On April 18, Golf Channel will broadcast the NHL first-round playoff game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New Jersey Devils (7:30 PM ET), followed by the Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks (10 PM ET).
Two sports, seemingly as different as possible; the one played on soft turf, the other played on glistening ice. And yet there are some interesting parallels and similarities that link golf and hockey. Or is it simply a fiction I’ve concocted because I love them both and wish I were (or had been) better at each of them?
In terms of swings, the two sports certainly have a lot in common. That was something that hit home for me in 1977, my first full summer caddying on the PGA Tour, when I looped for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey great Stan Mikita in the Kemper Open pro-am at Quail Hollow Country Club. I was in thrall the whole day, not least because the Blackhawks jersey was my absolute all time favorite uniform but also because I owned one – though I didn’t have the nerve to tell Mikita I had No. 9, Bobby Hull.
The round brought back memories of my first NHL game – Nov. 26, 1966, Blackhawks at Rangers at the old Madison Square Garden. Our upstairs tickets were $1.50, with partially obstructed views, but I was smitten the entire way as my beloved Rangers win, 4-1.
A few years layer a dozen of us young hockey buffs would rent out Rangers home practice ice in New Hyde Park for about $40 per hour in the middle of a weekend night and skate our hearts out for a couple of hours. It was so much better than dealing with a bumpy pond in mid-winter. What a treat to play on ice that had just been Zamboni'd. It’s like the difference between playing a run-down muni and a round at Winged Foot or Baltusrol.
What I saw with Mikita in that pro-am was how powerfully he hit the ball. He wasn’t a big man, only about 5-foot, 9-inches tall, and could not have weighed more than 160 pounds. I also remember that his face looked like it had been run through a meat grinder. (Possibly because it had been for 13 seasons already.) But what stunned me was how he hit these low rope hooks off the tee that went 300 yards. They never got more than a few feet off the ground, and all I could think about was that his right hand golf swing looked like his slap shot.
"A golf swing like a hockey swing," doesn’t sounds like a compliment. It’s usually meant to describe someone with a short backswing. It seems to have worked well enough for Allen Doyle, a former Div. 1 Norwich University (Vt.) hockey player who, after turning pro at the age of 46, relied upon a short, compact, hands-y swing to win three Web.com events and 11 PGA Champions Tour titles, including four majors.
The affinity of golf and hockey swings makes perfect sense to Revolution Golf instructor Martin Chuck, who plays both sports and finds the crossover helpful in explaining the golf swing. “In my teaching kit there’s a tour bag full of hockey sticks,” he says.
“In both cases,” he points out. “You’re bent over, making an athletic motion to hit something on the ground. And hockey players are not afraid to unwind.”
Then he gets technical, explaining how in both hockey and golf, “The lead hand is on top with a flat back towards the target; the trailing hand is at bottom and cupped under the shaft.”
The switchover is evident for anyone, like Chuck, who plays hockey on his left side but plays golf on the right. It might seem awkward to make the switchover, but hockey players adapt quickly and understand the wrist conditions involved in propelling the puck (or ball) forward. “They also understand the foot and leg work involved, how to brace the leading edge for leverage while unwinding. There’s no need to translate,”he says.
Video: How hockey can help your golf swing
But there might be some need to adjust in mid-season. Just ask NHL Hall of Famer Mike Modano, a left-winger and avid right-handed golfer whose ability to play during hockey season was considerably enhanced after his Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas before the 1993-94 season. The combination of warmer weather and occasional long road trips on the West Coast gave him time to play between games.
“We’re used to hitting down on something,” Modano said. “We know how to rotate our hips and shoulders. The switchover made for some rusty golf swings at first. It took a bit of adjustment.”
Since retiring from the NHL in 2011 after 22 seasons, Modano has been playing a lot of golf, including frequent appearances in the celebrity American Century Championship at Edgewood Tahoe in Nevada Classic at Tahoe. His two top-10 finishes puts him in a class with other NHL alumni who have finished among the leaders of all celebrity athletes: Grant Fuhr, Clark Gillies, Brett Hull, Pierre Larouche, Mario Lemieux, Dan Quinn and Jeremy Roenick.
“Golf is probably the No. 1 sport for hockey players,” says Modano. That and fishing.”
As a scratch golfer, Modano understands how hockey players have an advantage over athletes in other sports. “We understand the strike zone, hitting down on something hard with a descending blow. And we get away with a lot of ability to fix things at impact with our wrists, as if we’re stick handling.”
But the level of rotational forces involved in hockey can sometime get players into trouble on the golf course. “We’re going at it 100 miles per hour,” says Modano. “With little separation in hip turn and shoulder turn Our bodies rotate so hard through impact that at times we can hit it off the world. The big adjustment to golf is learning to create some separation in flex between the hips and the shoulders. That’s where stability comes from.”
The really amazing thing about hockey players is their balance on ice. If they could only learn to feel that comfortable playing from a stationary base. Or maybe they should just golf on skates.