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 players outside the NHL. Team USA’s Kendall Coyne made waves at All-Star Weekend with her speed, while Springfield’s Anthony Greco was faster than everyone in North America – including McDavid – with his lap at the AHL’s All-Star festivities.
All of these players are excellent skaters, but why?
If you’re looking to crack that code, Dr. Mike Bracko has a lot of information. Speaking at the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference last week, Dr. Bracko laid out the habits that all elite skaters have and it was pretty illuminating.
Research on skating biomechanics date 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 slow one?
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 slow skaters, the difference was actually several inches apart. 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.
Trunk angle: 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.
Arms: This one was particularly fascinating to me because I really hadn’t thought about it, but arms are important in skating mechanics. The most efficient technique is for the arms to move side-to-side when skating, not back-and-forth. Dr. Bracko 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.
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.
I wonder how many elite skaters are aware of why they are so good at their craft. On top of the names mentioned above, some of the other players cited by Dr. Bracko in his presentation were Matt Barzal, Johnny Gaudreau and Jonathan Toews. We all know how important skating is in today’s game and we all know how many skating classes are available to players of all ages and skill levels. But knowing the science behind skating can’t hurt, either.