I’ve always been amazed at the fact NHL players have ‘morning skates’ on game days, and almost always skate on non-game days.
Given they play more than 80 regular season games, plus potentially almost 30 more play-off games, while jetting across America and Canada, often arriving in a city on the wrong side of midnight before playing the following evening, you’d think NHL stars would be preoccupied with resting up and charging their batteries every chance they get.
Instead, they are dragged onto the ice for drills, to remain ‘sharp’.
And the strangest part of all is that it works. I can always tell if the Red Wings are coming off a few days without an official game, or were given the day off to freshen. They almost always seem to be missing that vital one per cent in skating speed and ferocity.
Just that one day off can make a difference.
Sure, back-to-back games, especially in different cities, can sap their legs, no matter what they do, but on the while, these guys skate and skate and skate and need to, to retain their edge (pun intended).
Which brings us back to a certain advanced middle-aged skater half a world away in Melbourne, Australia, coming off a long summer break. My last official match was on December 19, last year, and I hadn’t skated much since, apart from that one fun hit-out in honour of Charlie a couple of weeks ago.
Of course, I’d spent the entire Christmas-summer break thinking I should really go for a skate or get down to a stick-and-puck session at the Icehouse. Facebook was full of the usual 300 or so posts per day of other hockey players training remorselessly, maybe taking off their skates begrudgingly to sleep. Even Big Cat Place, finally cleared to skate after his broken ankle, started making his way to the Icehouse for sessions.
I was caught up in work and novel-writing and wider life and somehow just didn’t make it to the sessions, most of which, to be fair, are smack bang in the middle of a work day. Local hockey is a lot easier if you’re a uni student, but then again, the super dedicated got there. I didn’t.
All of this could only end badly and, sure enough, the night of reckoning was last night: my first official training session of the year, with my team, the Cherokees, at the freshly-pimped Oakleigh ghetto rink, now looking magnificent.
And oh, my legs.
It’s not like I’m unfit, generally speaking, right now. During the break, I’ve actually been training hard with Lliam Webster on core muscles, skating muscles and explosive power, as well as running and riding my bike around, thanks to my pesky knee finally getting its act together. But I haven’t been skating and oh wow, there is nothing that replicates it.
Last night, we did some basic drills. Lots of back-checking, which means skate as hard as you can to chase two forwards, or, as a forward, trying to blow past defenders along the boards or, if you can, ducking into the centre lane.
Then we scrimmaged with only one player on each bench, which meant very little relief.
Of course, it was awesome. I can never get enough skating and playing, even when I know my legs are completely gassed, but it was hard.
In the Charlie game a fortnight ago, I’d known my legs would die fast, and they did, but it was really just a horse-around hour so I didn’t worry too much. Last night, I tried harder to skate out the entire hour of training, and I was on fumes with 15 minutes to go.
Happily, I was not alone. I think we were all feeling it, except maybe Bianca, who had dodged last week’s crazy over-40 heatwave for four days by pretty much living at the Icehouse, enjoying the air conditioning and ice. Big Cat has found that he feels okay, on the other side of his ankle injury, except that he gets tired but really, he was no worse than most of us as we gasped between drills.
The fact is, no matter how much training you do, you can’t replicate a hockey game, and the interval-training-like sprints that hockey requires. Even a top NHL player might only play 20 minutes of a game, which doesn’t sound like much until you actually play hockey and know what that means. How difficult and aerobically challenging it is.
I honestly don’t know if it can be replicated elsewhere. Maybe, off-ice, you could try going to the local park or oval, and then running as hard as you possibly can for one minute. Not just flat out sprinting, either: changing gear up and down. Back off slightly here or there, watching the imaginary puck, but then sprint 20 metres and then go, go, go for 80 or 100 metres to replicate charging down the length of a rink.
Now wander over to the fence and sit for one or two minutes and repeat. For an hour.
It doesn’t sound that hard, does it? But it is. You might be actively running, sprinting, jogging, sprinting!!! for no more than 15 minutes total, but see how you’re faring in the last 20 minutes of that hour stretch. See how your speed is holding up, and your ability to dig for an extra gear.
That’s what we Cherokees were doing last night; trying to regain our legs. And what a bunch of us will be doing at the first Development League session of the year at the Icehouse on Wednesday night, and then heading into Sunday’s first actual IHV game since the break.
Trying to remind our legs that they can’t stop. That we need to will ourselves to make that next contest, to out-skate that chasing D-man.
I haven’t even mentioned regaining puck-handling skills, or hockey strategy and split-second decisions. I’m only concerned right now with standing on two skates. Trying to kick my muscles back into that place where they need to respond, even when everything is screaming that there’s no more petrol, no more sprints are possible, no more ice can be covered.
A breakaway is on? GO!