A Harmony Of Motion: What sets the world's best skaters apart?

NHL speedsters didn’t become that way by random chance. Skating biomechanics can improve strides, speed and efficiency.
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Quick, name some of the best skaters in the NHL.

The top candidates come to mind pretty easily, because they also happen to be some of the best players in the game: Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall. Now think of some of last year’s most notable skaters outside the NHL. Kendall Coyne Schofield of the women’s Dream Gap Tour (and an Olympic gold medallist with Team USA) made waves at the 2019 all-star weekend in San Jose with her speed, while Florida Panthers farmhand Anthony Greco was faster than everyone in North America – including McDavid – with his lap at the 2019 AHL all-star festivities in Springfield.

All these players are excellent skaters, but why?

If you’re looking to crack that code, Dr. Mike Bracko has a lot of information. A sports physiologist, skating coach, strength and conditioning coach and researcher for the past 35 years, Dr. Bracko runs the Calgary-based Institute for Hockey Research and has been fascinated by skating biomechanics. Speaking at the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference this summer in Toronto, Dr. Bracko laid out the habits that all elite skaters share, and it was pretty illuminating.

Research on skating biomechanics dates back to at least 1975 when future NHL coach Pierre Page did a master’s thesis on the topic. Other minds have followed up on Page’s initial findings, including Dr. Bracko. So what separates a fast skater from a slower one? Here are the important categories according to Dr. Bracko, with input from a couple other experts in the field.

Stride: A wider skating stride is much more effective than a narrower one. Watch footage of the fastest skaters working their magic and you’ll see how far apart their legs are. Compared to slower skaters, the difference can be several inches. The legs should be pushing out to the side, too. A deep knee bend before push-off generates more power, and faster skaters have deeper flexion angles than slower skaters. “Knee bend is the most important attribute,” said power skating coach Katie McDonough. “If you don’t have that, everything else suffers. Maximum extension allows you to push off the blade, and an effective, efficient skater will produce power and gain ice.”

McDonough, who runs Cutting Edge Performance Power Skating in Minnesota, worked with Boston’s David Backes this summer as the 35-year-old Bruin tried to improve his game. She likes to take pictures of a client’s stride with her iPad so she can break it down for them and help them to understand what they can fix. “Getting them to slow down is a big part of it,” she said. “They have to be patient and go back to the basics. I tell them, ‘The basics never fail you, they help get you that muscle memory.’ I want the players to feel what their body is doing.”

If McDonough gets buy-in, she can get an NHLer like Backes to pick up two strides in one trip from goal line to goal line. In a young player, it can be as much as seven.

Coyne Schofield showed the world how good her stride was in San Jose, and her key to success was more out of necessity. “I extend my leg out as far as I can, because I’m only 5-foot-2,” she said. “I need to pick up as much ice as I can.”

Whatever the logic was, it worked for her. McDonough is also a big proponent of “picking up” ice, as it’s basically the name of the game when it comes to elite skating.

Trunk angle: According to Dr. Bracko, faster skaters lean a full 10 degrees more forward than slower skaters. Again, watch some of the best burners in the NHL and you’ll see how much they lean into it. Dr. Bracko described it as like “falling forward and catching yourself.” Research has also shown greater hip extension during acceleration and greater hip abduction during striding. When Coyne Schofield isn’t at her top form, she sees it right away. “When I get tired, I stand up more,” she said. “When I’m being powerful and explosive, I’m the lowest I can be. When I’m watching film, I’m like, ‘Oh boy, that was a long shift. I’m practically upright.’ ”

McDonough likes to see a skater’s torso and core controlled, or “quiet.” If a player has a weak core or gets complacent, they can become a “stick leaner.” And of course, your stick should be used for handling the puck, not propping yourself up.

Arms: This one was particularly fascinating but also controversial. Dr. Bracko believes the most efficient technique is for the arms to move side to side when skating, not back and forth. He brought up Newton’s third law of motion for this aspect: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The arms are working with the legs when skating and those who moved them side to side generated 37 percent more force than those whose arms went back and forth. In this movement, the shoulders should rapidly abduct and adduct. McDonough’s concern here is that nailing down this particular technique is elite. “It takes a very skilled player to accomplish what he is referring to,” she said.

Having said that, McDonough does believe in the overall importance of full-body biomechanics. “The biggest problem with hockey players,” she said, “is that they are not taught the knowledge of how important their body movement is with their feet.”

Recovery:A quick recovery after push-off is a major factor in speed, and the skates should not land under the mid-line of the body. Ideally, the skates land directly under the shoulders. And it probably goes without saying that a high stride rate is necessary, too. Coyne Schofield cited recovery as the most important element of efficient skating in her mind. “Skating is like building blocks,” McDonough said. “If you’re missing a block, you’re affected by it.”

And going back to the leg extension, McDonough cautions players not to pick up their skates too fast – they need that full extension first. Then it’s time for a quick recovery.

Now here’s the big question: do elite skaters know why they are elite? And did they get there by nature or nurture? Coyne Schofield knows all about her mechanics now as a pro, but her origin story is a lot more organic. “What made me develop my stride was being fearless on the ice,” she said. “When you first start skating, the ice is scary, but I loved to go fast and I didn’t care if I fell a hundred times. Working with kids now, I see the same thing in some of them. They’re willing to push, and they trust their edgework.”

She also loved power skating when she was growing up, which would be music to the ears of experts like McDonough and Dr. Bracko. What is also apparent here is players must be vigilant if they want to maintain their strides. With enough practice, it all becomes muscle memory, and at this point, NHL speedsters such as Dylan Larkin or Mathew Barzal probably couldn’t have a bad skate if they tried. But there’s also hope for those with less than ideal strides. Backes may be an old dog, but he was willing to try some new tricks with McDonough in order to keep his NHL career viable for a little longer. Today’s NHL game is faster than ever, and the plodders of yesteryear simply can’t keep up. That’s part of the reason so many enforcers are out of the game now, but they’re not the only ones. To paraphrase an old John Tortorella classic, “Slow is death.” And don’t forget that knee bend.

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