Jack Blatherwick

Knee Bend: The Importance of Dryland Training

Knee Bend, Knee Bend, Knee Bend!

By Jack Blatherwick

Let's Play Hockey Columnist

Diane Ness made this recommendation a couple weeks ago, and I write to underscore her advice. I will add an additional thought: Make this position the comfort zone by hundreds of repetitions off-ice. This position is the difference between skating and simply running around the ice.

For years, Mike Crowe was an Olympic Team coach and the director of junior development for U.S. Speedskating. He now does it for Canada, and this is one of the reasons for their success in the 2010 Olympic Games. When he was in Roseville for the World Junior Championships, I asked him if he would consider teaching youngsters to skate without using dryland training.


"How could you teach skating without dryland training?"

Read more: Knee Bend: The Importance of Dryland Training

Making the ‘A-Team’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Every great player in the NHL has several things in common with others at the elite level: rink sense, competitive toughness and work ethic are always at the top of the list. Some superstars are exceptionally skillful with the puck – some not as good. Some can release laser shots without being comfortable – others who can’t probably have the skills to maneuver until they are comfortable or pass to a teammate who is open. Some are incredible skaters, while others are average.

But one thing they all have in abundance is an inner confidence – an elevated level of expectation. For some it is cockiness, others might act humble, but it’s just an act. They all know they are able to change the outcome of games. Sidney Crosby probably isn’t the league’s greatest skater, shooter or stickhandler. He’s the best player because that is what he expects of himself.

For someone to have a future in this game as a goal scorer, the most important area for improvement is raising the bar of personal expectations. It is the kiss of death to spend an entire season in a designated role as a forward who contributes nothing more than hustle. That is why, when cuts are made, it is usually better for a goal scorer to play on the weaker team and score a ton of goals.

Confidence comes from success, and improvement follows. This is not to say it is bad to play “up” for a forward whose future is to be a grinding checker. But, for someone who wants to be a goal scorer, it is imperative to score by the bucketful – goals or assists – every season. 

The same could be said for making brilliant plays, being creative on offense and handling the puck in traffic. Practicing these skills is one step, but the most important experience is to try things in games and succeed more often than not. That doesn’t happen much for the final players to make the ‘A-Team.’ They get less ice time, have the puck on their stick for fewer seconds in games, and are given a shorter leash by the coach to learn by trial and error. On the other hand, the top players on the ‘B-Team’ can experiment, be creative and fail sometimes. They’re still given a free reign to create.

The hardest skill to coach is confidence – poise in highly competitive situations. Reality is the most potent teacher, and success is required to elevate a player’s personal expectations.


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.




It’s not just about strength; it’s about efficient application of strength

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist



I make no apology for repeating an important topic I’ve discussed within the last 15 months, because achieving great acceleration is the major reason for strength training of the legs. Sometimes this fact is missed in weight rooms where strength for the sake of strength seems more important.

QUICKNESS and AGILITY are the highest athletic priorities, according to hockey coaching groups I’ve asked. In the physics lab, quickness and agility are most simply and accurately called “Acceleration.”

However, the words “Force” and “Power” have distracted us from the mission, which is accelerating and decelerating your body weight forward, backward, and side-to side. Maintaining speed is also a matter of acceleration, because there is deceleration with each stride due to resistive forces like friction.

How do the greatest sprinters achieve maximum acceleration? They lean their body forward into Straight Line Extension (SLX) as quickly as possible out of the blocks. Therefore, learning this feeling of efficient force application should be part of every hockey weight room.

A recent biomechanics study in France, using new technical equipment showed that sprinters who accelerated the fastest were not necessarily the ones who applied the greatest force into the ground. The quickest accelerators were the ones who achieved the greatest horizontal component of force compared to their total force (Morin, Jean-Benoit, et.al. Technical Ability of Force Application as a Determinant Factor of Sprint Performance.  Med Science Sports Ex, (Published ahead of print) 2011).

We’ll let the photos speak for themselves, because they show what track coaches have known for decades, and what the biomechanists ‘proved’ in the Morin study. 

To be accurate, if the arrows were force vectors, the ground reaction force would end at the athlete’s center of mass. However to illustrate SLX, I’ve drawn the force lines through the entire body.



Preparing for miracles

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

We call it a miracle – those pyramids in Egypt or the first step on the moon – or whenever an American team pulls off a major upset in Olympic hockey. I wonder if the participants really believe their work “defies all known laws of science?”

So I decided to travel back 4,600 years to a typical day on the job, just to see what the Egyptian workers were saying about miracles. There were 20,000 or so, and some had permanently twisted anatomies, because they had been hauling rocks for most of the 80 years it took to complete the project.

There was some grumbling we can’t repeat when I asked if this should be called “a miracle.” They had heard those rumors, and one of the group of 40 carrying a large boulder gasped, “As if someone just waves a bleeping wand and … voila … a pyramid!”

These were the ‘carriers.’ There were also the higher paid ‘carvers’ and, of course, the educated-elite site managers who used the latest technology to make sure the slant was up to the Pharaoh’s expectations. No twisted bodies in this group. They weren’t even sweating.

Hundreds of bakers made sure others had food to keep up the pace; physicians attended the injured; and in case the carriers were crushed beneath a boulder, there were undertakers to ensure that bones, found thousands of years later, would be properly attired.

Astronauts at the Apollo 11 landing site had basically the same response as the Egyptians. As Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon, I asked if they agreed with everyone that this was a miracle.

“What? Get back out of sight quick, before TV picks you up! Now we have to do this scene all over again. Stand over there behind the ship. (pause) One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind. (pause) Ok, what were you talking about … miracle? A miracle defies all known laws of science. No way. This IS science. Thousands of intelligent people have been working as a team, 24/7 for this moment to happen. Don’t insult their efforts.”

“Sorry … maybe I’d better head back.  I think I’ll try the 1980 Olympic hockey team. They’ll be having their tryouts for the Games in Lake Placid in … uh … exactly 10 years.” 

“Well,” said Armstrong, “they have a tough test with those Soviets. Some have said it’s easier to land a man on the moon.”

July 1979, Colorado Springs: 90 of the best college hockey players are competing to make the Olympic team. Some, like John Harrington, knew the altitude (6,000 feet) would be a factor, so they moved to the mountains several weeks in advance to accelerate their training.

“I’m leaving nothing to chance,” John said. “This is too important. I’ve been sprinting up hills, skating every hour available, lifting weights, shooting pucks and I’m in the best shape of my life. If someone beats me out, that will be a miracle.”

“Miracle? What are the chances of beating the Soviets?” I asked, but Harrington was already starting up Pike’s Peak and ignored the question. Actually, he didn’t ignore my question; he answered it by running. Most candidates came to tryouts in great shape, and we tested speed and stamina on the ice – not in an irrelevant laboratory that measures qualities written about in textbooks.

Coach Herb Brooks wasn’t into Ivory Tower irrelevancy. He wanted speed and “hockey endurance like those damn Soviets” that Brooks competed against in two prior Olympic games.

When the team was picked, players were warned they’d be tested again on the ice, and that failing to prepare would mean they’d probably be cut when they returned for camp in a few weeks. This would be the major philosophy for the next seven months: Execute skills and make decisions at the highest possible tempo. Repeat and repeat relentlessly, with timed intervals for two hours or more – and, “You’d better not slow down … ever.”

There was much planning. Brooks’ over-riding philosophy was, “Always be better prepared than any of your athletes. But it will not be a six month vacation for them. You have my promise on that.”

He noted that others had tried to beat the Soviets by simply emphasizing great defense. “You can’t be on defense all day against them,” he growled. “You’ll take penalties, and that’s it. Game over. You have to beat them at their own game – puck possession and speed.

“How can you practice any other way?  What good is a SLOW conditioning drill on-ice or off? We have to shock them when they realize that another team in the Olympics can operate at their pace.”

So I brought my recorder to some of the practices in the next months. Mark Pavelich was recovering for a few seconds between shifts in which his line flew up the ice and back – then up again – making decisions on the fly, trying to pass perfectly without hesitation, and doing this while skating faster than ever before.

“Pav,” Brooks hollered. “You look like you’re portaging your canoe. Get your line moving.”

“He’s crazy,” Pavelich muttered under his breath. “It’ll be a miracle if we survive these practices for five more months.” 

That word “miracle” came up often in reference to surviving Brooks’ practices. I don’t recall anyone using it in reference to winning. That was more like “preparation.”

“Silk!” Brooks shouted at Dave, but really at the whole team. “You’ve got million-dollar legs and a nickel brain. But we’ll change that in a hurry. Everyone! Start thinking out here! Your mind must be quicker than your feet!”

So it went – repetition of skill, speed and decision-making, stopping only for short timed rest intervals. The pace was never comfortable. Other teams had practiced at comfortable speeds, and when they played the Soviets, they were on edge the entire night. With the 1980 team, speed of execution was one factor the coaching staff could control by training.

In many practices, Brooks would communicate to the whole team by picking on his favorite target (and one of his favorite players), “McClanahan, you think you’re fast? Remember this: The puck moves faster when you pass it.”

Nagy, the good doctor was wearing his familiar frown, “It’ll be a miracle if they all survive. I don’t think Herbie can keep this up. We won’t have any players left.”

“Yeah; he’s crazy,” I responded – but not quietly enough.

“I heard that, Cardiac,” Brooks snapped. “You’re an ivory-tower scientist; not a coach. We have to beat the Czechs, the Swedes and Soviets. You can afford to theorize. We have to train athletes to execute at a tempo that will shock those guys in red uniforms. If we don’t train with that intensity, we’ll be relying on miracles.”


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.



Is strength overrated?

No, but to increase hockey ATHLETICISM, turn weight rooms into gymnasiums


By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist



Every coaching group I’ve asked, has listed speed, agility and quickness (SAQ) as the highest priorities in the development of athleticism for hockey. So, is strength overrated? No, but it often dominates the scene in weight rooms and leaves too little time and energy for simultaneous development of SAQ.

Strength is a critical building block for SAQ, even at six years of age, when ‘strength’ might well be defined as the ability to handle body weight on one leg, with good knee bend – or to cut on a dime and sprint or skate explosively. 

We should stop equating strength to heavy lifts in the weight room because this has thrown USA Hockey folks for a loop, and they’ve advised that strength training should be delayed until later ages. ‘Weight training’ becomes more valuable as bones and joints mature, but ‘strength training’ is important in youth hockey to promote good skating mechanics and SAQ.

To a hungry cheetah, ‘strength’ is the ability to accelerate his body forward or sideways faster than the gazelle he wants for dinner. Notice that cheetahs gain fearsome strength doing explosive, athletic things, not lifting heavy weights. They accelerate from 0-60 mph in three seconds, so it might not be dumb to study how they develop. 

Really. Just because Force = Mass x Acceleration, it doesn’t follow that we should ALWAYS train with great mass. Some training must include great acceleration.

Besides strength training, weight rooms should be equipped to handle short explosive sprints on a flat surface or up a short ramp. One-legged and two-legged jumps are helpful at all ages, not sprinter’s plyometrics where the object is to reduce contact time with the track. Skating does not require short contact time with the ice, so skaters need to develop explosive strength from a one-legged position of good knee bend.

Hockey also requires muscular endurance in this position. Weight rooms should include slide boards for this purpose. Other activities, such as lunges, jumps and one-legged squats can be helpful.

SAQ means accelerating your own body weight. Therefore, the role of the weight room should be constantly analyzed to make sure acceleration is the highest priority.

We have been handed an unwise tradition that encourages isolating athletic qualities into separate workouts. Speed, strength, agility, core stability and endurance isolated from each other. The latter is separated even further into aerobic and anaerobic training.

“Dumb,” scoffs the cheetah. “Hockey players and predatory cats require all of these assets at once when competition begins, so why would hockey players isolate them from each other?” 

Actually, scientific evidence is building a strong case for integrating many or all athletic qualities into the same workouts when possible.

Post Activation Potentiation (PAP) is an exciting phenomenon that should be part of all strength and SAQ training plans (Horvath R and Kravitz L.  Available in PDF file at Overspeed.Info or via Google search, 2010).

PAP in simplest form is this: An explosive activity (sprinting, jumping, or skating) is enhanced by a previous “strength or resistance” exercise in roughly the same range of motion. Because the strength/resistance is very intense, there must be adequate rest before the explosive set, but further experimentation by coaches and scientists will determine how long the rest should be. 

Studies have used rest intervals of three minutes or longer, so to be practical you might insert a core/upper body exercise during that time while resting the legs. And we should experiment with shorter rests as well.

Track and field coaches are using PAP extensively, and a recent study in the UK showed that professional hockey players had faster times on a short skating sprint after a 10-second resisted sprint and a three-minute rest (Matthews MJ, et.al. Journal Strength  Cond Res. 24(11):2883-2887, Nov 2010).

PAP might explain the success of ‘contrast’ or ‘complex’ training, where athletes rotate between strength and explosiveness throughout a single workout (Janz J, Dietz C, Malone M. Strength Cond J 30(6): 14-22, 2008).

The resistance set might include jumps, weighted jumps or heavy squats (one or two legs) as the stimulus for the neuromuscular system. Resisted sprints or shooting with a weighted stick before using normal weight might also be the stimulus. The training pattern is (Heavy or intense resistance set) + Rest + (Normal or light SAQ).

Don’t ignore this science. PAP works. Follow the advice of the cheetah: Integrate athletic qualities, don’t separate them, into isolated workouts.


Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info