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Can hockey players benefit from taking a speedskater’s approach?

The Hockey News
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Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Derek Leung/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Can hockey players benefit from taking a speedskater’s approach?

The Hockey News
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Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has become good friends, and a training partner, of Canadian Olympic gold-medal winning speed skater Charles Hamelin.

By Dan Marrazza

The NHL has long trumpeted hockey’s speed as one of the league’s top selling points. For years, this has resulted in slogans such as “the fastest game on Earth” and “the coolest game on ice” being promoted, with no other sport or league ever really trying to dispute the NHL’s assertions.

Reebok-CCM challenged the NHL’s long-standing claims with a clever marketing stunt two years ago. In racing fleet-footed Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon against Charles Hamelin, the three-time Olympic gold medal-winning short track speedskater, it was supposed to determine if hockey was truly as fast as it’s always marketed itself as.

The results were inconclusive.

MacKinnon bested Hamelin in a short 50-foot race, blue line to blue line. Hamelin easily topped MacKinnon – Hamelin was more than a full second faster – in a longer race around the rink’s perimeter.

Both MacKinnon and Hamelin were faster, depending on the conditions.

Rather than compete against each other, Hamelin and San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic are looking to uncover important truths that can be useful for elite skaters in both professions. The two Canadian gold medal-winners have been comparing notes, looking to parlay their close friendship that began at a 2014 Winter Olympics after-party into competitive advantages.

“I think what I can get from a hockey player is more from the way he see his teammates and the team,” Hamelin recently told The Hockey News. “I'm from an individual sport. Yes, we train as a group, but I think I have a lot to learn to have a strong team that supports each other in difficult moments.

“For him, I think the best thing he could learn from me is skate faster. I'm not saying he's not fast or not a good skater, because I really think he’s a good one. But I'm sure I know things that could help him to be more efficient on the ice.

“More efficient = easier to go faster. More efficient = less tired. Less tired = more energy day after day. Less tired = less injury. Less tired = more shift in the legs.”

Hamelin makes some interesting points. And with his pedigree as a world-class short track speedskater whose closest relations – his brother, Francois Hamelin, and longtime girlfriend, Marianne St-Gelais – are also Olympic medal-winning speedskaters, you’d have to think he’s studied how to move quickly on the ice differently than how Vlasic has as a lifelong hockey player.

The differences in Hamelin and Vlasic’s approaches extend to their off-ice training regimens, which are tailored to the industry norms in their respective sports.

“He doesn’t get much time off in a year,” Vlasic said of Hamelin. “It’s incredible the amount of time he puts in. He has two on-ice sessions, one off-ice session, every day. Even in the summer. He works out on Saturday, sometimes. So he maybe has one day off per week. That’s why he’s one of the best in his field. He maybe gets two weeks off a year.”

This is in contrast to a hockey player’s training, which revolves around two distinct seasons – in-season and offseason.

During the season, when hockey players cram in a full schedule of games, practices and constant travel, off-ice conditioning is significantly limited. There are varying philosophies on how much in-season gym time hockey players’ bodies can handle without breaking down, given that even non-playoff teams have over 200 on-ice sessions (practices and games) per season.

The difference in philosophies also covers the offseason, when hockey players spend a large portion of their time recovering from the sorts of injuries they sustain by playing a contact sport. Speedskaters, meanwhile, don’t really have an offseason, training and preparing for year-round competitions – even in non-Olympic years – 12 months out of the year at the same rate that hockey players only train at during the summer, when healthy.

“When healthy,” of course, being a concept that Vlasic has become all too familiar with. 2016 will be the third straight summer that he and Hamelin will attempt their on-ice summit, when both men live in close proximity to one another in their native Quebec. “We will skate together,” Vlasic said. “I wanted to last year and the year before, but both times I’ve been injured. We’re going to get on the ice together. Maybe see who’s faster, too.

“But they only turn left. So he’ll beat me going left. Maybe I’ll beat him if we go right.”

Learning to turn right could be a valuable lesson for Hamelin, even if it’s not something he’ll regularly have to do in short-track speed-skating.

Although if either Vlasic or Hamelin get anything more valuable out of their planned training sessions, it’ll be interesting to see if more athletes from different sports similarly try to use each other to get a competitive edge moving forward.

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Can hockey players benefit from taking a speedskater’s approach?