Jack Blatherwick

So you think you’re tough?

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Stand next to a professional hockey player in the weightroom who likes to fight. Watch closely as he lifts weights. Then ask yourself if that’s your hockey future. If not, you need to define “toughness” for your own game.

 Why do I bring this up? Because I’ve stood next to many genuine heavyweights in the gym. I’ve seen what kind of weight they throw around. I’ve tested them, and watched while they dished out some painful lessons to the pretenders. And I’ve seen you play hockey – well, some of you that is. You’re no Derek Boogaard. (That’s a compliment.)

By my definition of “toughness” – a definition you should consider for yourself – one of the toughest players in the NHL is Martin St. Louis (pictured). Go to Wikipedia to look up his career accomplishments after not being drafted. Obviously, NHL scouts failed on this one, because when they saw his size (5’9" and 175 pounds) they lost interest. His heart didn’t matter to them. Nor did his habit of scoring big goals, and lots of them. The important stat was 1.75 meters tall, so he wasn’t drafted.

Seriously, look him up in Wikipedia. His statistics for the Tampa Bay Lightning speak volumes about professional hockey, the scouting process and the way things were a decade ago for someone who is 1.75m tall. Things have changed now that the NHL reinstated the rule book, but St. Louis had to start in the minors, because he wasn’t 1.85m tall. Once he arrived in Tampa, he has missed almost no games in nine seasons. He scores points by the truckload (note: points from 2010 working backward: 94, 80, 83, 102, 61, 94, 70, 35, 40).

He has played in five NHL All-Star Games, and in 2003-04, he won these league awards: Most Valuable to his team (Hart Memorial Trophy), voted the league’s MVP by the NHL players (Lester B. Pearson Award), NHL leading scorer (Art Ross Memorial Trophy), and the league’s plus/minus award.

Oh, and by the way, in that same year, he scored the winning goal in overtime of the sixth game of the Stanley Cup finals, helping the Lightning defeat the Calgary Flames, the team that decided he couldn’t play for them at 1.75 meters tall.

St. Louis is smart. He doesn’t take many penalties, nor does he do a lot of trash talking. In fact, he won the Lady Byng award this past season, a trophy given to many superstars throughout history who dominated league play and understood their game was not enhanced by trips to the penalty box.

I see a lot of trash talking and lazy or cheap penalties by Bantam, high school, college and junior players who should take a moment to evaluate where they’re headed in hockey. The truth is, you’re headed nowhere if you don’t understand the meaning of the word “tough.”

Marty St. Louis is more than a scorer. He’s one of the league’s genuinely tough players, because no matter what opponents do to him, his game doesn’t change. Of course, teams invariably think that at 1.75 meters tall, he can be intimidated, and they make sure to finish checks if they ever catch him.

But St. Louis has defined “toughness” the way every hockey player must, if you want to have a future. Never change your game — whatever it is — no matter what opponents do or say.  And like St. Louis, you’ll score more goals and win more championships than those who the media morons are calling “tough.”


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



The mistake of leaving home and advancing too quickly

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Freddy Adu, at age 14, was the brightest young star in American soccer. Featured on 60 Minutes and David Letterman, Adu was signed by Nike in 2003 for $1 million. Many said he was the most skillful young player in the world. For more details, see http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/grant_wahl/04/26/adu/index.html.

Today, at age 21, he’s bouncing around Europe from one professional team to another — not able to crack the lineup for those teams; not good enough to play for Team USA in the World Cup. What happened? Did he lack basic skills? Did he stop working at it? Did injuries slow his progress? No. 

Actually, there was no progress. There was just a lot of time on the bench, because he wasn’t ready for professional soccer. He skipped the normal progression, never learning the game by trial and error — and especially, by trial and success.

To quote Tim Howard, the veteran U.S. goalkeeper, “Adu has skills with the ball that not many, if any, American players possess.” 

But insiders say he “plays too young.” He hasn’t developed awareness, anticipation, creativity, poise and mental toughness — the most important skills in every team sport.

In professional soccer, the pressure to win leaves little playing time for a talented youngster who has a lot to learn. Unfortunately, the situation is no different at any level of ice hockey, even youth hockey.

If, like Freddy Adu, a talented young hockey player moves up to the next level too quickly, he will play a diminished role. As a third or fourth line player, he will be given a short leash and lower expectations. “Dump it in from the red line, forecheck, backcheck, hustle, and above all, get off the ice quickly.”

On the other hand, if that same youngster would stay with his age group, he’d score goals, make creative plays, learn to control the puck in traffic instead of passing it too quickly, gain poise and confidence, and emulate Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane.

Ovechkin scores goals — not because he has superhuman physical abilities — but because he expects to score whenever he steps on the ice. He is passionate about scoring, because he always has.  Or…is it the other way around?

Development of a goal scorer requires raising expectations to score, and this won’t happen if there is a rush to the next level. The status of making the PeeWee “A” team instead of dominating at the “B” level, or advancing prematurely from high school to the USHL, college to the AHL, often results in a diminished role on the third or fourth line. This automatically creates a lowered expectation for scoring. 

There is nothing wrong with a future as a checking forward, of course, if that’s what you have in mind when you move up prematurely. No doubt, some players are ready and will have success, but for many more it is a mistake. The rule for goal scorers might be: do not make the move simply because you can; do it because you are ready to dominate and score tons of goals at the next level. Or be prepared to play a different role in the future.

Crosby is a brilliant, confident playmaker because every year of his life, that’s the role he played. Hypothetically, if at 16 years of age, he had advanced to professional hockey, where winning was more important than Sid, he might have ended up like Adu. Instead, he went to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, and dominated hockey games the way he does today. Technical skills without tactical awareness will always produce a shallow hockey player, but Crosby made good decisions about developing both at a reasonable pace.

On the other hand, Adu was the most skillful soccer player in the country at age 14, and stopped progressing at age 15. He missed opportunities to dominate games; he didn’t play unstructured pickup soccer with his friends. He didn’t develop confidence, poise, creativity and tactical playmaking abilities, simply because he was never able to play like a 15 year-old.


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


It’s NOT the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the dog.

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

I wish I were clever enough to create that title. I’m not, but Jerry York and his Boston College coaching staff definitely are. While the rest of college hockey suffers from a Neanderthal philosophy that size is one of the important factors in recruiting, Boston College is running away with NCAA Championships, and it looks like the trophy might reside permanently on Chestnut Hill.

The Eagles are champions again, defeating Wisconsin in the final (5-0) and Miami in the semifinal (7-1). Their roster includes only two forwards taller than 6’0" – the magic recruiting threshold at some colleges. They have a dozen players shorter than 6’0", starting at 5’6". This dozen averages less than 5’9" and 175 pounds, proving that Isaac Newton was right – the lower the center of gravity, the better suited a player is for a contest of quickness and agility. Even though the small superstars of hockey history have proven this over and over for a hundred years, coaches haven’t really been bothered with laws of physics.

Consider this ridiculous scenario. I was asked by a college coach to assess the talents of two of the top Minnesota players. When I finished a glowing report about their skills, athleticism and competitive instincts, the coach asked, “But don’t you think they’re too small?” This was the head coach of a college women’s team; I repeat, a WOMEN’S team. So, I bit my tongue and counted to 10 before I was tempted to assess coaching qualifications.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings have demonstrated clearly that Stanley Cups belong to the most skillful teams in the NHL. Aided by a return to the rule book, this has changed the philosophy of scouts and coaches, and skillful players of all sizes are dominating the league. Of course, when given the choice between a small skillful prospect and a huge one with the same skills, they will draft the bigger player. Pro teams can afford to waste some draft picks, gambling on potential and work ethic.

But consider this same question facing a college coach: Should you recruit the bigger player with skills comparable to a smaller player? Well, if the bigger player has a good year or two, he’ll leave school to play in the NHL. And if he doesn’t have a good year or two, why would you want him…or her?

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



Windows of greatest opportunity?

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

“Experts” are using the term “windows of greatest opportunity,” for periods of growth where youngsters supposedly have the greatest potential of their lifetime to develop certain athletic attributes and hockey skills.

It would be highly counterproductive to act on this notion as if there is some absolute, rigid schedule to follow, where certain attributes are left for another day, while we “emphasize” the one or two at the top of the recommended list. My argument is not that there isn’t some truth to the research, but that it is best to emphasize all things on the list at all times, and to integrate these together wherever possible.

To understand why, lets look at the list? I’ve asked many groups of coaches (NHL to college to youth coaches) to list the qualities that are necessary to compete at elite levels. Invariably, at the top of the list are mental toughness, confidence, poise, rink sense, creativity and anticipation. Skating and stick skills are always rated very high, and Terry Cullen, the former Moorhead High School coach and father of professional hockey players makes a good point. “If a player doesn’t develop great stick skills at a young age, hockey is not a very fun game, and he/she will have little motivation to improve in other areas.”

Dean Talafous has the perspective of an NHL player and longtime coach. He believes multi-tasking skills are essential – putting several pieces of this puzzle together at once, as they are required in a game. “Hockey Athleticism,” as defined by Herb Brooks, includes quickness, agility, speed, strength and the ability to react to unexpected challenges without losing a beat – without loss of speed, rhythm, balance, and coordination. To prepare the 1980 Olympic team, he also defined “endurance” as the ability to maintain all the above for every shift of a game. In other words, it is best to gain endurance as a byproduct of high quality training for the other attributes – not to go out on a jog around the lake.

For decades, I’ve observed the most important factor in how quickly an athlete develops is not physiological. It is passion. The best age to develop any of the above attributes is when the player is most motivated, and the hours of practice and training are considered fun. 

Physiological research into learning curves of young athletes is, to put it mildly, highly debatable. Imagine just how difficult it would be to draw definitive conclusions from observations on hundreds of kids, given the obvious limitations of isolating and identifying the exact reasons for an observed change in behavior or performance.

Another reason to doubt that there is just one right way to develop young talent? Listen and read research and the multitude of claims and gimmicks. There is universal disagreement on how to develop each of these separate athletic attributes.

Finally, the most important reason to be skeptical is that great hockey players are a synergistic combination of all of these attributes put together. They are not just the sum of the pieces. They may not win a contest of skill or speed or strength, but they put those together in the quickest, smartest reaction to instantaneous challenges in a game.

Brain scientists and learning experts believe you don’t have time to wait. You must start putting the pieces together as early as possible, just as Wayne Gretzky did in his backyard – and as every great player has done. A recent report outlines the major reasons for the success of four great Swedish players: At a young age, they all spent 20-30 hours per week playing and practicing on their own on an outside rink near their house. They each played other sports at very young ages.

Their model is a good one: Play other sports, and play unstructured hockey while practicing stick skills. Do this at the same age as your first skating practices. Don’t wait for a later date to train for quickness, or you’ll never be as quick as you could have been. The word “strength” has different meanings at various ages – but at the earliest stages of learning, kids should practice one-legged “strength” with good knee bend. This position is critical to learning efficient skating habits at the very start.

So…what element on the list could be put off for a later day?


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


Skating improvement off-ice

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Four world-class skaters (Kyle Okposo, Natalie Darwitz, Andrew Alberts, Troy Riddle) demonstrate dryland training concepts that are sure to improve skating technique and quickness. The difference between an elite skater and a beginner who runs around the ice stiff-legged, is very clear in these two photos.


Basic skating “Load-Up-Position”: Prior to every powerful extension, good skaters first “Load Up” their weight on one leg. If there is inadequate knee bend, the stride is shortened and less explosive, so every off-ice repetition should position the upper leg parallel to the ground. 

Michael Crowe, the U.S. Junior Speedskating coach warned, “Teaching youngsters to skate without practicing the ‘Load-Up-Position’ off-ice is a guarantee that bad habits will have to be corrected in coming years.”

Just getting into a good deep “Load-Up Position” hundreds of times is, in itself, good skating practice. It improves dynamic balance and uses core muscles that stabilize the hip joint. Lunges (shown below left) can be done by stepping forward, sideways, at 45° and backwards.

To strengthen larger skating muscles, Natalie (below right) is using a 60-pound plyotube (sand bag). Other exercises from this same position, like one-legged squats, dip squats, step-ups, slide board, Russian Box and all kinds of one-legged jumps will develop balance and explosive one-legged strength.


Straight-Line-Extension: The most efficient skaters extend their entire body in a straight line when they push off, because this generates force through the center of gravity. Bending at the waist into a pike position is wasting force, so be sure to optimize your training efforts by forming correct habits of “Straight-Line-Extension.”


Sprinting: Improving acceleration in a short sprint (10-30 yards) is a sure way to improve acceleration on the ice. You won’t hear this advice from many sources, because they can’t make money on it. One of the best sprint workouts is to start from a good two-legged squat position – facing sideways at about 45° to the direction you’ll sprint – then explode for 10-20  yards, trying to get your entire body into “Straight-Line-Extension” as quickly as possible. Repeat facing the other way. Rest. Then continue with 100 percent effort and plenty of rest. Uphill sprints are excellent as well.

Invest: Your future in hockey depends to some extent on how quickly you skate with good balance, agility and posture.  On-ice repetition of sound fundamentals works synergistically with intelligent off-ice training, but one without the other is a distant second-best. Investing hours – and then years – in these basic concepts is money in the bank.