The judges sat four across, gripping Starbucks cups and water bottles, and squinted through the glass as the Capitals circled the ice below.
Their objective was simple in concept, if difficult in practice.
“We’re trying to see which of the Capitals’ players would make the best figure skater,” said Shira Selis, one of the judges. “So far, there’s not much.”
As the world turns its attention to figure skating at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, these four figure-skating coaches were asked to fix their eyes on the Capitals during an hour-long practice last Thursday. Skating is the fundamental skill of hockey, a requirement to play, a defining trait for some players, the one aspect of the game that threads between shooting and passing and puck-handling and goaltending.
And while hockey and figure skating seem as similar as hockey and baking, the core techniques of skating are the same across the two sports. So while it was hard for Selis and the three other coaches to pick out the Capitals’ most promising figure skater, it wasn’t impossible. After watching a full practice of drills and scrimmaging, and pointing out the Capitals’ inconsistencies in their skating as they moved about the ice, they all agreed that one player could lace up figure skates and maybe pull off a decent program after a few years of practice.
That was center Evgeny Kuznetsov.
“Who’s that?” asked Lyn Linke Witt, another coach, as Kuznetsov skated past.
“That’s Kuznetsov, we keep noticing him,” Selis answered.
“He’s got such nice lean,” Witt added.
“And he’s got really good crossovers,” Selis pointed out. “Those would be good crossovers in figure skating.”
The four coaches have been on the ice since they were small kids, and now teach both figure skaters and hockey players the finer points of skating. Selis has been a full-time coach for 10 years and works at Cabin John Ice Rink in Rockville. She also skates and coaches with DC Edge’s synchronized skating team, and specializes in freestyle skating, figure skating moves, basic skills and hockey skating. Witt works at Cabin John and with DC Edge, and specializes in basic skills and power skating. Adam Munday, a graduate student at Georgetown, coaches at Cabin John and Wheaton Ice Rink and specializes in dance, skating technique and power skating. And Kristin Huppi, a doctor of physical therapy, coaches at Ashburn Ice House and with DC Edge, focusing on synchronized skating, free skating and figure-skating moves.
They each bring a sliver (or several) of skating’s many complexities to the table, and were looking for a bunch of subtleties while watching the Capitals. That included power, extension with the free leg while skating to maximize power, posture, balance, strong crossovers, good edge work while cutting, and so on. While many hockey players work with power-skating coaches in the summer to fine-tune all this, there isn’t much time for it during the season. Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said the Capitals have a skating coach with their American Hockey League Affiliate in Hershey, but the compactness of the NHL schedule makes it hard to work skating drills into his team’s practices.
“There is always something new in skating, some new quality or technique,” Huppi said as the Capitals went up and down the ice during a scrimmage of sorts. “So what was ‘good’ or ‘right’ five years ago is probably a bit different now, and then will be different five years from now. Being a good skater requires constant work and upkeep.”
The coaches, while noting that some Capitals could use a refresher on skating fundamentals, found a redeeming quality in a small handful of players.
Munday on forward Brett Connolly, 15 minutes into practice: “I like him the best right now. He’s bringing his feet back underneath him, he has good posture and balance, and when he’s doing his crossovers he’s staying down, he’s not bouncing. Because remember, the goal in skating is to go forward, not up and down.”
Witt on 21-year-old forward Jakub Vrana: “He doesn’t hop as much on his crossovers, they are actually pretty nice. He pushes out of it like we want our figure skaters to.”
Selis on defenseman Matt Niskanen, toward the end of practice: “He’s not going all that fast, but he has really graceful crossovers. I have been really impressed with him.”
Huppi on forward T.J. Oshie: “Who is that? Oshie? His all-around footwork has really caught my eye.”
“And then there is [Alex] Ovechkin,” Selis said, laughing. “I think he has good technique, but I don’t know if he has the grace to be a figure skater.”
But then there was Kuznetsov, the one player whose compliments were not quickly offset by a comment about poor posture or ineffective crossovers or a lack of extension. Kuznetsov’s strong skating was on display in the Capitals’ 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, in which he scored his 15th goal of the season and extended an assist streak to six games.
In the opening minutes, he played keep-away inside the right faceoff circle, gracefully skated himself into open space and dished a pass to John Carlson for a goal. Later in the first period, he flew out of the penalty box, used every bit of his off-leg extension to pick up speed down the left wing and knocked in a bouncing puck for a buzzer-beating goal. Kuznetsov says he learned his technique by skating five to six hours a day as a kid, when it was easy to correct small mistakes and commit technique to memory. He now works with a power-skating coach for three to four weeks every summer, and uses video of himself to analyze his tendencies.
He has not considered a career in figure skating after hockey. Not yet, at least.
“No, no, no,” Kuznetsov said, laughing, when he was told that four figure skating coaches were impressed with his technique and elegance. “My grandmother had figure skates and I wore them a few times. Never again. Hockey skates are so much more comfortable.”
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