Britney Millar has encountered many hockey players dedicated to their craft. As a power skating instructor in Edmonton, Alberta, her programs attract exactly that type of person.
But after six years of working with Kirby Dach, she has realized his work ethic stands on a plane of its own.
“He comes to the rink [and] he’s always the most goofy, happy guy,” Millar said. “But the minute that we’re getting down to the actual drills, he’s always dialed in, paying attention. And then when he’s doing his reps, he’s always focused and attuned to what he’s trying to do and accomplish. That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed about him.”
Dach and Millar reunited this summer as part of an intensive offseason of training for the 20-year-old Blackhawks center, who looks poised to fully break out in his third year in the NHL.
Coming off a largely lost season — Dach missed the first three months and last week of 2021 recovering from his disastrous wrist injury at the World Junior Championships, finishing with 10 points in just 18 NHL games — it was clear this offseason would be a crucial one for his career progression.
As it comes to a close and Dach readies for training camp, he’s pleased with how it went.
“I took some time off, let my wrist heal and did some physio,” Dach said. “I felt like I was at a good enough position to start skating and training again, and push my body to get back to a place where I felt happy in my conditioning and how I felt and how I moved.”
Refreshing his skating
Many factors have contributed to Dach’s ascension from talented teenager to No. 3 overall pick to blossoming star over the past half-decade, but his skating work with Millar is one of the most influential.
Dach’s dad connected the two in 2015, shortly after Millar started her own company, and her first task was to utilize Dach’s natural athleticism to allow his skating to catch up with his body.
“As a kid, I was always tall and lanky, and then I hit a couple big growth spurts, so it took a while for my body to accept the way I wanted to skate without looking all funky,” Dach said, chuckling. “She’s been really good for me, helping me elongate my stride and get maximum power out of everything.”
“A lot of players tend to move with their feet, because that’s the normal movement pattern when you’re off the ice,” Millar said. “But [I had to] get his body in tune with the fact that, on the ice, your skating power comes from your hips, then your knees and your ankles.”
Their work together has evolved in the time since. In 2018-19, his draft year, Dach and Millar worked together three days per week for three months to improve his first-step explosiveness — because scouts considered it a weakness in his game at the time.
And this summer, after not being able to collaborate last year due to COVID-19, they worked together two days per week to help Dach shake off the rust created by playing only sparingly over the past year and a half.
“I asked him at the beginning, ‘Well, what do you want to work on this summer specifically?’” Millar said. “And he just said, ‘Overall, I want to get better.’”
“It was [about] refreshing everything, because from my perspective, he had just lost some of those specific efficiencies in his stride. We worked a lot on edges, because I also found he’d lost that awareness of his edge control. And then we worked on acceleration, as usual. And a lot of upper body rotation — his upper thoracic spine, we worked on connecting that with his body.”
Wrist fully healed
Dach follows a summer timeline that focuses heavily on skating early on, then gradually transitions to skills work — like shooting and puckhandling — and small-group practice settings later on, Millar said.
He followed that pattern again this summer, returning to Chicago in late August for more of the latter. He also continued his off-ice training with Ian Mack, the renowned private trainer who has helped him simultaneously gain strength and mobility over the past two years.
But Dach’s repaired wrist presented a third issue to deal with this summer. He didn’t reach a 100% comfort level with it until the beginning of August.
“It was a pretty steady process the whole way, just trusting my body, listening to it and knowing when it felt ready and when to push it, and when to back off if it was getting aggravated and started to get a little sore,” he said.
The entire eight-month recovery process proved to be a lesson in patience. He admits it “sucks getting hurt all the time” — that part will never change — but he has nonetheless learned how to better handle it mentally.
“It’s not like I’m the only guy that gets hurt in the world,” he said. “You can’t get too high on yourself and push things and just say it’s fine and get back and then hurt yourself more. [But you also can’t] not play your best; then you’re hurting the team. It’s a happy medium, and you just have to be able to find that balance of pushing yourself to the right extent.”
Come Thursday, when the Hawks begin camp at Fifth Third Arena, Dach will not have to actively think about that balance anymore. For the first time in three years, he’ll be healthy and able to participate in an NHL camp.
There will still be some challenges to overcome this season, such as with shooting, an area where he has somewhat struggled in his first two seasons — and an issue compounded last season by his lack of confidence in his wrist strength.
But Dach’s training this offseason has him feeling very confident now about the year ahead.
“I just want myself to take another step [this season],” he said. “I want to go out there and prove my worth and be able to play at the top level every night.”