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!