Most sports fans remember when Bo Jackson was the talk of the athletic world. He quickly became an all-star in professional football and baseball. People speculated he could quickly become a star in any sport he tried, with one exception, of course. In the lingo of that era, when people asked, “Does Bo know hockey?” the answer was a resounding, “No.” Several years later, when Michael Jordan retired from pro basketball to take a shot at Major League Baseball, many fans were optimistic he would succeed. Again, they reasoned that such a marvelous, determined athlete could find success in any sport, with the exception of hockey, of course.
Clearly, the dominant factor in both of these cases is hockey players must skate at a world-class level, while performing the skills of the sport. No matter how well conditioned, determined and smart, all potential hockey players must be able to skate. Even the Bo Jacksons and Michael Jordans of the world cannot circumvent this requirement.
I was thinking about these factors when I was watching the top prospects in the Canadian League go through the skills competition and 3-on-3 game in Kelowna, B.C. The tempo of the activities on the ice remained high throughout the day. This group of players has faults and limitations just as all players do. However, they share one attribute in common – they can really skate.
Most of the hockey I watch is at the junior, college and high school levels. I do spend some time watching NHL, as well as other pro games, and I also take in a number of bantam games where my younger son plays. At every level, I am struck by the same reaction – the skating ability in every league is higher than it has ever been.
There are a number of factors that have resulted in this phenomenon. The skates themselves are one reason. Their construction makes them lighter and more supportive and the blades provide a more secure foundation on the ice. Most of these present-day players have received specialized instruction from skating coaches from the time they were young. Most of the athletes are stronger and better conditioned than their counterparts from past eras.
There is no doubt the caliber of skating is one of the most attractive elements of our game from a spectator’s perspective. Sometimes those of us who work in the game take this aspect for granted. Fans who were enthralled by these CHL stars speeding around all corners of the rink in the skating finals would not be as entertained if athletes were simply running around these corners. Even the best runners could not match the speed or daring of hockey players.
With the up-tempo level of skating come some concerns as well. The new rules put in place in 2005-06 have definitely opened up the game. Rules preventing the obstruction of players in motion and the elimination of the red line have dramatically increased the speed of the game. With stronger, well conditioned athletes not being impeded, while performing on their new style skates, collisions in the normal course of the game are occurring at much greater speeds. The new skate blades being used by heavier players chew up the ice. Pucks are bouncing at every level of hockey and any soft ice can quickly develop dangerous ruts. The quality of play can be adversely affected and the danger factor can increase.
On the teeter-totter of life it is always difficult to maintain a perfect balance. Prior to 2005-06, hockey officials pondered ways to open up the game and allow skaters to flourish. Now, the same officials must consider measures to reduce the dangers inherent in today’s up-tempo game. One set of problems often gives rise to measures that create a new set of problems. The constant factor in hockey is that the essence of the game, its appeal and its difficulties, always involves skating. That is what makes our game unique. Never take it for granted.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be writing his Insider Column regularly for THN.com throughout this season.