STOCKHOLM – Hockey players are on the ice pretty much every day of the season, but they do different things at different levels of intensity based on the game schedule, their performance, and other intangible factors. But at the end of the day, they have three kinds of sessions: games, practices, and game-day skates.
Games are games. These are sacrosanct and everything else the team does is entirely dependent on making the players as effective as possible in games. In the old days of the NHL coaches instituted game-day skates so that players wouldn’t misbehave the night before. Coaches knew if the players had to be at the rink at 10am, the players at the very least have to wake up and drive to the rink, get the blood going, and start preparing for the night’s clash.
“It all depends on when you have a practice or game-day skate,” explained Canada’s coach, Lindy Ruff. “You have to look at the schedule. Sometimes if you practise hard the day before the game you don’t need to skate the morning of a game. We haven’t had one here [in Stockholm] yet because we’ve had the 4.15 games so far. When we play at 8.15, it’s a long day, and then we’ll get out for half an hour in the morning and hit on one or two points. For me, that usually means special teams.”
Rest is a critical factor in determining whether a team skates the day of a game. “The travel schedule in the NHL is important,” Ruff continued. “You want the players to get their eight hours’ sleep, so if we get into our hotel late at night, there often isn’t time to skate the next day.”
Apart from preventing misbehaving, the game-day skate is just a simple way to keep the players’ body in tune. It can also be a light and last chance to work on something for the night’s game. “A short skate helps the guys stay focused,” Ruff continued. “We might work on the power play or some aspect of the game.”
A practice, by definition, is more intense and lasts longer. It has a far greater purpose than just getting the blood going. “There’s a big difference between the two,” Ruff agreed. “There’s a lot more intensity in a practice. You’re actually working on things to improve in the game, various hot spots. If you’re struggling with defensive play off the rush, we’ll do two or three drills to focus on that. If we’re having trouble in our own end, we’ll do two or three drills on coverage.”
One thing is for sure. Ruff is a believer of the ice more than the classroom or chalkboard as a means of coaching and conveying his message to the players. “I don’t think there’s any replacement for getting on the ice and doing it,” he emphasized. “Drawing things on a board is the least effective method of learning. Video can be a bit better because you’re watching and seeing how things are done in a game, but there’s no better teaching tool than doing things on the ice.”
To that end, he also holds the players accountable for their preparation, not just the mental, and not just the physical, but the team aspect of the game.
“Players who spend time together and talk and understand each other are going to be doing things better in a game when the pace is so fast you have no time to think,” he explained. “They need to talk off ice, on the bench, and figure out where the other will be so that in pressure situations everything works. You might get a player telling a linemate that he’ll be in one spot in a particular situation, so when he is in trouble, he knows where to put the puck and knows the other guy will be there. That’s often why two guys might really work well on a line together and you need to move one around to try to find the right combination.”
So for Ruff, practice and skating are part of a larger plan to keep the players game sharp but rested. It’s a delicate balance, but a necessary strategy for a winning team.