Balls in the halls: NHLers warm up with other sports
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The hoop is perched near the loading dock at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center in the hallway at rink level, tacked against the beige brick wall that doubles as the backboard. It stands lower than 10 feet, though no one has measured to make sure. Other baskets are folded up and untouched nearby, swankier, cushioned units reserved for when the local professional team plays. Several years ago, during an idle moment after the usual soccer ball kick-around ended, Flyers forward Claude Giroux was shooting at the 76ers’ baskets, just for fun, when an arena employee approached with an idea.
“You know,” he said, pointing across the corridor, “I can put a net there for you.”
Desperate for something resembling a regulation-size hoop set-up, Giroux quickly agreed. “I was pretty jacked up,” he recalls, even more so when Wayne Simmonds arrived the next season and a routine was born. Now, after the Flyers finish playing soccer, which every NHL squad does in some form or another, and before they are due in the locker room for meetings and formal warmups, Simmonds and Giroux square off in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Using the walls, ceilings and anything else nearby is considered fair game.
Giroux and Simmonds remain the most competitive H-O-R-S-E players in Philadelphia, and Giroux usually shoots for an extra 10 minutes by himself after someone hits “E,” but the group of ballers has grown. Czech winger Jakub Voracek, for instance, went on a surprising hot streak before suffering a lower-body injury (on the ice, not on the court) in late February, and he loves imitating the outlandish moves of Will Ferrell’s character Jackie Moon in the film Semi-Pro.
“Voracek is probably the most improved player,” Simmonds says. “He’s not the greatest, but he’s pulled out a couple wins. Matt Read used to play with us. We got him playing again now. He’s not the best. He always likes to use his left hand. [Scott] Laughton started trying to play, but he’s horrible. He was the first guy out every time three games in a row so he stopped coming back.”
By warming up with other sports before their own, Giroux and Simmonds are not alone. Earlier this season, Washington Capitals forwards Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky caught the first bus to Madison Square Garden in New York City. Finding themselves with time to spare, they found a football and began hurling it around. Both skilled soccer players, their spirals needed some work. “It’s challenging to throw that thing for us Swedes,” Johansson says. Teammate T.J. Oshie, meanwhile, recently inquired about shooting on the Wizards’ practice court at D.C.'s Verizon Center. A basketball player until ninth grade, Oshie made the request on a lark, but soon found himself hoisting threes while a team staffer rebounded. “It’s just a fun way to warm up instead of getting in a line, doing high knees in the ladder, stuff like that,” Oshie says.
Indeed, most NHL players transition into more dutiful methods for loosening the body before games, like riding the stationary bicycle, lifting weights or receiving massages. But these other sports slowly ease them into their routines. The Florida Panthers play a soccer-volleyball-tennis hybrid (photo above) with several steel crowd barriers serving as their net. Islanders captain John Tavares, who is the nephew of the retired professional lacrosse player of the same name, keeps a stick in his street clothes stall, but he hasn’t busted it out in some time. Teammates Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Cal Clutterbuck, on the other hand, occasionally break out their baseball gloves for group games of catch.
In Minnesota, forwards Ryan Suter (football) and Zach Parise (baseball) seek out support staffers as throwing partners, though both declined to comment through a spokesman, who wrote: “Ryan said he would tell you his secret when he retires…” A cadre of Red Wings, led by strength coach Mike Kadar, run one-on-one routes at Joe Louis Arena. Predators defenseman Shea Weber obtained a football from the Tennessee Titans and a catcher’s mitt from Blue Jays backstop J.P. Arencibia. His sessions aren't too difficult, mostly one-handed snares and light tossing.
“It’s the prelude to an actual warmup when you’re getting the heart rate up and stuff,” Weber says. “You run a couple simple routes, run around a little bit. I wouldn’t just throw the football around and go play after.”
For similar reasons, since he often reaches the rink an hour before anyone else, Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen seeks out quiet hallways and paddles tennis balls against the wall to harness his hand-eye coordination. “Nothing crazy, but it has become a thing I do,” he says. This, he notes, is a more solitary routine than what former teammates Steve Ott and Loui Eriksson developed, when they would lug a stanchion into the halls of American Airlines Center, construct a small court and whack balls over the makeshift net. Though both Ott and Eriksson no longer play for Dallas, the team still carries racquets on the road and Lehtonen expressed an interest in finding a hitting partner for summer training.
“I know it’s great workout for the goalies, especially because the moving is pretty similar to what we have to do on the ice,” he says. “Maybe I find a guy who’s at a similar level and go play. I’m okay, but I wouldn’t want to come watch me play. First serve at least used to be pretty good. Second one, not so much.”
The unique difficulty presented by their sport—unlike Steph Curry conducting his jaw-dropping shooting and dribbling routines long before tipoff, NHLers aren’t stepping onto the ice for laps or practice shots until actual warmups—makes dipping into other sports only natural. When forward Dany Heatley played for Ottawa from 2005 to ’09, he would throw baseballs with team trainers. After getting traded to San Jose, he somehow acquired a football from the San Francisco 49ers and began throwing that around with PR staffers. Something similar happened when the Sharks shipped Heatley to Minnesota, where a team doctor promptly procured a pigskin from the Vikings. Now overseas in Germany, Heatley lamented that he missed his chance to buy another when the NFL hosted three games in London this season.
“I think everyone’s played a different sport, whether it be soccer, baseball, lacrosse, basketball, whatever,” Heatley says. “Guys are used to those sports in the summer or growing up. It’s a change. It’s tough to replicate a stick and a puck and skates in the hallway or in the gym. I think it’s something you probably grew up with.”
This certainly applies to Sharks forward Joel Ward. Almost five years ago, when he signed as a free agent with Washington, he found that a small group of Capitals—Karl Alzner,
Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Steve Oleksy and Jay Beagle—all owned gloves and regularly played catch. But when their interest was diverted elsewhere—“It got to be too many people and we quit,” Holtby says—Ward was left alone in wanting to play, so assistant equipment manager Dave Marin volunteered his services.
They began an hour before puck drop, near the Zamboni doors at Verizon Center, starting at close range then stretching it out. A corner infielder during his younger days in Toronto, Ward then had Marin, a former high school catcher, crouch down for simulated at-bats. “Man on first and second or something, then go through those motions,” Ward says. “He’d get down and I’m sure he wasn’t a fan of being on his knees the whole time like that, but he sucked it up. He was a good sport about it …Just a fun thing as opposed to playing soccer.”
So too were Ward’s frequent trips, like Oshie, onto the Wizards’ practice court. With a locker room attendant fetching rebounds, Ward would try to hit 10 free throws, then 10 three-pointers. Former teammates such as Martin Erat and Michal Neuvrith soon joined, fielding competitive matches of H-O-R-S-E. “We’d mess around, just a different activity to get moving around a little bit, pretend we’re Scottie Pippen or Jordan or something like that,” Ward says. And once or twice, they got so engrossed that a security guard was dispatched to fetch them for team meetings, reminding them that there was, after all, hockey business to take care of.
“I know it sounds pretty weird,” says Giroux. “But that would be my warmup, just shooting hoops and dribbling and doing that kind of thing.”