In three seasons since the New York Islanders made John Tavares the first pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, the center has gained a reputation as one of the strongest skaters in the League. He's blowing by defenders because of his proper posture, long stride, great power and improved speed.
Tavares has effectively married his skating with his skill to become one of the League's top-10 scorers and an All-Star -- one of the best overall players in the game.
Tavares training for a better shot
In addition to skating, New York Islanders center John Tavares has devoted a lot of time over the past two summers to improving his shot. And, no, it's not as simple as going out on the ice and firing pucks at an empty net.
Tavares and trainer Richard Clark have developed exercises geared toward the muscles that go into a slap shot.
"He is doing something with a 20-pound medicine ball, where you laterally shuffle toward the wall at a high speed, plant your front foot and laterally throw that ball as hard as you can against that wall," Clark told NHL.com. "It's not 100 percent the same as a shot, but you're skating toward that net, you plant that front foot, the back foot comes through, the hip rotation comes through and you explode with that shot. Well, we do similar things to that."
At Tavares' request, Clark purchased a machine made by Keiser that he uses to strengthen his midsection through rotational exercises.
"I think it has made great improvements," Tavares told NHL.com. "In the game of hockey there is a lot of twisting, movement of the body, a lot of awkward positions that you put your body in that aren't normal for other athletes, say a sprinter or a football player. You put your body in a lot of positions that are very unique -- and there is a lot of rotational, twisting, pull work. We've used a rotational machine made by Keiser where you do rotational lifts. That has been good for us because you are rotating through your shot -- to do that you need your core work."
Tavares also installed a shooting pad on a synthetic ice surface in the back yard of his home in Mississauga, Ontario.
"One of the biggest differences I found when I came into the League is how good the goaltending is and how much quicker you need to be not just in the way you skate but in the way you shoot the puck," Tavares told NHL.com. "That's why I have been working to improve both."
-- Dan Rosen
Success so early in his career probably shouldn't come as a surprise considering the almost unfathomable amount of hype that followed Tavares into the NHL. However, for people who remember watching him closely when he was a teenager, there may be a twinge of shock only because Tavares was never one of the strongest or fastest skaters in any game he played.
Skating may have been his only weakness during his junior career, but it was an obvious one.
"John had a very awkward, clunky, some might have said slow stride," Dawn Braid, a renowned skating instructor out of the greater Toronto area who has worked with Tavares since 2008, told NHL.com. "He was very off-balanced."
Tavares was what is commonly referred to as railroader -- someone who looks like they're skating with legs as far apart as railroad tracks, burdening themselves with short strides that require too much energy to get from point A to point B. Tavares knew that in order to be a great pro he would have to improve his skating in all aspects.
Enter Braid. Enter his longtime athletic trainer Richard Clark. Enter Tavares and his insatiable work ethic.
Together they worked to create the player who scored 81 points in 82 games last season, the player who has other players and coaches around the NHL marveling at his skating.
"It's unbelievable the difference my skating has made. It's instrumental," Tavares told NHL.com. "It has changed my game to not just be a skill player, but to be an overall player, a more dynamic player."
The key -- Tavares recognized this even before the Islanders made him the top draft pick in Montreal three years ago -- was to make sure what he did in the gym with Clark made a difference when he got on the ice with Braid. Any other way would have been counterproductive to what Tavares, Clark and Braid were after.
Working together was easy because Clark and Braid are colleagues. Clark owns the gym, the Athlete Training Center, and he hired Braid as ATC's director of skating development.
"That is where the training has evolved over the years, understanding we need to train my body a certain way so when I go skate I'm able to put myself in those positions that Dawn has wanted to put me in to make myself a more powerful and efficient skater," Tavares said. "Dawn always says, 'If you didn't train properly and do the certain things you need to do, you're not going to be strong enough to do the things I want you to do.' "
Tavares' first challenge was to improve his core strength and his posture.
"I needed to develop much better range of motion through my hips and [gluteus] strength. I was weak in those areas," Tavares said. "So we (Tavares and Clark) did a lot of exercises in warm-up and strength exercises and running and sprints -- developing my fast-twitch muscles to become much quicker and much more dynamic. Training those parts of my body really helped on working on things like my stride and crossovers."
Clark, who is quick to say he's not a hockey expert -- "I'm a basketball and football guy," he said -- always thought Tavares was a powerful skater, but he agreed with Braid that he wasn't the most fluid.
"He's explosive now," Clark told NHL.com.
It was a process, though.
Tavares spent the better part of three straight summers working on his stride, posture, power and speed. Clark said by the end of last summer the difference was noticeable, not only on the ice but on the track inside Clark's gym.
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"He was finally beating the guys that are four years older than him in 10- and 12-yard sprints and in reaction drills, where you have to mirror a guy, do a lateral shuffle and cut to a sprint," Clark said. "We thought he was just going to explode. Now people are saying he's one of the elite skaters in the NHL."
This summer, Tavares moved on to the next phase of his skating: footwork. He's working on his stops, starts, transitions and pivots.
Tavares calls them "gamelike situations."
"It's how to put my body in good positions to protect the puck, to gain speed from stops and starts, from turns," he said. "It's getting more specific because of how much I have been able to transition into a better skater."
Braid said, "I think in a couple of years they won't even question putting him on a penalty kill as a result of those pivots and transitions. I've already seen a huge improvement."
Again, the improvement wouldn't be possible without the work Tavares puts in with Clark every day. They've been together since Tavares was 13 years old and not only is there a strong trust between them, there is a familylike bond.
"It's almost like he is an Uncle Rich," Tavares said.
Tavares is close friends with Clark's son, Wes, who is the director of player development for the Saulte Ste Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League. Clark's gym in Mississauga, Ontario, affectionately referred to as "The Dungeon," is where Tavares finds a lot of his closest friends.
"They train like animals and they push one another," Clark said. "There is a real drive and a friendship among that group, but John has evolved. He has always had this great work ethic, but every year he's getting better.
"John is our family here. He could have went to the YMCA and still been a great hockey player, but we're just here to help John."