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Brooks Laich is a skating scientist

(By Molly Riley - Reuters)

"Skating is my meal ticket in the NHL," Brooks Laich told me this week. "If I can skate, I think I can play a long time."

Which is why Laich spent part of his Olympic break on the ice with his longtime power-skating coach Liane Davis, a Saskatchewan-based instructor who has become something of a guru for efficency-minded NHL players. Davis, the daughter of longtime Edmonton Oilers video coach Lorne Davis, grew up with unlimited access to footage of some of the greatest skaters of all time. And she noticed that the rote rules instructors were teaching didn't always represent the way the game's best players were skating.

Her summer program for pros has taken off in the last decade, focusing on fine-tuning the most minute details of individualized skating strides for players, whom she works with in their equipment, performing hockey specific tasks. And the effort requires constant maintenance, because strides break down during the season, as injuries and exhaustion increase.

Laich calls Davis "a genius;" he spends 75 minutes with her five days a week for the six weeks before training camp every summer. He started skating with professional defensemen in her program, teaching himself to skate backwards almost as well as they could. He showed up 30 minutes early for his appointments, so that when other players were warming up at the start of a session, he could commandeer Davis's attention.

"If I would put him on the ice at 7 in the morning, he'd go on the ice at 7 in the morning," she told me. "All my pro players are hard working or they wouldn't be where they are, but I've never met anyone as hard working as Brooks....He wants to utilize every single second that he's at the rink."

And as their relationship progressed, Laich became obsessed with the science of skating. He was lecturing me the other day on edging and stride efficiency, on ankle flexion and knee flexion and hip rotation. Davis taught him to read his tracks on the ice, and so he can skate the length of a rink, look at the marks he's left and then interpret the results: whether his skates are tracking too wide and not swinging back underneath his body, whether there's a hitch in what should be a smooth motion. He can tell the difference between his tracks when he's fresh or tired, and he can tell when his flaws have been ironed out.

"I didn't know how to do it until I skated with Liane," said Laich, who estimated that 99 percent of NHL players don't read their tracks. "If you ask a speedskater, they would understand. They would look at their tracks and they would understand: this is why my stride is real efficient, and this is why it isn't."

Lots of Davis's clients want her to "fix" their mistakes, but she said Laich is different; he wants to actually understand everything involved in the motion. "Stuff that wouldn't be of any interest to anyone else would be interesting to Brooks," she told me. "He just wants more, always wants more."

So over the Olympic break, when he showed up at her Regina rink, he already knew what was going on. He had reverted to his wide-track past as the season progressed, with his stride ending under his body without continuing through in a more European (and efficient) finish.

"He came in and pinpointed exactly what was happening to his skating, and I said to him that's exactly what I see on TV," Davis said." God knows what I'm gonna do with Brooks this summer. He's pretty much telling me what he's doing wrong now."

Laich, though, said he wasn't ready to quit his tutorials. If he can perfect his efficiency, he can make it through bag drills at the end of practices without getting as tired or looking as ragged as he otherwise might. He compared his quest to golf; it might be easy to improve from 100 to 95 or 95 to 90, but he's trying to go from 71 to 70, and every geeky observation counts.

"I'll skate with Liane 'til the day she tells me to stop or the day I retire from hockey, whatever comes first," Laich told me. "As long as she lets me skate there, I'll skate there."

By Dan Steinberg  |  March 11, 2010; 3:36 PM ET
Categories:  Caps  
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Posted by: ThisGuy | March 11, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Neat. I've always wondered why more players don't get help with their skaiting. Seems like one of the easiest ways to improve ones game.

Posted by: EricS2 | March 11, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Laich's work ethic has always impressed me. Great story, I love it.

Posted by: Joran | March 11, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Wow I had no idea Brooks was such a stickler for details or how hard he worked. Good to know, thanks Dan!

Posted by: hatrik22 | March 11, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I was telling my game companion the other day: some day, Brooks Laich is gonna be a big-time NHL coach. I really think so.

Posted by: false_cause | March 11, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Be careful Dan, THN may come calling!
-gr8 post, enjoyable reading!

Posted by: Hattrik | March 11, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

I don't care much for the Caps, but I wanted to comment on this story just to get Dan's comment #s up. This is a great story, and the sort of thing in which any hockey fan would be interested. I'll watch Caps games in a whole new way now, focusing on #21.

Posted by: Incredulous2 | March 11, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Brooks b da man

Posted by: CF11555 | March 11, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Really interesting and informative. Thanks.

Posted by: redlineblue | March 11, 2010 10:58 PM | Report abuse

I read with interest what Ms. Davis considers to be an efficient skating stride for hockey players. With specific reference to Brooks Laich, it is indicated that she is concerned about Laich "tracking too wide and not swinging back underneath his body."

The fact of the matter is that for 35 years we've known what the differences are between slow and fast hockey skaters. And, contrary to what Ms. Davis and Brooks Laich think, a wide "track" or a wide stride where the hockey pushes forcefully to the side IS a characteristic of a fast, efficient hockey players.

Moreover, the comments about "If you ask a speedskater, they would understand..." and "... and not swinging back underneath his body." are indications that Ms. Davis and Laich misunderstand hockey skating.

If a hockey player skates like a speedskater (brining the recovery skate under the body), he will be one of the slowest, least efficient, and unbalanced skaters in the league.

Every player in the league, including Brooks Laich, skates with a powerful wide stride and they get their skate on the ice as quickly as possible to produce another push-off.

It is unfortunate in this day-and-age that we still have skating instructors who teach skating contrary to the way it is used in a game. And it is unfortunate that we have players who get caught up in the fallacy of the "gurus" who just make up things and confuse everyone.

Yours truly,
Mike Bracko, Ed.D., FACSM
Institute for Hockey Research

Posted by: bracko | March 12, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Looks like someone is jealous they didn't get mentioned in the article. ha! i dont know anything about power or speed skating but i took brooks comments to mean that speed skaters would understand what it mean to analyze their strides, i don't think he meant he wanted to skate more like a speed skater. really cool post Dan i thoroughly enjoyed it. Didn't know all of the science behind this stuff. Go Caps!

Posted by: crackers9 | March 12, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Interesting response from Dr. Bracko.

Dan, I'd be interested in some follow-up on his comments.

Posted by: mercedeskk | March 12, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

No offense to Dr. Bracko, but it's pretty unprofessional to insult others knowledge in the comments he made. Brooks is a veteran NHLer and I would wager that he knows quite a bit about hockey skating. Also, when you compare Ms. Davis's client list to his, more NHLers seem to think she knows what she is doing.

It's pretty clear that Brooks is not suggesting that he is trying to skate like a speedskater. His comment were in regards to a speedskater's ability to "read their tracks" and analyze their stride.

Additionally, Ms. Davis was instructing Brooks on not having "too wide" of a stride, which is different than just having a wide stride.

Posted by: Capsfan78 | March 12, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

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