What is a Bag Skate in Hockey?
For years coaches have used the so-called ‘bag skate’ as a method of punishing a team or getting
the attention of the players when the coach suspects his team is not making a good effort in games or practices.
It’s a special exercise in which players skate hard until the coach believes he has made his point. It
might be a short lesson after a game or at the end of a practice. Or, it might be the practice itself.
A bag skate can take many forms, for example skating laps, sprinting from one goal line to the other and back,
or sprinting across the rink and back. But one of the most commonly used bag skates is what some might call
‘lines’ or ‘suicides,’ where the players skate to the blue line and back, followed by
the red line, the far blue line, and the far goal line.
Bag skates are usually used only in the early portion of the season before a team’s legs are tired and
the grind of the season has worn them down. Sometimes the coach believes a bag skate will build unity among his
players or can instill discipline on a team that hasn’t been making a good effort. Or a coach might use it
when the team is in a funk, in the hopes it will help them break out of their malaise. One thing is for sure:
players hate bag skates and fewer coaches are using them.
Where Did the Term ‘Bag Skate’ Come From?
It’s not clear exactly where the term ‘bag skate’ came from, although one theory holds that
it refers to the players skating off a piece of male anatomy. But the explanation that gets the most support in
online hockey communities and around rinks refers to players arriving at the rink only to find the pucks still
in the bag, suggesting their practice will be about skating, and lots of it.
Skating ‘Herbies’ in the Miracle on Ice
In Miracle, a movie about the United States’ 1980 Olympic hockey team that upset the Soviets en route to
the gold medal, U.S. hockey coach Herb Brooks holds a bag skate after a lackluster effort by his team. While the
film’s portrayal is said to have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, several people who were there said
the bag skate did take place. In the movie, Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, lines the players up on the goal
line and runs them through a bag skate. The movie implies that the drill showed the young college stars that
they weren’t just talented individuals, but instead members of a team brought together for a higher
purpose. “When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates,” Brooks tells the
gasping and heaving players. “And the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on
the back.” To some, bag skates will always be known as “Herbies.”
Bag Skates Today Seen as Controversial
Many in hockey believe the bag skate should be eliminated. For some, it’s a punishment that serves no
purpose while others believe that, properly used, a bag skate can refocus a team that has lost its edge. Some
criticism focuses on the impact a bag skate can have on players’ skating. Critics say that any kind of
sprinting beyond 10 or 15 seconds results in loss of technique, and repeatedly forcing bad skating engrains it,
which will cut a player’s speed on the ice. A bag skate can cause players to lose respect for their coach
and create animosity between players if some start to believe they’re being punished for the failings of
others. Other critics say the bag skates simply aren’t effective, and some believe the bag skate suggests
the coach has run out of ideas and is desperate for an answer.
Most bag skates these days occur in high school and college leagues, where players don’t have as much
power as today’s NHL hockey players do with their contracts and players’ association. But Wayne
Gretzky’s 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers suffered through a bag skate, and NHL teams are occasionally made to do
it. Even at the highest levels, some coaches still see the bag skate as an old-school tool that can be pulled
out of the bag while leaving the pucks right where they are.