[Note: I wrote this for the New York Times in early August. But due to the Times‘ extensive Olympics coverage and Inge subsequently getting injured, the article never ran. Although it endured the editing process at the Times before getting killed, below is the original draft I submitted to my editors, plus a few minor tweaks. –jd]
On July 4, before the first pitch against the Boston Red Sox at the Oakland Coliseum, first-year A’s Brandon Inge and Josh Reddick were firing hockey pucks at each other. Early on this season, Inge and Reddick incorporated hockey into their pregame routine. With their teammates immersed in pregame rituals on the field and around the clubhouse, the pair relocates to a long corridor with hockey sticks in hand.
Inge’s interest in hockey formed two years ago, when the 35-year-old infielder belonged to the Detroit Tigers. His oldest son, then five-years-old, began watching Detroit Red Wings games on TV—and wanted to start playing. “I knew nothing about hockey, other than I liked watching it. I figured if my son wanted to get into it, that’s pretty cool,” Inge said.
Next came a crash course in the sport. “I want to know how to do every sport my sons are going to do in case I have to coach them or give advice,” said Inge. So he sought some advice of his own from several Red Wings players he befriended during his eleven full seasons with the Tigers. Kris Draper, Nicklas Lidstrom, and goaltender Jimmy Howard taught Inge the hockey basics.
“I got my own pair of skates,” said Inge, “and started trying to figure it out, taking my sons with me.” Their fascination with hockey eventually compelled Inge to build a 120-feet by 55-feet ice rink in the family’s backyard. “I put full boards up and maintained it the whole offseason,” Inge said. “We played all the time.”
Once arriving in northern California, Inge ordered several left- and right-handed hockey sticks to seek out warm-up partners—and teach them what he had learned. Outfielder Josh Reddick, who’d held a stick only a few times before, took the bait. “[Inge] brought in a few pucks and we started shooting and passing around. I’m from Georgia, hockey was never a big thing for me, but I’m picking it up pretty good,” said Reddick. And he claims Inge has become quite the puck handler.
Ice hockey pucks do not work on the stadium floors. Instead they use roller hockey pucks with plastic pegs that glide across the pavement.
Inge prefers to keep moving as game time nears. “We started doing it [because] it passes the time,” said Inge. “When we take batting practice we have almost two hours until the game starts.” He added, “Athletes don’t like sitting around.”
“Mainly for me it’s all about the hand-eye coordination. Paying attention to where the puck is going to end up and stopping it. It’s one thing that simulates a baseball coming in,” Reddick said.
Pregame hockey helps them reduce the risk of injury by warming their core muscles and loosening the legs and hip flexors. Said Inge, “It’s the same reason a lot of hockey players do hacky sack or soccer.”
NHL players have long gathered in arena hallways booting soccer balls to slowly awaken cold parts of their body to prepare for full-speed competition. “It is a progressive, very light dynamic warm-up that actively stimulates a thermal warm-up, moving blood flow to the muscles, connective tissues, and synovial fluid to the joints,” explained Pittsburgh Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar.
He notes that such activities are best used early. “[They] have a nice balance of increasing the heart rate, working on an active range of movement, helping with stability and mobility, all while turning the neuromuscular system on,” Kadar said. “But there has to be another level of preparation.”
Playing one sport to prepare for another also provides valuable mental benefits. Alternative warm-ups “alleviate many of the pressures of the upcoming competition,” says Dr. Rolf Wagschal, a sports psychology consultant in Toronto. “For other athletes, it allows them to prepare for their sport mentally. Like having a cup of coffee in the morning is a signal that you’re about to go to work, it signals to both their body and mind that it’s time to compete.”
Inge and Reddick value the stress relief. “Instead of sitting in the clubhouse and over thinking, it gives us time to let loose and have fun—and try not to hit security guards and media people walking through,” said Reddick. When echoes of sticks and pucks smacking the concrete fill the hallway, jokes Inge, “they all get out of there. We try not to kill them!”
The duo must consider their own safety; enough injury risks loom on the field. Reddick, with a team-leading .270 average and 22 homers, recently suffered a back contusion after slamming into the right-field wall making a catch against the Orioles in Baltimore. “We don’t get crazy. We make sure we stay healthy,” said Inge.
Inge won’t be found playing mean’s league ice hockey when his baseball days conclude, he admits. He’s content helping his teammates improve their wrist shots. “We’ll probably get a net here soon,” Inge said. “Then we’ll really start going.”