Brooks Laich is a skating scientist
"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."
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