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Skating with Coach David Cunniff: Part 2

In our last blog we introduced you to Coach David Cunniff. In part 2 of our series, we discuss common skating mistakes.

Let’s jump right in and look at the most common skating mistake:

Railroad skater     

Too much time spent on the inside edge with a wide base.  This is a characteristic that if not fixed at a young age, is very difficult to fix as a 20 year old college or pro player.  This takes constant attention and daily practice.

A 20 year old pro or college athlete with this stride has made it this far based on athleticism.  As soon as this athlete is out of the line-up or things aren’t going their way they will be open to changing their skating style.  If they stay successful, by the time they are 30 and their body is slowing down they will be looking for a competitive edge and will start looking at their skating stride.  Some of the most common fixes come in finding ways to use edges better. 

One initial intervention is to try and become a better glider when striding down the ice.  This is a much more energy efficient approach and allows the stride to be on top of the ice during the glide phase. The way to glide on top of the ice is to use the “flat” edge of the skate.  This concept is one that is rarely discussed outside of elite hockey circles and the conversation normally revolves around inside and outside edges. There are times during the game when both feet will take a gliding role and this is a time when the men separated from the boys.  

Gliding can happen during puck possession or when tracking the play both on offense and defense.  This is a time when Coach thinks players can get away with a wider stance. With the current speed of the game this wide stance glide needs to be accompanied by what Coach Cunniff calls a “pinch in the knees.” 

This pinch is a more athletic position for hockey players and is counterintuitive to the way we generally coach lower body movements off the ice.  This pre-loaded pinch posture prepares the body to change directions or be ready to accept and move the puck. In addition to a quicker transition he has noticed that this posture allows for a firm stick that won’t get knocked off the puck as easily.  This firm stick allows players to better receive and move the puck during the play. He will often demonstrate this to his players on the ice by changing their knee position and asking them to stick battle. This wide stance glide is most noticeable when a player is tracking the play.

Great skaters will continually be arcing.  This is best described as pushing into the ice like a drawing compass.       


Pushing with one leg that is bearing most of the weight.  99% of the weight is on this arcing leg and then shifting weight to the other leg at the end of the arc to transfer the speed to the other leg.  If weight is equally distributed this will slow the player down and from a scout or coach’s perspective makes a player seem slow on the ice. Using this arcing motion more effectively will allow players to maintain a better position on the ice when tracking the play.

Coach Cunniff is often surprised that “players don’t use their big muscles” to skate.  He would argue that too many players learn to skate with their calf muscles and knee extensors.  He tries to incorporate skating drills that drive the power of the stride through bigger muscles of the hip and upper thigh.  What I believe him to be referring to from an anatomical perspective is greater power production from hip extensors like the glute complex. 

Because the stride is very lateral in nature there needs to be power in this lateral plane of movement, something that the glute complex can do well.  When he speaks of muscles in the upper thigh, he is not discounting the need for big powerful quads but more to the strength and power of the adductors to as he puts it “pinch the knees” to maintain a stronger, longer stride that recovers fully to the middle 

Tall guys who have poor glide have to stand-up when they are not striding.  Bending the knees to get into a stride slows the player down when chasing 50:50 pucks or foot races.  Even if the player is a fast skater when striding they will still be late to the puck because they don’t “glide” in a position to accelerate.  

If a player is having pain they must shift something in their skating posture and they are at greater risk for further injury.  The moment of injury is when additional tissue load is added from contacting another player or simply adjusting posture to the speed and complexity of the game.

Not athletic enough and/or uncomfortable on outside edges  

Some of these players can be very, very good on their inside edges and highly successful in the sport.  This is certainly the exception not the rule.

Problems with inside edge dominance: 

VERY difficult to accelerate out of tight turns, and hard to protect the puck because too much body weight is directed to the inside edge. This requires significant strength on the single leg to hold the weight of the player and any additional weight that is added by the defender. (ATHLETIC PUBALGIA/SPORTS HERNIA/CHRONIC ADDUCTOR STRAIN)

Acceleration on tight turns: 

The first step to acceleration during a turn is driving on the outside edge.  Improving edge work and acceleration will allow a player to get into areas on the ice that are more successful i.e. getting inside a defender or as a defender if you give up space on the ice, quickly getting to the next most advantageous defensive position. 

Common mistakes with poor outside edge control = a full “U” turn and feet don’t start moving until they are facing in the direction the player wants to go.  In an ideal situation about ½ way through the turn there should be some driving through the outside edge starting the crossover to get out of the turn much quicker.  In a sport as fast as hockey gaining a split second on the competition is a difference maker.

Think about players like Crosby or McDavid, they are constantly pulling away from defenders on turns and crossovers.  These players use these moments to accelerate and don’t wait until the turn has been completed to start accelerating. If as a forward you can beat the defenseman to the “defensive position” on the ice you have gained an advantage on the defender.  

Anthropometrics (body type) has its issues in this realm as well (more on this later).  If tall players can’t stay in a position to stride they end up standing tall and gliding.  Once they stand tall they have to get back into a striding position before they can accelerate to a 50/50 puck or foot race.  Even if they smoke everyone on the team in full ice skating drills they will loose the short foot race every time because of the split second it takes to get from standing up right into an athletic skating position.  Tactically THIS PLAYER LOOKS SLOW IN THE GAME but fly’s around the ice in practice 

This is another great example of how a TECHNICAL flaw leads to TACTICAL inefficiency and potentially loss of a roster spot. 

Let’s take a closer look at this technical and tactical relationship.

Forwards who have good edge control and stay on top of the ice generally maintain an athletic posture without the puck and are always ready to cut/accelerate/receive pucks/change direction.  When these attributes are readily accessible it is a nightmare to defend against. Having this athletic posture with the puck allows players to escape traffic and cut back into better offensive positions. This posture allows for greater strength on the stick and creates much greater difficulty when trying to make stick plays on this player.  Edge control allows a forward to use their body to protect the puck while maintaining some degree of speed and acceleration. A straight legged defenseman or center has no chance at defending this below the goal line or along the wall. The result is usually a defensive zone penalty or worse yet giving up a prime scoring opportunity.  

Smooth skating defenseman with great edge control are not required to crossover as much when defending.  Crossing the feet of a defenseman is a forward’s dream and instantly gives the forward a positional advantage on the ice.  By improving edge control and recovery of stride, defenseman can defend key areas on the ice with their body and use stick positioning to control the location and pace of the attacking forward.  If as a defenseman they can’t cut back and battle with good skating forwards in the defensive zone we run into issues previously mentioned with penalties or scoring chances against. All leading to risk of sitting on the bench or watching the game from the lounge.

Body Types and Common Challenges

“…isn’t it amazing how athletes naturally identify their strengths and can use their size to their advantage”

Coach David Cunniff

Tall (73+ inches): by NHL standards

This body type needs consistent foot work and recognizing key areas on the ice when they can use their size without taking a penalty.  If a player gets beat on the ice or allows a player to get on the inside, the improved foot work will allow the player to get into the next best defensive position.   

Average height (70-73 inches): 

These players are generally very explosive — both a benefit and a detriment.  Many of these players are strong on their stick and in general are athletic. Heavier players in this body type are predictably slower and can lack explosiveness but can use tactical smarts to compete at a high level.  The explosive players in this body type need to be cautious not to get themselves out of the play by over committing and being too aggressive. These athletes need to be taught when to be competitive 

(see Coach Cunniff’s pro tip).

Below average height (under 70 inches):      

These players must have a strong base and edge control to handle body contact from opposing players. A common misconception is that small players need to be extremely fast. Smaller players need to have a good head for the game and see ahead of the play and these tactical smarts will overcome size.  The goal of these players is to get to the “inside” and use their body to protect the puck or separate the opposing player from the puck.


How to recognize when to be aggressive. 

There are 3 situations in the game

Other team has more numbers, be conservative and stall the play 

Even numbers, be conservative but there is room to be more aggressive  

Your team has superior numbers, now we can be aggressive because we have superior numbers 

You can learn more from Coach David Cunniff and his expert knowledge at:

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