The Washington Capitals have sent forwards Pat Peake and Jason Allison to ice skating school.
Ice skating school? Isn't being able to skate a prerequisite to playing hockey?
Yes, said Jack Button, Washington's director of player personnel, but how effectively and efficiently a player can skate is another thing entirely.
"They start playing at 5 or 6 years old and develop their own techniques," said Button. "They progress and some of them are gifted, like Mike Gartner, and some are not so gifted."
The Capitals decided Peake and Allison are not
among the gifted. When Canadian Olympic speed skaters Sean Ireland and Kevin Scott approached the team -- and others in the NHL -- about helping players improve their skating techniques, the Capitals were the first team in the league to take them up on the offer.
"Our background is speed skating and all we do is concentrate on the skating," Ireland said. "Basically, we're technique experts, so we can look at these hockey players and pick up on what they're doing incorrectly in their technique and show them how to correct it to optimize their power."
By doing that, said Scott, "we make them faster skaters. You'll notice that the top hockey player's technique is about the same as a speed skater's."
The Caps expect Peake and Allison to be top players. Last year, Peake was the team's best player throughout training camp, but then came the lockout.
Just before the NHL owners and players settled their labor dispute, Peake hurt his ankle. Just as that injury healed, he came down with mononucleosis, lost 19 pounds and most of his strength, and eventually went home to St. Louis, where he allowed his mother to put him to bed.
"Last year was a write-off," said Peake, a center who also plays right wing. "I played 18 games and God knows how many I played sick. Everyone was disappointed in the way I played, including me. But there is no use moping and crying over it. This is a clean, fresh slate.
"And the fact they selected me to go to the speed skating classes shows that they think I can contribute and that they're willing to help me become a better player."
Big things also are expected from Allison. Like Peake, he is a
center who has earned Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year honors.
After taking in Allison's size -- 6 feet 3, 205 pounds -- the next thing the Capitals noticed was that he needed to be quicker.
"There are a lot of players who could use some help skating," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "But we thought these two could be greatly helped. And we felt the improvement, with a few technical corrections, could be dramatic."
For seven days in Calgary last month, Peake and Allison learned the art of skating.
"We break it down into the phases of the stride," said Scott of the program, which included three hours a day on the ice and two hours a day studying videos. "We show them all the body mechanics and angles and how they work together, and compare their body positions to the correct technique."
They found that Allison skated upright almost all of the time, with his feet wide apart. When he did his crossovers, instead of pushing and striding out, he tended to jump in the air a little, losing form and time.
Peake, on the other hand, skated more bent over, closer to the ice. His main problem appeared when he tried to "recover," or bring his feet back together, Scott said.
Last weekend, Scott and Ireland were at the Piney Orchard rink, following up their work. What they found was Peake consciously thinking about his recovery and strides and Allison marveling over how much better his on-ice vision has become because he has smoothed out his skating.
In Washington's first six preseason games, both have impressed the coaches with their improvement. Peake has three goals and an assist. Allison has one goal and, Schoenfeld said, has been able to make some big plays in critical situations because he is moving his feet better.
"I know I'll never be the smoothest skater you'll ever see," Allison said, "but I'm a whole lot better than I ever was."