Meet the Coach: Lockout Edition
(Photo by Brendan Sheridan)
Envision being a professional hockey player going to the rink to skate – but your coach isn’t there, the majority of your teammates aren’t there, you can’t use the team locker room, and you have to pay for your ice time every day.
That was the daily reality for Washington Capitals Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, John Carlson and New York Ranger Jeff Halpern during the NHL lockout. Mathieu Perreault also worked out at Kettler prior to leaving to play for HIFK SM-Liiga in Finland.
While some players chose to head overseas to stay sharp, those few brave souls chose to wait things out and try to stay in shape as much as they could.
During this time, they sought out the assistance of local skating coach Wendy Marco, a competitive figure skater turned accomplished water skier turned hockey skating coach.
As a young girl, she was taught by Olympic skating coach, Audrey Weisiger. Weisiger would go on to become a two-time coach of the U.S. Olympic team in 1998 and 2002. Marco also participated in both dance and cheerleading during her high school years.
While attending college at Texas A&M University, Marco had to adjust to the fact that there was not an ice rink anywhere near the college campus. So she decided to take up water skiing. She went on to compete at the national level and became a successful three-event water skier.
After college, she took a job at a local TV station as an on-air reporter that led her to be offered an anchor position at an ABC station in Colorado. She moved to Colorado only to find that the stations was actually bankrupt and could not pay its employees. “That was the turning point,” she said. Marco moved back to Virginia, where she grew up, to search for another job. “In the meantime I needed money so I went back to the rink I grew up in, Fairfax Ice Arena,” said Marco, “and they hired me to teach basic skating lessons part time.” Fairfax Ice Arena is where her career as a skating coach began.
"One day the owner of the rink asked me if I would give a lesson to a young hockey player,” said Marco.
But how did her diverse background as a figure skater and water-skiier translate into the coaching of hockey skating? “I had no idea what to do at first but quickly realized that my slalom water skiing training was very much like the tight turns hockey players use, the aerobics and strength training from working in gyms gave me an understanding of the core strength and power needed in hockey,” she said, “and from figure skating I had a strong background in edges and footwork.”
“Through her example, Audrey Weisiger taught me how to be a professional, effective coach,” Marco said. “As a television reporter I regularly took complex issues, broke them down, and made them easy to understand, which translated to effective coaching communication."
“That part time job turned into a full time job and before I knew it I had more hockey players than I had figure skaters,” said Marco. Ashburn Ice House opened in 1998, and became one of the area's premiere hockey-centric locations, and soon Marco had to move on from Fairfax Ice Arena. ”I told all of the remaining figure skating students I had that they needed to find another coach because I was going to dedicate myself full time to hockey skating,” she said. “So I didn’t turn into Katie Couric, but getting to be a part of helping athletes realize their dreams and working with NHLers too is a pretty cool gig.”
During the NHL lockout, Marco didn’t follow a specific plan or routine for the players she worked with. “Since no one was sure when the lockout would end it was tricky to develop a specific plan. No matter what the focus of the day or the length of the skate the guys were always put through a variety of edge, transition, and speed drills, which included hurdle jumps and metronome training,” said Marco.
Of course with any teacher there is always one student that shines. That one student, according to Marco, was Jay Beagle. "Beagle really impressed me. He has an outstanding attitude and was open to learning and anxious to try new things. No ego at all, very respectful and gracious,” she said. “Jay has exceptional body awareness and while I was reluctant to change too much so close to the season, Jay took every little bit of information and turned it into significant improvement. It was sort of amazing to watch how quickly he got more out of each push and gained speed. I believe educated fans will notice that he is faster and has quicker transitions in every direction."
For a skating coach teaching a student, let alone an NHL player, timing is everything when it comes to teaching new techniques. "When it comes to speed, it isn't wise for any skating coach to drastically change a players technique so close to a season, and since no one was sure how long the lockout would last I tried to be very careful to focus mainly on edge work, balance, and technical fine tuning,” said Marco.
“Of course all hockey players want to get faster so while I didn't completely break down and re-build their stride technique, I taught the guys little tricks that increase speed no matter how they push,” she said. “We also spent significant time on foot quickness."
Players can’t change too much of their skating style so close to a season or it can disrupt their game play. That’s better left to the off-season, Marco says. There are alternatives that can be done in-season as well.
“There are a lot of edge, balance, and transition drills that professional players could do regularly during the season that would have an immediate and very positive impact on game play,” said Marco. “Balance, edge, and footwork drills don’t get into players’ heads like technique training can, and the result of these drills is quicker transitions in every direction, more explosive starts and stops, and faster feet.”
For the hockey fan that isn’t familiar with skating itself, the amount of physics that are worked into the game are what make the small details, including skating, the most important in improving a player. "Skating is vital to the game of hockey. Speed is particularly important. I believe most players have no idea how fast they actually could be if they were utilizing their whole push,” said Marco.
“I think many pros don’t know that they aren't at their speed potential. Finding that out can be unpleasant at first, but once they discover their true speed, that extra burst that they didn't know they had is a fantastic bonus,” she said. “I love when I hear from a player, any player not just NHLers, that they beat a guy down the ice that they never knew they could, or got to the puck quicker than they expected."
What kind of improvements and things can we look for from the Capitals who skated with Marco during the lockout? “I know you’ll see foot speed, big pushes, and quick transitions out of Beagle, a good powerful chest forward press and full extensions from Carlson,” said Marco, “and for Chimera good power turns in every direction and even more of what he does so brilliantly... extraordinarily powerful forward skating pushes.”
Because of the lockout, some think that there will be an increase in injuries due to limited practicing. No need to worry about Beagle, Chimera, Halpern or Carlson’s fitness. Marco said they are “conditioned and ready to roll.”
“I know they’re in outstanding shape and their skating is even better now than it was in June,” said Marco. “I don’t know if any other NHLers spent their lockout time working with a skating coach. I think it’s commendable that these four players did. They didn’t just stay in shape; they used the time to try to get even better.”
Special thanks to Wendy for her valuable insight. Visit her website at www.coldrushhockey.com for more information.