Hockey players, figure skaters at odds over which sport is tougher


Figure skaters and hockey players.

Two types of athletes, two types of skating, two groups that may not always find common ground — or in this case, ice.

“Neither one understands the other, unless you try them both,” said Omahan Sarah Lopez, a former competitive figure skater who has also played her fair share of hockey. “Each sport feels ownership of the ice, and when there's limited availability, the claws really come out.”

There might be a little bit of that going on around town these days, with the United States Figure Skating Championships here through the weekend at the CenturyLink Center, which is the home of the UNO hockey team.

Because of other events at the arena, UNO often practices at the Civic Auditorium, but that is also being used by figure skaters. So the Mavericks are working out this week at the Ralston Arena, where the Omaha Lancers and — yes, more figure skaters — are using the two rinks there.

Two sports played on the same surface, but with much different objectives.

Hockey can be violent, as teams often like to set the tone for a game with ferocious checking. Many highly physical hits are perfectly legal. But there is an element of speed and grace to it.

Figure skating is often considered artistic and beautiful, more calm and genteel. But power, speed and athleticism are evident, too.

Lopez grew up figure skating, but later, because of injuries, gave it up and played hockey in high school and also at the club level in college. She now coaches skills development to local hockey players.

She's gotten concussions while competing in both sports, but has no doubt which is more dangerous.

That would be the one in which — at 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds — she was one of the taller participants.

“Figure skaters are moving at incredible speed and lobbing their bodies into the air while wearing tights and a lycra dress,” she said. “At least hockey players are wearing pads.”

Hockey players beg to differ.

While fighting isn't allowed in the college game, there's still plenty of rough stuff to go around, and a level of angst is always brewing just above the surface of the ice.

And then there's a certain piece of rubber sailing around the rink at high speeds, and players are often expected to get whatever body part necessary in front of said puck to prevent it from getting to the goal.

In this world skates the likes of Michael Young, a 6-foot-3, 211-pound UNO defenseman who is more than willing to make the physical plays necessary to compete at this level and later the professional ranks if the opportunity presents itself.

UNO's other blue-line behemoths include Andrej Sustr (6-8, 225), Jaycob Megna (6-7, 210), Tony Turgeon (6-4, 225) and Bryce Aneloski (6-2, 204) — not to mention forwards Brent Gwidt (6-3, 218) and Andrew Schmit (6-4, 213).

Still, there's a certain grace in Young's smooth skating style, honed from his youth in hockey-crazed and climate-cooperative Calgary, Alberta.

“You just grow up skating,” Young said. “It was always just like walking.”

While many other college hockey players have choppier strides, Young is one who seems to glide while handling the puck despite the chaos around him. He seamlessly transitions forward and then backward as necessary.

But, no, a recent photo shoot notwithstanding, there's no figure skating in Young's future.

This isn't “The Cutting Edge,” the 1992 movie in which a male hockey star retired because of injury only to seek Olympic glory as a figure skater paired with a prima donna partner.

“Never have and never would,” Young said of figure skating. “Kind of frowned upon.”

Oh, sure, there's some biases when hockey players talk about figure skaters, and the other way around, too.

Said Young of figure skating: “It's more like a dance, not really a sport, isn't it?”

And Lopez: “You could always smell the hockey players a mile away.”

Figure skaters concentrate more on their “edges” and have a higher awareness of where their body is in relation to their skates — necessary to both pull off moves and avoid injury.

Figure skaters' skate blades have toe picks at the top — which allow them to jump and spin. They are usually longer, heavier and flatter than those of hockey players. The boots are also much more rigid, and thus not as comfortable. The rigidity allows for more control on jumps.

Hockey players' blades allow them to make quicker stops and sharper turns while also assisting their speed.

UNO forward Josh Archibald, one of the leading goal scorers in the country, is noted for his long stride and an ability to sometimes leap over traffic on the ice.

His father, a former college star who played briefly in the NHL, manages the Brainerd (Minn.) Area Civic Center, where hockey players and figure skaters share the ice.

Sure, once in a while Jim will have to flood the ice a couple of times, Josh said, but since the figure skaters there are typically younger, they don't tear up the ice with their toe picks too badly — a frequent hockey player complaint. The jumps requiring the most force and result in the most damage often take place in the middle of the faceoff circles.

But Josh Archibald sees where the crossover between the sports is beneficial.

“I know guys who have taken 'power skating classes' from figure skaters,” Josh Archibald said. “That's working on your stride, being able to open up your hips and being able to go forwards and backwards easier.”

And there are hockey players who started out as figure skaters, too, like NHL All-Star Jeff Skinner.

“I played against him when I was young,” Megna said. “They always used to say, 'There's the figure skater,' but he was the best of both.”

And don't forget that two-time Olympic hockey player Bret Hedican married former figure skating star Kristi Yamaguchi.

So, maybe there is some common ice.

The pursuit of ice time everyone is going through this week isn't totally unusual. Many have grown up with it, like Lopez — who, as Sarah Grossman and at age 7, began her skating career.

“We can come together and commiserate about the terrible hours we're sometimes forced to skate,” Lopez said. “If you're not a morning person, I'd discourage you from either sport — 6 a.m. practices and the smell of coffee are a way of life.”

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