Flexibility for a hockey player can be the difference between making that great save and giving up a game-winning goal.
For Alex Sprague, those extra few inches of reach and additional spring in his step don’t come from a new goaltending style or piece of high tech equipment. He owes his success on the ice to a secret weapon of a different variety – gymnastics.
The 12-year-old from Glendale, Ariz., has a packed schedule that would make a busy corporate executive look like a slacker. The sixth grader brings a new definition to the balance beam, juggling two sports, a full prep school course load that includes an advanced Latin class and other after-school activities such as singing in the school chorus and participating in the chess club.
Juggling so many activities during the course of the week, it should come as no surprise that Alex is also a member of the juggling club.
“It’s a ton of work, but I love it,” Alex says. “I know that school comes first. As long as I do well in school, I like having all of the extra activities.”
Playing multiple sports is a trend that his hockey coach Stuart Judge encourages, even if it means missing time on the ice. Judge, who has worked in the front office of the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes, grew up in Canada, and playing multiple sports was a function of climate, not choice.
“You develop all kinds of athleticism out of playing these different sports,” Judge says. “Hand-eye coordination, flexibility and strength are all developed, and that’s what summers were for in Canada.”
That’s why Judge emphasizes that his players develop core strength and flexibility that will not only make them better hockey players, but could help to ward off injuries during the season.
The lessons seemed to have paid off for both Alex and his Arizona Runners Peewee teammates as they swept their way through the Sonoran Youth Hockey League playoffs and took home the state title.
Alex’s mentally toughness comes partially from growing up in a military family and the nomadic lifestyle that goes with it. Sports provided a means to smooth out the transition from city to city and country to country and helped him make new friends along the way.
It was a move from Germany to Maryland when he was only 4 years old that helped get his athletic career off to a flying start, so to speak. A local recreational center was offering gymnastics for kids, and Alex never looked back.
As he has slowly moved up the ranks, Alex has turned the hard work into hardware. He enjoyed his best gymnastics finish at the Southwest Junior Cups. Featuring local gymnastics schools from around Arizona, Alex finished first overall in his age group and won individual honors in the floor exercise, rings and parallel bars and is one of the top performers for Arizona Prestige, his local gym.
According to his gymnastics coach, Tim Olson, Alex’s biggest improvement in the past few years hasn’t been on a specific gymnastic discipline, but what he has done for his other teammates.
“This kid is just a pure leader,” Olson says. “He takes all the little ones under his wing and shows the younger guys the ropes.”
Oddly enough, Alex’s hockey career started because of a lack of hockey. During the 2004 NHL lockout, ice time was cheap and plentiful, which allowed Alex to take skating lessons on the Washington Capitals practice facility at a discounted rate.
A move to Arizona, with its blossoming hockey community, allowed Alex to not only pursue his on-ice passion but to give goaltending a try.
While hockey is the ultimate team sport, Alex was drawn to the pressures placed on a goaltender as his team’s last line of defense.
“That’s why I switched to goalie,” Alex says. “I like to have all that weight on my shoulders and no one else to blame.”
Gymnastics share many of the same aspects of teamwork. While gymnasts compete in individual events, such as the rings, pommel horse or floor exercise, they represent their home gym or local team in competitions, and their individual performances have a direct bearing on a team’s overall score.
Gymnastics also gives him a chance to spend more time with his older sister, Sabrina. Born a year apart, they compete at the same level, but Alex admits that he takes his role a little more seriously.
“She just like to go out there and have fun,” Alex says. “I like to win.”
While he enjoys both sports, Alex knows the day will come is when he will have to decide which path to follow if he wants to reach the next level. For now he is having too much fun to worry about making a decision.
“I really like hockey because you get to be a little rough out there and you get to hit people,” he admits. “But it seems like the girls like me being in gymnastics more, so I REALLY like gymnastics.”