As the morning sun begins to rise over another ice rink, the scoreboard registers the local time at 6:30 AM. A wild assortment of hockey players of all ages make their way onto the ice for the first skate of the day.
Soft sounds of sliding skates and tumbling pucks drift into the locker room as more players finish getting dressed for the morning’s “Gretzky” skate.
Sometimes known as “Skate and Shoot”, “Stick and Puck”, or just “Gretzkys”, Gretzky skates are public ice sessions that allow hockey players to practice their skills without being a part of a larger team or game.
These kinds of ice slots provide an outlet for players to receive more self-directed training than a typical practice while still allowing players to focus on hockey-specific skills, in contrast to general open skates where nets are prohibited.
The low hum of sticks and pucks in the morning air is pierced by the sound of rubber on iron: a shot that must have been going upwards of 80 mph.
While many players at Gretzky skates are utilizing the ice time to begin their hockey-playing journey, others are professional, even Olympic-level players.
Rachel Llanes, Olympian, former pro player, and current Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the San Jose Sharks AHL affiliate, says Gretzky skates have been critical to her development as a player and coach.
Llanes tied for most points in the 2021-2022 World Championships with Team China after becoming the first player to ever win championships in the CWHL, ZnHL, and NWHL.
“I was one of those kids that would take ice wherever I could find it. There have always been fewer opportunities for me to work on my skills than the boys’ players, for example. I knew I wanted to keep getting better and Gretzky skates gave me the ability to train as hard as I could while driving my own development, making decisions about what I needed to work on next,” Llanes explained.
“At this point in my career, I still utilize Gretzkys all the time to maintain where I’m at and get a little bit better. Right now I’m using the ice to get ready for the World Championships this year in Shenzhen.”
Even after all of the accolades, it can be challenging for decorated players like Llanes to find ice time for further training.
Gretzky skates provide a relatively cheap way to practice, but the public nature of these sessions means that 30 other players as young as three years old may be on the ice at the same time.
Arguably one of the best players of a generation is left side-stepping toddlers as she trains for the next international competition. Older adult league players have even accosted the Olympian when they think she is taking up too much ice.
Llanes mostly ignores these players while doing her best to stay in a corner of the rink:
“Sometimes people will get upset and they’ll have a talk with me, but we’re all just out here to get better. It’s common for other people at Gretzky skates to join my drill and it usually goes smoothly. I like being able to give other players tips. I like the chaos that these sessions create. That being said, I need to stay focused on my own development and Gretzky skates give me that opportunity.”
While there is occasionally tension during Gretzky skates because of limited space, there are usually only a small handful of participants.
Those that attend are generally more than happy to share their pucks, personal tips, and shared struggles.
“I definitely haven’t gone out of my way to make friends at Gretzkys, but I’ve skated with so many people over the years at these kinds of ice times and it’s the reason I am where I am now,” Llanes says with a grin. “I keep coming back for more.”
Unstructured, open ice slots like Gretzkys also provide unique community-building opportunities for hockey players of different skill levels to meet. Virtually every other hockey ice time is restricted to players of a very certain skill level, whether a recreational game, a team practice, or clinic.
Players that are considered “too good” or “not good enough” are inevitably asked to leave in each of these more structured groups.
Most players will never skate alongside someone of a significantly different skill level, even though they may have similar interests and goals within the hockey-playing community.
Other sports like soccer, football, and basketball are much more likely to be held in public, unmonitored areas where a wide range of players will naturally cross paths on the field or on the court. Hockey, however, tends to take place in rinks where nearly every ice time is heavily monitored and designed for a specific level of play.
Gretzky skates help facilitate connections between different hockey players because there is absolutely no skill or experience required. Information circulates like gold between the players about everything from equipment reviews to job openings, to discussing new efforts to offer street hockey for folks with disabilities.
“Whether the players realize it or not, everyone on the ice is giving off energy,” Llanes remarks, gesturing to the air hanging over the ice.
“You feel it skating around the rink. It’s a special feeling just being a part of it all. For all the good and the bad parts, it’s a community.”
Gretzky skates fill a much-needed role in the hockey world allowing players to gain a deeper sense of belonging and ownership over their growth as a hockey player, regardless of their prior experience or perceived skill.
For total beginners, burgeoning youth players, and seasoned pros alike, Gretzky skates can be one of the first steps to opening new doors in the hockey community and beyond.