Investigation: Biomechanical differences between Fast and Slow skaters

Mike Bracko

Mike Bracko is a skating coach, skating researcher, strength & conditioning coach, and fitness educator. He holds a Doctorate degree in Exercise Science and Biomechanics and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach through the NSCA. He played hockey in the AJHL, BCHL and NCAA (University of Illinois-Chicago). He does skating clinics with 300–400 hockey players every year specializing in 1-on-1, small group, and team skating with male and female players ranging in age from 8 years old to pro players.  He is also the strength & conditioning coach for the USA Men’s Deaflympic hockey team. www.hockeyinstitute.org  [email protected]

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Four of the eight most significant characteristics of fast players were related to how wide of a stride they have during the forward stride.
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Introduction

In 1975, Pierre Page completed his Masters Degree at Dalhousie University with a thesis on the biomechanical differences between fast and slow hockey players. He found eight differences between fast and slow skaters. This was ground breaking research (showing how fast players skate) that gets no attention or acknowledgement (except on The Coaches Site!).  The bottom line is that thanks to Coach Page, we have a better understanding of how fast hockey players skate.

Pierre Page’s coaching career

Pierre Page started his coaching career at Dalhousie University in 1972, where he coached for eight years. In 1980, Page started his pro coaching career with the Calgary Flames as an assistant coach. He spent 18 years coaching in the NHL, AHL, and CHL, then two years in hockey operations with Nashville and Minnesota. In 2000, he started coaching in Europe, where he worked in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. From 2014 to 2019, he was a manager and team consultant for teams in Austria.

Page’s Masters degree thesis results

Page used 14 youth, college, recreational, and professional players (6 youth and 8 adults) to determine the differences in skating characteristics between fast and slow skaters. The players were first measured for speed using photo-electric timing cells to determine the “fast” and “slow” players.

Players were filmed (using 16-millimetre cameras – remember, this was 1975) from the side and the front while skating as fast as possible over a distance of 12.19 meters (40 feet). The film was used to measure the following skating characteristics:

Source: www.nhl.com
  • right and left hip abduction angle (the angle of the right and left legs pushing to the side relative to the trunk), see picture above where Connor McDavid’s left leg/hip is abducted.
  • width or distance between right and left strides, measured with skate markings on the ice from the gliding skate to the push-off skate (McDavid’s stride width would be measured from his right gliding skate to his left push-off skate).
  • width or distance from where the left skate pushed off to where the right skate pushed off in one complete cycle of the stride.
  • knee flexion angle (measuring knee bend).
  • trunk angle relative to the ice, measurement of forward lean.
  • time it took the propulsion skate to get back on the ice after push-off.
  • time of the knees to extend (straighten).

Results

Page found that four of the characteristics distinguishing fast skaters from slow skaters were related to stride width:

  1. left stride width
  2. right stride width
  3. width between strides
  4. hip abduction angle

This study also found the following differences between fast and slow players:

  • fast players had quicker recovery of the push-off skate: the skates of the faster players got back onto the ice quicker after push-off.
  • fast skaters had more knee flexion (a bent knee) before push-off, the slow skaters did not bend their knees as much.
  • fast skaters had more forward lean (trunk flexion), slow skaters were more upright.
  • faster skaters had a quicker knee extension during the push-off phase of the stride, although no data were reported for this characteristic.

Skating Characteristic                          Fast Skaters     Slow Skaters

  1. Left Stride Width                              21.21″             17.76″
  2. Right Stride Width                            29.21″             20.46″
  3. Width Between Strides                     21.21″             17.76“
  4. Hip Abduction Angle                         48.33◦            35.33 ◦
  5. Skate Recovery Time                        00.37 sec.       00.48 sec.
  6. Knee Flexion Angle                          106.11 ◦          123.60 ◦
  7. Trunk Angle                                        38.67 ◦            49.20 ◦

Research to practice

There are many thoughts, ideas, and philosophies about skating and how hockey players “should” skate. This can put skating into the “subjective” category, which makes it confusing for players and their parents. The truth is that skating is not subjective, but instead objective thanks to research studies like Page’s.

In addition to Page’s research, there are numerous other studies verifying how fast hockey player’s skate. And do not forget that skating is actually physics put into a practical application. There is the physics of the ice which has a low coefficient of friction, ie: it is slippery and we cannot push straight back to move forward (except for the first two or three strides during acceleration from a stationary position). And there is the physics of the movements of the players, ie: legs pushing to the side and the arms moving in the equal and opposite direction (Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).

Wide stride

Page’s research found that four of the eight differences between the characteristics of fast skaters and slow skaters was the width of their stride. This is could be convincing enough that skating coaches and hockey coaches can teach players to skate with a wide stride and get the players to push to the side. The picture below of Phil Kessel shows how he is pushing directly to the side (hip abduction).

Phil Kessel pushing to the side
Source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PuUliGtNW4

The author uses a drill called “Cone skating” to get players to skate with a wide stride. The picture below shows how this drill is done: three lines of cones (the picture does not show the last set of cones) over which the player skates to force a wide stride and quick recovery. This drill can be used by all players even though the picture is of an older player.
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8Q7jiguX2g

Quick recovery of the skate after push-off

The author uses the same “cone skating” drill to enhance the quickness of the recovery skate during the forward stride. The focus of the drill is a little different than the other cone skating drill.  The teaching cues relate to a fast stride and a quick recovery. And there are only three cones in each set (3 or 4 sets of cones) to emulate game-performance skating, ie: quick strides followed by gliding in a ready position. A teaching cue would be to take three quick strides, then glide.

Forward lean and knee bend

These two characteristics are harder to teach or to get young players to do. Forward lean is the easier of the two, however, because most players naturally lean forward when skating. But for young players, bending the knees requires muscle strength and power. And at a young age, many players have not developed the strength required to have significant knee bend. But drills such as “stride & glide” where the players take 3 or 4 strides followed by a deep knee bend while gliding can help players develop the leg strength.

Conclusion

Pierre Page’s Masters thesis was the first study to investigate the skating characteristics of fast hockey players and the differences between fast and slow players. Four of the eight most significant characteristics of fast players were related to how wide of a stride they have during the forward stride. The other characteristics of fast players included: a quick recovery after push-off, deep knee bend, significant forward lean, and a quick push-off.

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