Goals can be scored and hockey games can be won or lost in fractions of a second. Players who start out the fastest are often the ones who get to the puck first and get the advantage for their team. Those who don’t start out fast may end up hopelessly behind the play. Players must develop the ability to accelerate quickly and explosively from a complete stop. They must also be able to shift instantly from low to high gear. Great hockey skaters can take off instantly from any position.
Hockey players starting on skates are comparable to sprint runners starting out of the blocks. To get going quickly and explosively, runners lean forward strongly and take the first few steps on the balls of their feet. Hockey players need to do the same thing-they should run the first few strides on the toes of the skates (the front 2 to 3 inches [5.1 to 7.6 cm] of the inside edges).
These running strides are choppy because the skates do not glide. The strides are extremely rapid, but contrary to their appearance, they are not short. They are accompanied by a forward lean along with extremely powerful and complete leg drive. Explosive acceleration means you need to get somewhere-fast.
When should players start on their toes? I call toe starts the escape valve. Anytime players need to get away quickly, they should start on their toes! Instant acceleration is crucial on a face-off, when changing gears (i.e., from slow to fast), when racing for the puck, when trying for a breakaway, when chasing an opponent, or in any situation when players want to create an advantage. Starting on the toes is the key to this. Players who start on the full blades tend to glide on the initial strides. This makes leg speed slower, and players often feel as though they are stuck in the mud.
At my power skating clinics, I often see players executing great toe starts. However, in games, I often see these same players starting on the full blades. This may be from lack of concentration or from lack of practice. There’s no point in learning how to do toe starts (or any other maneuver) if you don’t practice them all the time and then use them in game situations.
When working on toe starts, follow the same process as in all other skating maneuvers-first learn to execute them correctly; then correctly and powerfully; then correctly, powerfully, and quickly. Then do thousands of them, in all kinds of situations! When a coach blows the whistle to GO, always take the first few accelerating steps on the toes, regardless of whether you need to start from a complete stop or whether you need to accelerate from slow to fast. You may fall and mess up in the process of mastering toe starts; however, you will eventually master them, and they will become an automatic response.
Three components are necessary for achieving explosive acceleration on the ice:
1. Quickness-quick feet, or rapid leg turnover. To achieve quickness, a skater runs the first few strides on the toes (fronts of the inside edges) of the skates. The skates play touch and go with the ice-they do not glide. If the entire blade length contacts the ice, the skate is forced to glide. Gliding takes time and delays the next stride.
2. Power. Power is derived from the force exerted by the legs and body weight driving directly against the gripping edge. Full leg drive and total leg recovery are as imperative when starting as when striding. Nothing can propel the skater forward unless the legs drive fully in the opposite direction.
3. Distance-outward motion. To achieve distance, a skater must project the body weight outward in the desired direction of travel. The distance covered in the starting strides depends largely on the forward angle of the upper body (a strong forward angle of the upper body produces greater distance). Because the skating (contact) foot must take the ice under the center of gravity (midsection), the farther forward the upper body is projected, the farther forward the foot must reach in order to step down under the center of gravity and maintain balance. In other words, while the skater runs the first few strides, the body weight is thrown outward. This is similar to what a sprinter does when taking off from the starting block.
Three basic starts are used in hockey skating: forward (front), crossover (side), and backward. As in every aspect of skating, the ingredients for explosive starts include:
- proper use of edges to provide grip into the ice,
- proper distribution of body weight,
- optimum leg drive, and
- rapid leg motion.
By developing the three starts, you will be able to perform an explosive takeoff regardless of which way you are facing when you stop or which direction you want to go when you start.
Players must keep the puck well out ahead of them in order to accelerate explosively with the puck. If the puck is too close to the body, it blocks the player’s progress. The general rule for accelerating with the puck is that the puck goes first and the player follows it.
The principles of windup, release, follow-through, and return apply to starts as well as to all other hockey skating maneuvers.