As an athlete, we are all given certain gifts that we can contribute to the game of hockey. Some of us are genetically faster, bigger, and stronger than other skaters. Being an athlete, genetics are something that is out of our control – we have to do the best with what we have been given. One of the most important areas in skating is a deep knee bend. This is a skill no matter what size, strength or speed an athlete is he/she can get better at. The skater is in control of whether or not they stand straight up and down or are able to have flexible, soft knees in a deep knee bend position.
The first thing that we have to understand is that getting into the right position is more than just knee bend. Along with a solid knee bend we also want a good forward flex in the ankles as well as sinking our butt down into the ice. We are trying to lower our center of gravity and get comfortable skating in that position.
Why is knee bend so important? You may always hear coaches yelling “bend your knees” or “get lower”. This is very sound advice. First, everything starts from a solid base. The skater should feel like he/she is attached to the ice like a magnet – the lower the knee bend the more stable a skater is. This is one area in which smaller skaters are able to survive, where the skater is able to absorb hits and have more stability on their skates the lower their center of gravity is. Secondly, we would like as much extension as possible. As we know all pushes in skating are out and on an edge. As we get lower to the ice, our leg extension will get longer covering more ice and getting a bigger push. To show this to kids I have them stand up with no knee bend and have them extend their leg out. The skaters will notice that their skate does not get much extension at all. I will then have them bend their knees to 90 degrees and extend their leg out as far as they can. The skater will be amazed as to how far their leg can actually extend out and how much more extension they are able to achieve with a good knee bend and ankle flex. Finally, all of our power comes from a low knee bend. I will have the kids stand straight up and down and tell them to jump as high as they can. When they do this they notice they do not get very far off the ice, maybe a couple of inches. I will then have the skaters get to 90 degrees and jump. They will immediately notice that they are able “explode” up and generate all of their power when jumping. This is a good way to explain young kids why it is so critical to constantly try to stay down in a low powerful position.
What we can do and how to get stronger in this position? I will add a weight vest with the older skater and work just technique skating. This will help force them down in the position I want them to get in as well as overloading their muscles to build strength at 90 degrees. This is a good burn and a lot of work and, if done correctly and consistently, will be a great way for skaters to get comfortable in this position. If this becomes their new comfort zone, anything they do above 90 degrees will be much easier because they have trained for a lower center of gravity.
One way I like to help younger skaters is to take pictures or film them as they are skating. We can get immediate feedback and show them the difference between how low they think they are as opposed to how low they actually are. Videos and pictures do not lie and all skaters are usually shocked to see how much room there actually is for improvement. Regardless of a skater’s natural abilities, this is a skill that can be improved with consistent quality repetition.
Andy Ness is the head skating and skill coach for the Minnesota Wild. He has also been an assistant skating instructor for the New Jersey Devils, the University of Minnesota men’s and women’s hockey teams and the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team.