After putting on skates for 27 years, Brandon Dubinsky doesn’t mind not having to lace ‘em up twice on game days anymore.
Coach John Tortorella eyed the age-old hockey tradition of morning skates and eliminated them. His Columbus Blue Jackets are atop the NHL standings, and they may be leading the charge to kill morning skates for good.
To skate or not to skate has been a question for several years now , but the Blue Jackets’ success and the condensed schedule cause by the World Cup and bye weeks this season have sparked plenty of debate about whether the morning skate is an unnecessary relic of the past.
“The game’s changed,” Dubinsky said. “The morning skate was to kind of skate the booze out of the players from the night before. We don’t have that anymore. Guys prepare the right way, they take care of their bodies, they eat properly, they get their rest properly — they do all the things the right way. It just keeps you fresher for the games to skip it.”
Tortorella called the morning skate routine “wrong” and said that “it doesn’t make sense” to make players exert extra energy on game days. Understanding how difficult Tortorella’s practices and the grind of an 82-game season are, captain Nick Foligno and other team leaders agreed to skip morning skates and validated the strategy by winning 16 consecutive games and 28 of their first 40.
Around the league, people are taking notice.
“We all know that Columbus, the success that they’re having and not morning skating,” Ottawa Senators veteran center Chris Kelly said. “Word travels fast. … It’s a copycat league.”
The modern morning skate traces its origins to the Soviet Red Army team that Hall of Fame coach Ray Shero wanted to copy in the early 1970s. Though Toronto Maple Leafs players wanted to work their skate blades out back in the 1940s, the morning skate really became prevalent when Shero’s Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975 and other teams followed suit.
Making morning skates optional is a growing trend as coaches let players decide whether to rest or jump on the ice for a quick twirl to handle the puck and get their legs under them. More than a third of NHL teams now make some or all of their morning skates optional.
Of course, these things are fluid. Even the Blue Jackets have had the occasional morning skate to change things up or shake off a long plane ride.
Some teams, like the Chicago Blackhawks, take so many days off between games that morning skates replace practices. Three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville likes to let his players get loose on game days because there’s less practice time but is willing to consider morning skates might not be as useful as they were in previous eras.
Blackhawks forward Jordin Tootoo said he likes a morning skate because he thinks “it’s good for the body, the soul, the mind just to kind of work your way up to game time. It’s just that whole process of earning your pregame meal.”
Senators coach Guy Boucher finds them utterly useless.
“Very simple: I hate them with a passion,” Boucher said. “It’s already hard enough to have enough energy for those players to give everything they’ve got for 60 minutes that to come in the morning and waste more energy on it, it’s never been my opinion.”
The most common opinion among players is that it’s a personal preference, hence the support for optional morning skates. That’s routine, but Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk is trying to think about it scientifically.
“I know this from the guy I train with in summer as far as your nervous system getting up for the morning skate and then getting back up for the game, it’s probably better not to do that on a game day because think about it you’re exerting some energy in the morning that you could probably save and use in the game,” van Riemsdyk said. “Hopefully everyone starts to take notice of that and we can see if we can get a few less of these things.”
Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock isn’t a morning skate traditionalist but holds them because he’s coaching a young team and said, “When you got 10 rookies on your team, you tend to just get together.” Most teams at least gather at the rink on game days even if they don’t skate.
Lamenting the plague of “over coaching,” Tortorella doesn’t even need his players to do that because he gets film sessions in on practice days and doesn’t want to overload them with information. Even his young players know they can’t get that benefit of the doubt and let their game slip.
“We can’t not skate in the morning and then show up to the game and not be ready for the first period,” 22-year-old defenseman Seth Jones said. “It’s definitely a two-way street there, and I think ever since we started doing that we definitely answered the bell, we came out ready to play and it looked like we were more energized.”
In a tight league with so much parity, the Blue Jackets feel they’ve found a leg up on the competition by cutting morning skates. Life is good for Columbus players even with Tortorella’s tough practices, and they hope it stays that way.
“We’re pretty spoiled right now,” Foligno said. “It’s also results and I think we’re talking about it because it’s working right now, but we’re hoping not too many teams jump on the bandwagon yet and we can still keep the jump on them.”