When the Buffalo Sabres were in New Jersey on Monday, they did not take a morning skate.
When the team returned to Buffalo on Tuesday to host the San Jose Sharks, they did not take a morning skate. Playing five games in seven days prompted coach Dan Bylsma to cancel the traditional pre-game practice. It was a product of the schedule, but the benefit of a morning skate has been questioned around the National Hockey League the last few seasons.
It’s become a hot topic this season after coach John Tortorella decided to end the practice with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who went on to have a 16-game win streak this season and sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference.
Their success without the morning skate has turned heads around the league, much to the joy of some players who aren’t big fans of the practice.
“I’m not a big morning skate guy,” Sabres forward Kyle Okopso said. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If you were a football team that had a game at night and they went out and practiced in the morning, you’d probably say they’re nuts. It’s something that started a long time ago and I think in hockey traditions die pretty hard. They take a long time to kind of go the other way. Saying that, I played a lot of my career skating in the morning so it’s fine but I would prefer not to.”
This particular hockey tradition began in the 1970s. The format goes something like this: The home team skates at 10 or 10:30 followed by the visitors around 11:30. Each team is on the ice for about 30 minutes doing skating drills, taking some shots, maybe working on faceoffs. Scratches and the backup goalie usually stay out a bit longer. Then players meet with reporters before leaving the rink – back home or to the hotel – to eat and sleep before returning to the rink a few hours later to prepare for the game.
This is where Tortorella sees a flaw in the system.
“We bring them in here one time a day on practice days, but on game days we bring them in twice,” Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch earlier this season. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Many teams have moved to making the morning skate optional, allowing players to decide for themselves if they need the pre-game ice time.
“I think it depends on how much you play, the schedule, the individual,” Sabres forward Tyler Ennis said. “I think with how fast the game is and how intense games are now, a lot of times rest is really important.”
When he takes morning skate, Ennis said he is “just trying to get the hands going, making sure you’re tape-to-tape with passes and just trying to get a little sweat. The biggest part is just making sure you’re mentally sharp.”
And for many players, the desire to take the morning skate depends very much on the schedule. With a pair of back-to-back games this week, the time off can be useful.
"It all depends on what you need,” Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe said. “In this kind of schedule coming back from the road, you take your rest. But after a day off, a lot of guys want to get on the ice and feel the puck again. Each game can vary with the situation. I like them. If I feel like I don't need to go out there, I'll take the option. But each guy is different and each situation is different."