Sixteen minutes is all the time NHL teams are given for pre-game warm-up, players have 960 seconds to get themselves prepared to do battle.
As soon as the Vancouver Canucks hit the ice for warm-up fans gather around the glass to get an up close and personal look of their favourite players; flashes go off as Kodak moments are captured by all.
The relaxed demeanor players have during the pre-game skate makes for the perfect opportunity to pad the photo library with some candid, colourful shots, but make no mistake about it, the importance of a proper warm-up isn’t lost on the players. Far from it.
Warm-up is when players find their hockey place, the zone they have to be in to make things happen once the game starts. It looks like kindergarten playtime as organized chaos runs amuck with players darting every which way at different speeds, yet you might be surprised to hear that the Canucks run the same calculated disorder before each and every game.
Just as players like their sticks taped a certain way or put one skate on before the other, they’re also meticulous about how they warm-up and it all starts with the order they take to the ice. Roberto Luongo
is first out of the dressing room, followed closely by Daniel and Henrik Sedin
; from there the order changes from time to time, but Willie Mitchell, Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo
typically follow suit.
Players start warm-up with a few loose laps around their end of the rink (some shoot pucks on goal as they circle), before getting down and giving the muscles a good stretch.
Luongo can be found on the face-off dot to the left of his goal three minutes in, he waits there until Alex Burrows collects all the pucks that are in the net to the left side and distributes them out to the point so players can take a few shots.
Six minutes in Burrows is back in the net organizing the pucks before he passes them out, this time sending half to the left and half to the right; players then move into a two-on-one drill.
Two minutes later Burrows does it again allowing more shots to be fired on Luongo and Jason LaBarbera and three minutes after that he collects them for the fourth and final time, meaning the half-moon drill is up next where players test Luongo from right to left in succession.
Most players don’t have any responsibilities during warm-up other than getting limber, but clearly that isn’t the case for Burrows, he’s the reluctant puck-managing ringleader of this circus.
“That’s something I didn’t want to do at the start of the year and normally it’s the young guys that are doing it,” said Burrows, matter-of-factly.
“We started the year and either Jannik and Mason were going to do it but both of those guys really didn’t know how and they didn’t want to do it, so I told myself I was going to do it for the team and it worked out pretty good.”
Matt Cooke was Vancouver’s pre-game housekeeper last season, but his departure left a void that the Canucks needed to fill.
Although unenthusiastic about the assignment at first, Burrows has grown into the role, so much so that things run like clockwork these days and no one strays from it.
“It’s every game, I do the same routine and at the same moments we do the same drills,” explained Burrows.
“We have a few rituals out there like I like to give a few saucers to Kes and Hankie tips them and same thing with Kevin [Bieksa].
“When there’s five and a half minutes left on the clock I go and get the pucks, I get them out and Kevin and I will pass the puck while the other guys do their same routine, then we start the half-moon shooting and Danny’s always the first guy and it always ends up with Kevin as the last one.
“It’s always, always the same things we do.”
Burrows isn’t superstitious, sticking with the same routine is merely a comfort thing, it’s part of the preparation that helps him and the rest of the Canucks get focused for the game.
Understanding that makes appreciating the way the team ends the pre-game skate a little easier as with exactly two minutes to go in warm-up, Burrows zings a puck on net to begin a game called Last Puck.
“At two minutes the puck goes up to Burrows and he shoots it and then it’s a complete gong show,” laughed LaBarbera, the man between the pipes for an onslaught of shots that the players continue taking until they score.
Everyone crowds around the net and hacks away at the puck, it’s mayhem to say the least, typically with LaBarbera fending for himself. Sometimes he gets a little help and someone plays defence, but he doesn’t mind being heavily outnumbered as sometimes it’s the only action he gets all night.
“Warm-up is so short now that it’s the only time I might get any type of shots really, so it’s something I look forward to, although sometimes they don’t last too long.
“Every team does it, it’s just one of those things that even in junior I did, that’s when I was first introduced to it. It’s kind of fun.”
After scoring the players head off the ice and back to the locker room, each at their own pace ensuring that they’re ready for puck drop.
If you find yourself watching warm-up during the playoffs, bet your friends that you know which player will be last off the ice because as sure as the sun will rise, Willie Mitchell will bring up the rear. That’s just how he rolls.
“I don’t know why I do that, I just stay loose and there’s a little bit less guys on the ice so I can do a few more things that I want to do to prepare for the game and take a couple shots where guys aren’t in front of the net,” said Mitchell.
“For me I find when I’m loose I feel confident and that’s when I play my best hockey, so I just try and get myself in that state.”
For every NHL team there are three main rules to follow during warm-up: don’t cross the red line, no firing pucks to the other team’s end and obey the 16-minute time constrain.
The next time you watch the Canucks warm-up take note, the team has quite a few unwritten rules of its own to follow during warm-up, rules that helped Vancouver capture a Northwest Division championship, rules that clearly are not meant to be broken.