The ice inside Xcel Energy Center was crowded with Wild players Thursday morning, the clatter of skates and sticks swelling to a crescendo inside the otherwise quiet bowl of the arena.
It was an unusual lead-up to that evening’s game between the Wild and Coyotes. Coach Bruce Boudreau has made morning skates optional except when the team doesn’t practice or play the previous day. Since the Wild did neither Wednesday — instead traveling back to the Twin Cities from Los Angeles at the conclusion of a four-game road trip — attendance was mandatory.
Typically, though, these sessions are smaller affairs comprised of rookies, healthy scratches and a few veterans.
And giving players this option is one way the team squeezes more rest and recovery time out of its hectic schedule. It’s the preferred approach among Wild players instead of taking a game off.
“It’s a different mentality,” winger Zach Parise said. “Hockey is the mentality [of] the cliché, ‘You play through pain.’ If you can play, if you’re good enough to put your gear on, you’re going to play. I think that’s just how we grew up. It’s like a blue-collar attitude.”
Sitting out a healthy player is normal practice in baseball and basketball.
Position players get the occasional reprieve from the 162-game grind in MLB, a timeout that makes complete sense to stay refreshed; and NBA teams have been more inclined to give their stars a night off to recharge with the goal of playing into June.
This strategy has become a hot-button issue in basketball.
“Load management” has sidelined some of the sport’s most dynamic superstars — such as the Lakers’ LeBron James and the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard — during one half of a back-to-back, depriving fans on the couch and those who paid to see the game’s best compete.
Timberwolves fans will deal with that reality on Saturday at Target Center when a healthy Russell Westbrook sits out for the Houston Rockets.
“I don’t really like it as far if you’re a fan of the NBA and you’re watching a game and missing some guys,” center Eric Staal said. “If they have that many games [and] if they don’t want to play that many, they shouldn’t have that many in their [collective bargaining agreement].”
Another issue Boudreau brought up is how the decision can be interpreted.
“If the team thinks that you’re not trying to win every game, they’re saying, ‘Why?’ ” Boudreau said. “I want the message [to be] that we’re trying to win every game.
What the Wild doesn’t dispute is the importance of downtime.
“It’s huge,” the 35-year-old Staal said. “Don’t get me wrong. If I could skip a week here or there, I’d be better. But it’s not realistic. You can’t do that. But, yeah, it makes a difference, no question.”
So, players have other tactics to manage their output.
Maintenance days are common, with players skipping an on-ice practice to lay low — especially if someone’s dealing with a nagging injury. And many veterans exercise the option Boudreau gives them in the mornings of game days, with these skates becoming less omnipresent around the league.
The team also tracks workload through heart-rate technology, using that insight to monitor how active players are.
“I don’t mind coming to the rink,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said. “The last couple years we’ve had the optional skates, and I like that. When you get older, you sort of know what works better for you. As silly as it sounds, when you’re skating for 20 minutes, you’re just putting your gear on for about 20 minutes. It can just mentally be wearing on you.”
There is one scenario where Boudreau could see teams purposely holding out players from games — when a team is locked into a playoff spot late in the season and can’t possibly change its seeding or be caught by a rival.
But not only is this situation unlikely with how competitive the NHL has become, Boudreau said it doesn’t work. In 2016-17, the Wild rested players at the end of the season but was ultimately whisked out of the playoffs in five games by the Blues.
“I don’t like missing games,” Staal said. “I like playing.”
That is where the fun happens, when the puck drops and the crowd cheers, but competition also breeds legacy for teams and players chasing glory.
“It’s an honor to play,” defenseman Matt Dumba said. “You make it 82 games, that’s saying a lot about you and your resilience, the hardships you had to go through during the year. That’s something that’s not easy, being an ironman.”
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @sarah_mclellan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org