On the rink, or the track, Gophers fuel their need for speed
One of the most decorated speedskaters in Olympic history is a Minnesota Gophers hockey mom, and the Cruikshank family sees parallels between the skating skills that mean success both on a 200-foot rink and a 400-meter track.
ROSEVILLE, Minn. – The sight was a familiar one for Minnesota Gophers hockey fans. Forward Sammy Walker and defenseman Jackson LaCombe were tearing up the ice. Their blades were scraping the frozen surface as they sped into crossover turns, then accelerated, headed toward the red line, with their coach yelling instructions and encouragement.
But this scene, played out so many times at 3M Arena at Mariucci over the past few years, had a twist. Walker, LaCombe and their Gophers teammate Grant Cruikshank didn’t wear hockey sweaters and traditional skates. They donned the skin suits you see Olympic speedskaters wear, and sailed around the 400-meter track at the John Rose OVAL in Roseville on speedskates, complete with 17.5-inch blades.
The few dozen parents of the Gophers men’s hockey team includes people in retail, law enforcement, player representation, law, financial planning and myriad other professions. And, since Cruikshank joined the team prior to this season , the Gopher parents group includes five Olympic speedskating gold medals with the addition of Dave and Bonnie (Blair) Cruikshank to the fold.
During the Gopher team’s holiday break, with their daughter Blair training in Roseville for what she hoped would be a trip to the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Cruikshanks invited Grant and two of his teammates out to the track to try a few laps.
Blair Cruikshank is not in Beijing this month, vying for the family’s latest Olympic medal. She tested positive for COVID-19 (despite not having any symptoms) at the wrong time, and did not make the American team. Her family is hopeful that four more years of training and growth will make her a strong candidate for the 2026 Winter Games, which will be held in Italy.
But with long- and short-track speedskating on American TV sets nearly every night for a few weeks, attention is turned to this sport which has made household names out of folks like Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen and Apolo Ohno over the past few decades.
Based out of the Petit National Ice Center in Milwaukee – one of just two indoor speedskating facilities in the nation – Dave Cruikshank is not only one of the sport’s top coaches, he is an active recruiter, trying to find and train the next American speedskating stars. And knowing that more American kids first try ice skating as hockey players, he has started a program called Developing Athletes for Speedskating High-Performance (DASH) which gives skaters who have come to the ice either through hockey or figure skating an opportunity to try their skills on the 400-meter track.
“We’re recruiting out of the hockey field. I have three guys on my team who are former hockey players,” Dave Cruikshank said on a recent drive back to Wisconsin from a Gophers home series. “There’s no doubt that the hockey guys have an advantage because they’ve been on ice.”
Ellie Fuchs, a sophomore at Concordia University in Wisconsin, is a DASH participant who played hockey until high school, then put her skating skills to work in a different venue. Her biggest adjustment came from the lack of a piece of composite lumber in her hands.
“One thing that took me by surprise was taking my stick away. In hockey you have that stick in your hands which helps you balance,” she said. “When I went to speedskating I had to readjust my balance and my boundaries of my body position. In speedskating you use your arms throughout the entire race, whereas in hockey I didn’t use my arms unless I had the puck on my stick.”
Gophers fans have seen the scenario play out a dozen or more times over the past three-plus seasons. Blake McLaughlin gets the puck in the defensive zone and makes a few strides. He sees Walker has a half-stride on the opposing defenseman as the former Mr. Hockey winner nears the offensive zone blue line. Walker, legs churning, puts on a burst of speed and is behind the defender by the time McLaughlin’s pass arrives. The rest is a blur of cheering and celebration and fans spelling out “M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A!”
While Walker’s on-ice speed is notable and fun to watch, if the Cruikshanks were to recruit just one current Gopher for the DASH program, they would likely pick LaCombe.
“He’s got some really nice, long strides and you can see it when he’s playing hockey,” Bonnie Cruikshank said. “He really gets from point A to point B a lot quicker than a lot of people realize. Jackson’s speed is deceiving, because it’s not like he’s moving his feet really fast, but he’s very efficient. He can really get from one place to another with ease.”
For his part, LaCombe isn’t about to hang up the 12-inch hockey blades, but he is all smiles when recalling his times on the speed skating track with the Cruikshanks, both this winter in Minnesota and a few times last summer while doing hockey training with Dave and Grant in Milwaukee. Still, after a lifetime in hockey, the differences are stark and take some time for adjustment.
“The blades are almost twice as long and really slim, so turning is really hard. There’s no stopping really, so the slow down is really weird. The stride and the feel is really different, but it’s a cool experience,” said LaCombe, who was a second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks and owns a gold medal of his own, from the 2021 World Juniors. “You always think you’re going to nick your shin with the blades, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty cool. Once you get moving and get into a stride, it feels pretty smooth.”
Like with hockey, more and more people are coming to speedskating from warmer climates, introduced to the sport on inline skates. One of the top American speedskating medal contenders in Beijing, Erin Jackson, is from Ocala, Fla., and learned to skate on wheels. Switching to the ice is another adjustment, but just like switching from hockey skating to speedskating, the Cruikshanks see opportunities for a new wave of American stars that could come from the hockey rink.
“Skating is skating,” Dave Cruikshank said. “The physics of skating is the same, it’s just different with the blades and the different push direction for figure skaters. In speedskating and hockey, you have the same physics…which is understanding how to generate speed on the ice.”