Rollerblade renaissance: How hockey players are staying in shape during coronavirus pandemic

On Monday, Wayne Gretzky and Alex Ovechkin recorded their first joint interview, and they each had a chance to ask each other a question. Ovechkin wanted to know: If Gretzky were playing right now, how would he stay in shape during the NHL's coronavirus pause?

Simple, Gretzky said. Find a pair of Rollerblades.

"I always tried to do the closest thing to playing hockey," Gretzky said. "I probably would have found a pair of Rollerblades, or in-line skates, and I would've been skating around flat property around the neighborhood as much as I can. Because your hands and your shot and stickhandling, that's never going to go away, but one of the things you lose quickly, if you're not skating every day, is that skating stride. So if I was a player of today's generation and we were locked out, I would try to find places to Rollerblade as much as possible."

Actually, that's exactly what NHL players have been doing -- in droves. As players around the world have been practicing social distancing, in-line skating has become as trendy as it was in its heyday in the late 1980s and early '90s. In-line skating is so hot right now that acquiring a pair of skates has become a challenge.

"I talked to one of my teammates, and he wanted to get a pair, but he said he couldn't get them anywhere right now," says Washington Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen, who luckily already had his own. "They're sold out."

One agent tried buying some to send to his clients as a gift. "It took me a while," the agent said. "But I think Dick's just restocked."

Team USA's Kendall Coyne Schofield would get a pair, but she usually works out with her husband, NFL lineman Michael Schofield, and she knows it would be impossible to find a store with his Size 15 in stock. Anaheim Ducks defenseman Josh Manson said he, too, would love to go in-line skating, "but I don't want to go to the store to buy some, so I don't know how to get my hands on them."

According to Bauer, 250,000 consumers have looked up or searched roller skates on its website in the past six weeks, while the company has seen a 723% year-over-year traffic increase on any content related to in-line skates. Some of those customers are professional hockey players.

In addition, Bauer says it recently shipped out skates to 75-100 of its top-level athletes, including David Pastrnak, Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov, the Hughes brothers (Jack, Quinnand16-year-old Luke), Hilary Knight, Rebecca Johnston, Marie-Philip Poulin and Alexis Lafreniere, the projected top pick in the 2020 NHL draft.

"Everyone is getting Rollerblades right now," says Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, who had a pair shipped to him earlier in the pandemic. "That's how much we miss hockey. That's how much we miss skating on the ice."

As the NHL season remains on hold, conventional rules have been thrown out the window. That includes typical workout regimens. NHL players have been told to maintain their conditioning as best they can, since the league could theoretically pick up at any point and resume play. The only problem? Barely anyone can get on the ice right now.

"That's a huge hurdle for a player," Washington defenseman John Carlson says. "It doesn't matter how hard you train, the on-ice stuff is different."

The only players known to have access to ice arenas are a handful with clearance to skate at team facilities while rehabbing (such asColumbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, who had ankle surgery in February) or players who returned to Sweden, where there are no broad lockdown guidelines.

There was a run on ordering Peloton bikes online, and most team trainers have emailed players body weight workouts, which are especially helpful for those cooped up in small apartments. However, that goes only so far. "You could be the best guy on the bike or cardio equipment, but it doesn't translate to the ice at all," Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty says. That's why many hockey players are turning to in-line skating, which Doughty notes is "probably the best way to keep your hockey legs in shape."

In-line skating used to be a leisure activity for hockey players, a good way to fool around in the offseason. Barkov, for example, typically drops in on a few roller hockey games at home in Finland every summer, "just for fun." Now, in-line skating has become a lifeline to stay connected to their sport.

"The mechanics are a little different," says Canadian national team forward Sarah Nurse, who has been going on rides around her neighborhood in the Toronto suburbs. "But it's the closest thing you can find to simulating that stride. It's definitely fun. It's pretty freeing. And you definitely get that quad burn. Maybe even quicker than when you're on ice skates."

The trend first came to light two weeks after the NHL suspended play, when Patrick Marleau's wife, Christina, posted a video of her husband skating inside the house, gliding from room to room. One of Marleau's sons chases after him, wearing only socks.

"Dad, Dad?" the younger Marleau shouts, trying to keep up. "No Rollerblading in the house. No Rollerblading in the house!"

Marleau smiles but refuses to slow down.

"At least someone here knows the house rules," Christina Marleau mused on Twitter.

Since then, we've learned that Marleau's good friend, Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, has also been in-line skating in Arizona. The Hughes brothers are playing modified roller hockey on their cul-de-sacat home in Michigan. Meanwhile,Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleuryand Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux have upped the ante by in-line skating while also pushing their children in strollers:

If all of this feels reminiscent of the scene in "Mighty Ducks 2" when the crew gets back together by blading around the Twin Cities, that's because it is. As entertaining as the sequence was, internet sleuths concluded that the youth team players would have had to skate as many as 43 miles to hit all the locations in the montage. Actual NHL stars aren't quite going as far -- and they're definitely not skating through the Mall of America these days.

"You can go 15 miles, there and back, and it feels nice," Barkov says. "If you go for like an hour or hour and a half, you'll get a good sweat in, but not the same as a hockey workout. You can get good conditioning work in if you go really, really hard on them. But it's tough when there's cars on the road also, to skate as hard as you can."

Vancouver Canucks winger Brock Boeser, living with four roommates in Minnesota, says he has five pairs of in-line skates at his house. "Just ride a ton around the neighborhood, and then there's a park by the lake and there are some trails there we like to go down," Boeser says. "I try to get some cardio out of it, but it depends."

Jensen has had in-line skates since he was a kid. He got his first "big boy pair" during his rookie season. "I definitely never used them as much as I am right now, because I've never needed them as much as I do now," Jensen said. "I usually have access to ice."

Jensen has played roller hockey in the backyard with his wife, mostly to work on his stickhandling, and has also gone out for conditioning rides. "I don't even know how many miles it is -- sometimes sprints and quick skating, sometimes long strides for up to an hour," Jensen says. "It's more similar to hockey than you think. In hockey you use the friction of the blade grinding into the ice to stop. In Rollerblading, you'd use the rubber to grind against the asphalt. You do kind of slide, so you gotta know what you're doing. The biggest difference is you can't really cut as hard. On ice you can really cut into the ice and really shift from one side to the other. In Rollerblades, you tend to slip a little more, where it's hard to make really sudden turns or crossovers from left or right."

Bruins defenseman Torey Krug agrees the two activities aren't exactly the same. "You don't get the buildup of lactic acid and having to deal with your groins and your hip motion when you're digging into the ice and trying to stop and start," Krug says. "And that's a big part of it."

Still, in-line skating can make for a decent workout. Connor McDavid actually credited his strong crossover work to years of training on in-line skates. "Even when I wasn't on the ice, I was always on my Rollerblades," McDavid told The Associated Press in 2018. "It's what's kind of got me here. I love training that way. It's kind of just by yourself. There's no fancy skill coach, there's no nothing. It's just on your Rollerblades and working on some skills."

Nurse says her entire team at the University of Wisconsin got in-line skates one summer, and they used to go on team rides. Now staying with her parents, Nurse dug the skates out of the closet for the first time in a while. "I'm steady in zone three, zone four heart rate," she says. "So I'm pretty sure I'm doing something."

To anyone interested in hopping on the trend, know that the activity doesn't come without risks -- even for people who skate for a living. When Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny posted a picture on Instagram of himself trying on a pair of in-line skates last week, his teammate Jakub Vrana commented: "That scares me, just take a helmet."

For Exhibit A, look at Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet. The 56-year-old found an old pair in the garage, and decided to go for a ride. He loved it so much, he started going every other day.

"Got a little cocky," Tocchet says. "I hit a little pothole and went down hard. I'm not going to lie to you, it still hurts. A big raspberry on the butt, down the leg. It hit the ego a little bit." A car even pulled over to see if Tocchet was OK.

But like a true hockey guy, Tocchet remains vague about any further diagnosis, classifying his injury as "lower body."

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