Whether it’s a race for a loose puck, a burst in the corners to maintain puck possession, or quick footwork during transitions, the importance of skating has reached an all-time high.
“Back in my NHL playing days and NHL coaching days, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Broad Street Bullies were the model,” said Mike Eaves, a former Minnesota North Star. “It was a heavy, physical game. That was the style.”
Eaves would know. He has been involved as a player or coach in collegiate and professional hockey for over 30 years. “The game has now transformed. Look at the highest level of hockey in the NHL,” Eaves said. “Teams have to play the game with speed or they're going to be left behind.”
Eaves is the University of Wisconsin’s all-time leading scorer and he spent 14 seasons as the Badgers head coach, winning an NCAA title both as a player and coach. He has also coached in the AHL and NHL along with multiple U.S. national teams. For the last three years, Eaves has been the head men’s hockey coach at Division III St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota.
“Skating is at a premium now more than ever,” Eaves said. "When you have more speed than your opponent, the other team is always playing catch up. I think that teams that have speed now are dominant.”
Eaves offered some skating tips and insight for players and coaches.
The first step to improve skating and speed ironically occurs off the ice. To boost his own skating and speed as a young player, Eaves experienced firsthand the power of dryland training in the offseason.
“When I was playing for the University of Wisconsin, I had the opportunity to work with Olympic speed skater Eric Heiden in Madison. Eric won five gold medals at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. But he actually didn't spend a lot of time in the offseason on the ice,” Eaves said. “He spent his offseason doing his dryland exercises and cycling and his weightlifting. His legs were enormous because of his off-ice workouts and that had a huge part of him becoming the kind of skater he was."
Kids at 8U, 10U and 12U can use these dryland training materials to build leg strength and athleticism. They should also play multiple sports.
"Young players should just be active,” Eaves said. “Ride your bike, use roller blades and play other sports. All of those activities work on your legs. When you're Squirt to Bantams you can use your own body to get your legs stronger.”
When players have a good foundation in place and get to the older levels such as 14U/Bantams and high school, they can now concentrate on becoming more powerful skaters through weight training.
"All good strength coaches that work with young players know that a huge part of becoming a better skater occurs off the ice,” Eaves said. “Coaches can help players work on the strength training off the ice so that when we do get on the ice the players are able to hold those good skating positions. Then we can practice technique."
3 Dryland Exercises in the Heiden Circuit:
Fatigue Leads to Bad Habits
When players get tired, bad habits start to form.
“Players begin to cheat and practice bad habits when their legs are tired. That's an important component. When you want to work at a specific skating technique your legs should be fresh,” Eaves said. “When your legs aren’t strong enough, a player will begin to cheat and use incorrect form. When a player is tired that’s when they start to form bad habits.”
Always Room for Improvement
In every program at every level, there will always be players that make skating look effortless.
"There are just some guys that anatomically line up well and are naturally gifted skaters,” Eaves said. “Players like Jake Gardiner from Minnetonka who played for me with the Badgers and now plays with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gardiner was born to skate. The naturally gifted skaters anatomically ride their edges so much better than a lot of players. There is always going to be players that glide so much better than anybody else."
Eaves doesn’t want young players to be dismayed or too critical of their own skating style. Some players’ bodies will naturally fight against the correct anatomical skating position and make it hard for them to get better. But there is always a chance to work on it.
“You can always work on skating style,” Eaves said. “There’s always ways to improve. When I played for the Minnesota North Stars, I got a chance to work with some speed skaters and I felt that I became a better skater. They were better skaters than me so I took the time and learned from them. I got better because, a) I worked on my leg strength, and b) I was able to get on a slide board and that helped my technique. I did my dryland training with the slide board in front of a mirror so that I could see what I was doing."
Rethinking the Bag Skate
In the old days, the last 20 minutes of practice were always for conditioning. Coaches would skate the players from end to end. It was really the only time that skating was the primary focus.
Eaves has seen the game change, and that means coaches have to change with it. He believes the days of using skating only for conditioning needs to be reevaluated.
"I think the old way of coaching has changed in terms of only having players really skate at the end of practice. Now, the game has evolved,” Eaves said. “We have discovered that if we play small-area games, the players get the conditioning and skating that they need during the practice.
“I know the guys love it. I would love to play it if I could get up and down the ice. It's so dynamic.”