Legs Pay the Bills

If food is the key to a man’s heart, then skating is the key to a hockey scout’s heart.  In today’s brand of hockey, if you can’t skate, you won’t be able to compete.  The first thing that immediately jumps out about a player is his or her skating ability.

The next time you are at a junior or college game, go seek out one of the many scouts that are sure to be in attendance.  You can’t mistake them.  They will look presentable, usually sporting an overcoat and tie or a team-emblazoned jacket.  Sometimes these scouts will be talking with other scouts in attendance.  If you happen to catch their conversation in passing, you will often hear terms such as, “That kid has good feet” or “That kid can’t move at the next level.”

The fact of the matter is, every time you make the jump to a higher level, the game becomes faster and your window of opportunity to make a play gets smaller.  If you can’t skate, you severely limit how far you can go in hockey.  When a scout first settles into a game, they will mark down players that grab them in the first 10 minutes of a game.  The kids that can skate will get a mark beside their name and then they begin to focus on the narrowed down group to evaluate their other talents such as puck skills, hockey sense and compete levels.  If you can’t skate, you probably don’t make the short list within the first 10 minutes.

How many times do you see kids who rack up ungodly numbers in junior and never go anywhere?  It happens all the time.  Just because you can score and produce at one level doesn’t mean that will translate to the next level.  On the flip side, you will see players who put up moderate numbers who go on to 10 year NHL careers.  These are players like Kris Draper and Todd Marchant who were never top scorers but could skate with anyone in the world and filled extremely important roles on their teams.

Long gone are the clutch and grab days of the 60s, 70s and 80s.  Those were the days when the big lugs could bring the game down to their speed by wrapping up skilled players like Marcel Dionne and Guy LaFleur.  Hooking and holding were still penalties in those days but you had a grace period of a few seconds where you could get away with impeding an opposing attacker.

Since the restructuring of the rules that dominated NHL legislation in the late 90s and 2000s, we’ve seen the disappearance of the redline, which created the demand for more fleet-footed defencemen, and a major crack-down on clutching and grabbing.  These rule changes opened up the game of hockey and greatly increased the speed at which players began operating.

During this recent era of fast-paced action, we have seen the emergence of the diminutive speedball and the decline of the stay-at-home ogre defenceman.  Being a stay at home defenseman now means that you have to have phenomenal footwork in order to contain and keep up with the Taylor Halls and Steven Stamkos’ of the league.

Players who previously would have been dismissed at first glance because they were simply “too small” to play in the NHL, like famously undrafted Martin St. Louis, are now finding themselves in the forefront of NHL stardom.  Case in point, Jeff Skinner went 7th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2010.  As a small, skilled forward, Skinner is playing and thriving in the NHL at the perfect time.  If Skinner had come out of junior back in 1983, he would have probably been taken in the later rounds or not at all, simply because he was small and slight.

During the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for teams to draft players that were big, hoping that they could develop enough skill to be a force.  Since those days, the game has drastically changed and scouting has been forced to adapt right along with it.  During the 80s and 90s, size was a greater priority.  Growing up, playing minor hockey in the 90s, instructions like “Hold up the forechecker for your partner on dump-ins” or “put your stick between his legs and tie him up off the faceoff” were staples to learning how to become a defencemen.  Now, the biggest emphasis is on moving your feet and containing your opponent with body and stick positioning.  You can no longer go into a corner and wrap a guy up.  Now it’s using your footwork to gain position on the offensive player so that you can limit his ice.

As the rules have changed and the game has evolved, the budding hopefuls change right along with it.  Now almost every NHL team has a “Skating Coach” on their payroll and the NHL players are constantly working on their skating to become more efficient.  The key word with developing your skating at high levels is “efficiency”.  This means, finding ways to spend less energy with better results over a 60 minute hockey game.  Lengthening the stride and limiting unnecessary crossovers is one of the most recent trends.  Skating coaches also look at ways to change posture in order to prevent lingering injuries.  As a professional hockey player, your body is your temple and if you can find ways to protect your health and lengthen your career, you do it.

Now what does all this mean for our youth players?  What it means is that we need to recognize the changing trends in hockey and prepare to meet the challenges.  Hockey has always been a sport where the more speed you have, the better position you put yourself in to succeed.  However, since the game is faster than ever, the emphasis on skating needs to continue to grow.

Too often, I am at rinks teaching powerskating, or as I would rather refer to it, “Effective Skating” and I see parents rolling their eyes or complaining about how their kid doesn’t need to do that stuff.  I have parents always coming up to me and saying, “This is figure skating stuff.  My kid needs to learn hockey.  Scoring goals, etc.”  My response to this is simple.  Your kid won’t have a chance to score any goals beyond house league if you don’t put in the time, especially when you’re young, to develop efficient skating skills.

Looking at individual skills, skating is the hardest thing to teach, the older you get.  Once a kid hits about 13 or 14, it is very difficult to change stride and posture.  Everyone has a specific skating “style” and this style is easiest to teach when kids are starting out and at the young ages.  Stickhandling, passing and shooting are all things that can be taught at developed at any age.  This is why in Russia, they don’t introduce these other individual skills until after the age of 6.  They emphasize skating and skating alone when the kids first begin.  And if you had to characterize, by nation, the greatest skaters in the world come from Russia.

So remember, if you want to succeed in hockey, you need to excel at what scouts look for in the first shift of every player’s game, skating.  If you can skate, the rest of the game becomes a lot easier and you will find that you have more control over your output on the ice.  And remember, for hockey players, legs pay the bills!

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

About Jamie McKinven

Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

View all posts by Jamie McKinven →

4 Comments on “Legs Pay the Bills”

  1. Hi Jamie,
    my name is Greg and I was enrolled at Clarkson while you were on the team. Congrats on this your career, blog, and your book which I purchased, they are both well written and insightful.

    My kid is 9 years old, and is just completing his last year of Mites. He has been playing hockey for 4 years, and attending small session skating classes, weekly, for the past year. In our town, because of his skating, he figures to make the Squirt A team as a first year squirt, where only 3-4 kids who are returning Squirts who are a year older are better hockey players and skaters than he is (by his coaches observations, not my own)

    His skating coach works on edges, balance, crossovers but not too much stride stuff yet. My question is after reading your article “Too Much Too Soon” and this article I wonder if when the season ends, if continuing just his skating class will make him burn out.

    He usually takes off from when the season ends in Mid March until summer skating starts up in July. He plays baseball for April-June. Last year, he began his skating class in June, after baseball. My question is, during April-June should I continue the once a week skating classes or let him take a break from the ice completely? the skating is not very hockey related, and the entire class is done without a stick.

    When I asked him if he would like to continue during baseball, he actually said he wanted to continute, but be moved to a more difficult class where the kids payed better attention. Do I trust him or give him a break?

    1. Hi Greg,

      Thanks for buying the book! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      It’s a fine line with regards to becoming burnt out and it all depends on the player. I’ve witnessed alot of situations where kids are literally forced into sessions that they have no interest in and other times kids are scratching and clawing to get more. It all depends on the desire of the individual kid. By communicating with your son, you are way ahead of the game. That’s great! If he expresses an interest in continuing during the off-season, I don’t see any harm in that. You can often tell by their body language during sessions. I run alot of sessions year round and you can tell right away the kids who are engaged and the ones who just want to get off the ice.

      So, I’d say if he’s interested and has the desire to continue, go ahead and let him.

      Thanks for getting in touch with me!


      1. Jamie,
        That’d make a good article, communication. I read that a high percentage of D-I athletes in any sport report the part they hated most about youth sports was the ride home from the game with their parents.
        I never say anything negative after a game, just remember the problems and try to practice and work out the problems at a later time. Also I remember to remind my son to avoid the problems from last game when we are on our way to the next game. This approach seems to work out great as he listens and understands while preparing for a game rather recovering from a game.

        I was worried that burn out was an “under the surface” occurance but it seems if you just listen and witness what is going on it can be avoided completely. I feel much better.


        1. Communication is definitely the most important thing. With the costs involved in hockey and other activities, I find some parents struggle with the fact that kids might invest 4 or 5 years into a high level activity and then discover that they have other interests. I see it alot in hockey. I’ve heard parents say, “After 4 years of AAA hockey, my son says he wants to play Basketball instead. I think its just a phase so I’m going to keep him in hockey and squash the basketball idea.” In reality, their son is communicating something – a desire to try something else. I think that no matter how good a kid may be at a particular sport, they have the right to change their mind and to try something new. Being good at something and having a passion for it are two things that can be linked, but can also be completely separate.

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