This past Sunday, Edmonton Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins cancelled a morning skate — despite the fact the Oilers had enjoyed three full days off since their last game — breaking convention in the National Hockey League. But when the question becomes, “why?” hasn’t one of the most foolish answers always been: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it?”
“It’s one thing you battle with as a coach all the time,” Eakins began, by way of explanation. “You come to practice, and … (when) there are no points on the line, you just bring (your players) to the rink once. On game days, when everything is on the line and you need to be fresh, we bring them twice for some reason.”
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As coaching evolves, we ask the question: Is the morning skate as vulnerable in today’s National Hockey League as the role of the enforcer? In a day of increased availability to film and data, all of which is useless if not properly imparted to the players on the ice, is a team better served by watching film for that hour window on the morning of a game day, than cycling through a practice that almost never involves any real tutelage anymore?
“We have a rehearsed morning skate,” said San Jose sharks head coach Todd McLellan. “Players are creatures of habit … and our players can execute our morning skate without us coaches even being out there. “So players can be in the right place at the right time, get some tempo to it, and we’re done in 12 minutes. And then they’re gone. I’ve asked them a number of times if they want to change it, and they’ve said, ‘No.’
“Dallas’ approach is a real intelligent one though,” McLellan adds. “Skate once? Or skate twice? It does make sense.”
There are no sacred scrolls that denote where and why the morning skate came to be. Accepted wisdom is that, in hockey’s earlier days when players were less health conscious — and drank a lot more alcohol — the morning practice was invented to get the players to the rink, get them sweating and hungry, and after a meal and a nap they’d be ready to play the game that night.
Today, although not every NHL player is saintly, the need to, as McLellan puts it, “get the body cleaned out and ready to go,” on a game day has all but disappeared. But what also has disappeared in today’s far-flung and game-heavy NHL, is practice time. There are far less off days on which to hold a true teaching practice than there once was, building the case that the morning skate should stay.
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock simply wants one decent practice between games, whenever he can grab it. “Our philosophy here is that we skate once as a group between competitions,” he said. “A lot of coaches are talking about collective gathering with your team. You need them to be collective somewhere, but not maybe as often as you once thought you did.
“The biggest fear for coaches is, and why morning skates are there now, is for the information part of it,” Hitchcock continues. “The biggest fear is you just show up to play, you’ve got two special teams meetings, and you feel like there’s too much information coming at them too quickly. Mornings spread that out.”
A changing tide in all sports is the vast increase in information, from video to analytics, available to coaches. Perhaps a film session in a hotel meeting room would be better preparation than a morning skate. Maybe players, who earn so much more money today than previously, should be asked to put in a longer day on off days, with video now easily delivered to their personal devices.
Whether they skate or not means little to hockey fans. But when teams stop coming to the arenas on the mornings of games, the news flow suffers greatly. By far the best availability for media comes after practices and games, but with charter flights, full off-day practices in a visitor’s rink is a dying art.
So, if the reigning Stanley Cup champions from the West fly into Toronto late Monday afternoon for a Tuesday game, if they do not hold a morning skate, the Toronto media will get only a hurried post-game media availability with those players. And that’s it for the season, as that team isn’t coming back to the Air Canada Centre until next year.
Should media availability factor into the equation? (Our vote: yes.)
“I think we’d better care about it,” said McLellan. “We are in the entertainment business, and we need to be followed by the media, the public. We need to be exposed to the fans both at home, on the road and all over the world. It is important that the media get an idea of what might happen in the game that night. Where the team is at. Some personal stories that come out if it…
“We’d better care about it, as coaches.”