MINNEAPOLIS — If winning hockey games is your thing, having Jack Blatherwick on your team was proven time and time again as a means to that end. Which is mildly ironic, considering that winning games was never the highest thing on Blatherwick’s priority list.
Blatherick, 77, is a Minneapolis native and a well-known name in hockey circles not only in Minnesota but nearly anywhere in the country there is an ice sheet painted with red and blue lines. There will be an exclamation point added to his career on Thursday, Dec. 12, when he is honored with the Lester Patrick Award, which is given by USA Hockey for outstanding service to hockey in the United States, at an event in Washington, D.C.
Blatherwick made his mark as a hockey physiologist, working alongside legendary coach Herb Brooks first with the Minnesota Gophers, in helping them to the 1979 NCAA title, then with the now-legendary 1980 Olympic team which won the gold medal. It was the perfect role for Blatherwick, a natural teacher who admits that coaching, or at least winning, was not his strong suit when he tried coaching football and hockey at Breck School after he finished college in the 1960s.
“My interest in coaching even then wasn’t so much winning as it was developing athletes. So for that reason I was a very poor head football coach because I never came up with a way to win games,” Blatherwick said. “In hockey, if we were playing poorly for me it was a good sign because it meant we had things to work on. Herb said, ‘You’re not a coach, you’re a scientist and a teacher.’ And that’s why I decided to study it.”
At the time, Blatherwick recalls there was little to no scientific information available on how best to train adolescent athletes. So he went back to grad school at the U of M to learn more. He’d met Brooks a decade earlier when Blatherwick had tried to play hockey for the Gophers, and their friendship was mutually beneficial.
Brooks had a love for numbers, and always sought players with speed. Blatherwick was tasked with using one to find the other. But in the late 1970s, there were very few tests on or off the ice to measure such things. So Blatherwick developed his own.
“At that time there were basically no physiologists in hockey,” Blatherwick said. “No research at the time that showed a difference in endurance and strength between an NHL team and your average high school phys ed class.”
He worked first with the hockey team at Augsburg in Minneapolis, testing them on things like strength, speed and endurance using methods that Blatherwick had developed. The Auggies won the NAIA national title that year. With Brooks’ permission, Blatherwick tested the 1979 Gophers on the ice and in a laboratory setting and gave the coach the numbers.
The methods were innovative in discovering things like a player’s true skating speed.
“The thought at the time was that you should reach full speed in three of four strides,” Blatherwick recalled. “That’s not even close. It takes about 60 feet.”
A year later, Blatherwick and Brooks repeated the tests in Colorado Springs, Colo., where more than 75 of the nation’s best young hockey players gathered in hopes of being picked for the 1980 Olympic Team.
“Herb was looking for speed. He told the (Olympic) committee that he wanted the players who first looked best, and second looked fastest in the competition,” Blatherwick said. “That was the first time I saw one physiological measure that separates elite players from those who are very good.”
Blatherwick worked with Hamline University and with Doug Woog’s Gophers teams in the 1980s and 1990s, and truly changed the game with his innovative methods of training. Gone, for the most part, are distance runs as a way for players to get into hockey shape, for example.
“I was lucky to be there at a time when there wasn’t so much dogma and rules about how you should train. It was pretty easy to be creative because nobody was doing anything,” Blatherwick said. “There was a thought that players should do more endurance training. That’s totally untrue. We found that really highly intense interval training raises your aerobic capacity and your cardiovascular fitness to a greater extent and faster than long, slow distances.”
Lucky is a theme that Blatherwick repeats when he reflects on his career, admitting that his friendship with Brooks was some good fortune. But asked for the highlight of his time with many hockey teams, he reflects not on national titles or gold medals, but in the day-to-day work of being an educator.
“The highlight for me has been getting to work every day with motivated, good kids,” said Blatherwick, who was a teacher and on-ice staff for more than one Twin Cities high school. “When I was teaching I’d get up early in the morning and drive to school through traffic in a terrible mood. You get there and the kids are just kids. They wake you up and they make you feel good. I’m lucky.”