equipment. We wore elbow pads, a helmet. Some of us had bare arms. It was goofy but fun. I probably remember more of those times than the big games we played. Craig Norwich was out there. Chapman and Lundeen. The Byers brothers from Kennedy would come out from time to time. Johnny Rockwell was one of the goalies. Timmy Rainey from Jefferson. A great group of players. We policed ourselves – no coaches or refs. It was just for fun.