Friday, August 28, 2009

Speed Kills

Yesterday I saw some of the candidates for Team Canada in the upcoming Olympics give interviews about their experience at the orientation camp in Calgary this week. The one thing they all mentioned, smiling through gasping breaths, was the speed at which Mike Babcock organizes practices. The players said they hit the ice at top speed from the first moment and never let up until they got off the ice. One of the other coaches...Lindy Ruff, I think...commented that "that's the only speed Mike knows." Babcock himself said if you want to be competitive with the best, you have to be in top condition.

It reminds me of all the stories you hear about the great '70s dynasty Habs teams. I've mentioned here before that I spoke with several members of the 1977 Canadiens a couple of years ago, while I was working on a 30th-anniversary retrospective of what I believe is the greatest hockey team ever assembled. The players from that team, even decades later, still have several things in common. One of them is the rueful memory of the way Scotty Bowman ran top speed. Here's what Rick Chartraw told me back then:

"I remember a funny story one time. I think it may have been a playoff game. It was the morning skate and we were playing Boston that night, and Boston was in town. We skated in the morning at ten o'clock and the other team would go on the ice at eleven o'clock for a warm up. Gerry Cheevers was sitting on the visitor's side of the rink at the Forum, watching us go through our morning skate. We had Kenny in one net and Bunny in the other. And the guys were just ripping shots at every corner, over shoulders, between legs, not taking anything off of them. And Gerry Cheevers...I was standing next to the boards...said, "The way you guys abuse your goaltenders, I'm gonna be sick." And we didn't think we were abusing them, and our goaltenders didn't either. It was their job to be challenged whether it was in practice or in games, to the nth degree. It was the way we did things. We did things at full throttle, whether it was practice or games. I think that's what made the games, for us...not easy...but easy to play at that level because we just always played at that level, whether it was practice or games."

Bowman did it and won. Babcock studied under Bowman, he does it and wins. Jacques Martin has the speed weapon in his arsenal and, as we know, it can be a very deadly weapon indeed. But if he's going to take best advantage of it, he's got to be like Babcock and Bowman and keep the team moving at full throttle every single time they're on the ice. The only way a team can effectively pass, make plays and shoot at top speed is if it does it every day at practice until it becomes automatic.

In the last couple of seasons, I've had a chance to sit in on a couple of Habs practices. The thing that stood out for me both times (aside from Plekanec being first on the ice and last off on both occasions) was the great amount of time the players spent standing around. They ran some drills, but there were long stretches while some players were involved and others were just watching. I don't remember any stretch in which all the players were running at full speed for a sustained period. The lack of speed in practice actually surprised me because I remembered reading in Larry Robinson's book about how the team, including Guy Carbonneau, was bitterly opposed to Bob Berry's coaching in the early '80s, in large part because of the slow, boring practices he ran. The holdovers from the '70s had been taught practices mirror a team's game performance and slow practices would lead to slow games. Judging by the games we watched last year, with the speedsters looking like they were skating in mud and all the missed passes, I'd say there's a deep truth in that theory.

Jacques Martin's got an exceptionally fast group of forwards (with a couple of notable exceptions in Laraque and Latendresse, but even Gui is picking it up) with an exceptional lack of height on his team right now. As they say, you can't hit what you can't catch, and if the Canadiens are flying at top speed, they're going to be very, very hard to catch. It's up to the coach to make that happen. And if Martin's smart, which I think he is, that'll start with some upbeat, dedicated practices. If speed is to be the weapon of choice, it's best to have it primed and ready at all times. No more standing around, Jacques!


DB said...

You're absolutely right that the team needs to practice at full throttle. Slower players will learn to make quicker passes, play the angles, and read plays sooner.

As proof all you need to do is look at the 76/77 Habs. They had a few players (Lambert, Tremblay, Roberts, Chartraw, Van Boxmeer, Bouchard) who weren't exactly speed demons, yet they knew how to play a fast game because of the way the team practiced.

Martin knows this so the players better be ready for intense practices.

harmonielehre said...

I know its a common view to see the Gomez signing as the pivotal move made by BG this summer... but in my books it was the hiring of Jacques Martin before July 1st that was the big one. So methodical of BG.

24 Cups said...

With a few exceptions, most of our new players have great wheels. They say you should play to your strengths, so I'm sure that won't be lost on Martin. BTW, I admire how you always stand up for your Hab favourite. A major comeback by your boy will do wonders for the upcoming season. A solid 2nd line could even be more important than the contributions of the three new wisemen.

JRF said...

I think you've pinpointed what could be the main key to the Habs' success this season. Last year there were disquieting suggestions that the team was not in good enough shape and did not work hard enough. That should change this year with a more methodical, more experienced coach and a new conditioning expert. If Martin can get the players working all out and at full speed during practice, they should be able to carry that over into the games, and hopefully leave the other team standing. There can be no passengers this year and no distractions; every player needs to focus his life around hockey and what he has to do on the ice.

geezer said...

You guys are probably too young to remember the impact that the Russians had on the Canadian approach to practices in 1972 but it's as JT says...balls to the wall every second that they are on the ice. Scotty Bowman and everybody else in the hockey firmament took notice and changed accordingly. Sadly in the past 15 years or so, the coaches took the cerebral approach and practices relapsed back to the "good old days', with a lot of chalk talks, Xs and Os, explaining, and some desultory line skates.

I had the good fortune to sit in on a lot of the practices of the powerhouse NS Voyageurs in the early 70s, under Al McNeil. Guys like Larry Robinson, Dave Gardner, Chuck Lefley, Rocket Rota, Chuck Arnason, Murray Wilson, etc. were melting ice with their speed. Even Yvon Lambert and Chartraw were drawn into the speed mode. I have also watched a few practices of the Habs under Bob Berry, and then Jean Perron. The contrast was distinct, dismal and disheartening. In the latter case, there was a lot of standing around and horseplay going on. Nothing wrong with horseplay at all, but the ice time was for learning and practising.

Martin has been handed a very speedy team, and if he doesn't harness that speed it will be a long season indeed in Habland.

LIAM said...

Great point again JT except for the "with an exceptional lack of height" part.

The top six forward, specialy if Sergei wins the 6th spot, are small.

The rest of the team is pretty big.

The bottom six forward could be Lats-Laps-Pax

All 6'2" minimum.

Gill is 6'7", O'Byrne 6'5", Mara and Hammer 6'4"...

The average height of the Habs is on par with the BIG bad Bruins and Philly.

rod said...

appreciate the time taken for your posts, always a good read. Thank you

Andrew Berkshire said...

Now that I think about it, is it really surprising that Dryden retired early? With every practice being played at the same pace as a game, that's a lot of wear and tear back in those days of heavy gloves and poor body padding.

On another note, it's really encouraging to see that Gui is taking an intensive power skating class with Lapierre. If there's anything that endears me to players, its a constant struggle to improve themselves.