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There are several great mysteries in life — how does a 747 weighing 877,000 pounds (397,000 kilograms) float across the sky, how does a cruise ship weighing 71,500 tons float on water; and how can hockey players float across the ice with speed and dexterity on a piece of metal 1/8th of an inch thick?

It's mystifying, but amazing. And since hockey's earliest incarnations, certain participants have always been recognized as outstanding skaters. Some deem excellent skaters as those who demonstrate magnificent balance on skates, others by those who can dipsydoodle, dance or dangle their way through opponents, but for this exercise, we'll recognize hockey's fastest skaters, those who can fly around the rink, carving strides that leave others in their wake.

HOCKEY'S EARLY DEVELOPMENT
Although there is no specific date on which hockey was first played, the 1880's certainly saw a proliferation of teams and leagues in eastern Canada and along the eastern seaboard of the United States. As the railway opened up the west, more and more towns and cities evolved, and with them came games like hockey, eventually finding a home in every city, town and hamlet from Victoria to St. John's in Canada and Los Angeles to New York in the United States. And we would be remiss if we didn't recognize how hockey grew in popularity elsewhere around the world. A game that was born in Canada is now played around the world. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) boasts 66 member national associations.

Fred
Fred "Cyclone" Taylor's dynamic rushes and memorable scoring feats made him one of hockey's first superstars. (HHOF Images)
The National Hockey League and its predecessor, the National Hockey Association, have long been recognized as the premier hockey leagues in the world. For thirty years, the NHL has attracted outstanding players from around the globe. No doubt, there have been swift skaters since the creation of these leagues, but to draw parallels between the eras is comparing apples to oranges. Size, fitness and equipment have all evolved dramatically through the decades. A six-footer was unheard of 100 years ago, and was rare even 50 years ago. Today's players -- bigger, stronger and faster -- would wonder how their forerunners even managed to stand up on the pieces of equipment that passed for skates.

EARLY SPEED MERCHANTS
Mike Grant won three speed skating titles in 1885 at the age of eleven, and brought that same quickness to the Montreal Victorias of the AHAC (Amateur Hockey Association of Canada). Regarded as one of hockey's first rushing defencemen (known as point and cover-point during that era), Grant used his speed to help the Victorias win the Stanley Cup on five occasions.

There was a reason that Fred Taylor was nicknamed 'Cyclone.' Although details about his hockey prowess are based on legend as much as fact, there is no doubt that he was an extremely fast skater. One legend suggests that Governor General Earl Grey observed him play with the Ottawa Senators in 1908 and commented, "That new number 4, Taylor, he's a cyclone if ever I saw one." A reporter, having heard the comment, wrote, "In Portage La Prairie, they called him a tornado. In Houghton, Michigan, he was known as a whirlwind. From now on, he'll be known as 'Cyclone' Taylor." Whether Taylor truly scored a goal while skating backwards is debated by historians, but needless to say, 'Cyclone' Taylor was every bit as fast as his name implied.

Didier Pitre was called "one of the fastest skaters of all-time" by Cy Denneny, a fine skater himself. Pitre joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1909, and was heralded as being able to skate as fast backward as he could forward before even stepping onto the ice in a Canadiens uniform. He was a member of the Stanley Cup champion Canadiens of 1915-16.

Howie Morenz has often been referred to as hockey's first bona fide superstar
Howie Morenz has often been referred to as hockey's first bona fide superstar. (HHOF Images)
Although he never played in the NHL, Magnus 'Mike' Goodman put on a skating clinic at the 1920 Olympic Games. Mere weeks before the Antwerp Olympics, Goodman won the North American Speed Skating championship. He was so fast that spectators believed he must have had tiny jets in his skates. Legend suggests that one fan went so far as to offer Goodman $100 for his 'magic skates.' Then, playing left wing for the Allan Cup champion Winnipeg Falcons, who represented Canada at the Olympics, Goodman helped Canada take the Olympic gold medal. Spalding's Athletic Library of 1919 described Mike Goodman as "(Frank) Frederickson's left-hand bower and the tornado on the team."

From the time he first laced up skates, Howie Morenz was acknowledged as one of the game's fastest skaters. Ott Heller, a friend and frequent opponent while the 'Stratford Streak' was starring with the Canadiens and Heller with the Rangers, commented, "When Howie was skating at full speeds only he knew how, the other players of both teams seemed to be skating backwards." In his book 'Walking With Legends', former 'Hockey Night in Canada' producer Ralph Mellanby marveled over the speed and strength of Bobby Hull's skating. "I had never seen anybody skate like Hull in my life. I had seen Howie Morenz on film, and when I asked Hall of Famer Newsy Lalonde about him, he said Morenz was 'exactly like Bobby Hull. They both had such grace. When you watch Hull, you are seeing Howie Morenz.'"

In 1941-42 Syl Apps went the whole season without recording a single penalty
Syl Apps wasn't just a great skater; he was also a gentleman on the ice. In 1941-42 he went the whole season without recording a single penalty. (HHOF Images)
Yet, as fast as Morenz was, he had competition. In Joan Finnigan's book 'Old Scores, New Goals: The Story of the Ottawa Senators', the author stated that the Senators' Hec Kilrea consistently beat Morenz in skating races. The March 26, 1928 edition of the Montreal Gazette confirmed Finnigan's recollection. At an Ottawa/Montreal contest, Kilrea, a former Ottawa speedskater, circled the ice in 16 2/5ths seconds, carving time off Morenz's record of 17 seconds.

ORIGINAL SIX SPEEDSTERS
Occasionally, the NHL held 'fastest skater' competitions that assisted in fundraising endeavours. In 1942, the seven-player field was narrowed to Syl Apps of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Lynn Patrick of the New York Rangers, and the Toronto captain won. Funds raised were donated to the 'Moose' Ecclestone Fund, commemorating the coach of the Toronto Goodyears. The next year, on February 5, 1943, the Toronto Maple Leafs held their own competition as part of an Aid to Russia campaign. Mel Hill, Jack McLean and Gaye Stewart each circled the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens in 15 seconds. In the skate-off to decide a champion, Hill fell after the blade of his skate broke and Stewart quit after going halfway. Jack McLean won, completing the circuit in 15.1 seconds.

Leo 'The Gazelle' Gravelle was called "one of the fastest, if not the fastest, skater in National Hockey League history" by historian Stan Fischler. Gravelle was never able to combine his blinding speed with a finishing touch, and his five-season NHL career, playing with Montreal and Detroit, concluded in 1951.

Bobby Hull's slap shot combined with his blinding speed made him one of the top players of the 1960s
Bobby Hull's approximate 100 mile per hour slap shot combined with his blinding speed made him one of the top players of the 1960's. (HHOF Images)
The Sports College of Canada and Fitness Institute described Bobby Hull as "the perfect muscular mesomorph." His biceps measured 15 inches, larger than those of either Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson, both heavyweight boxing champions. Hull's skating speed was timed at 29.2 mph, the fastest in the National Hockey League. 'The Golden Jet,' long remembered for his exciting end-to-end rushes, seemed to cruise faster than his opponents skated. Bobby developed his strong skating early. "The Christmas just before I turned four, my parents bought me a pair of little black skates," recalled Hull, with a smile. "The Bay of Quinte was frozen and my two sisters took me out there and held my hands and taught me to skate. Now I don't know if this is true, although it sounds good, but rumour has it by the end of the day, they couldn't keep up with me."

Tagged with 'The Flying Frenchman' moniker, the Montreal Canadiens seemed to be home to many of the game's fastest skaters during the Original Six era. Henri Richard was as slippery as he was fast, and Ralph Backstrom certainly could fly, too. But it is Yvan Cournoyer whose blazing speed was acknowledged as the fastest of the 'Flying Frenchmen,' and earned him a nickname — the Roadrunner. "That was Sports Illustrated," laughed Yvan. "I was in New York on a Sunday afternoon. I scored a few goals and had a couple of breakaways and after the game, the reporter said, 'Yvan, that was unbelievable! Nobody could catch you. You were so fast.' He wrote, 'The Roadrunner scored two goals and nobody could touch him.' After that, the name stayed and I had to skate fast for the rest of my life."

Bobby Orr revolutionized the sport with his scoring ability and playmaking from the blue line
Bobby Orr revolutionized the sport with his scoring ability and playmaking from the blue line. (HHOF Images)
Jacques Lemaire was an exceptionally fast skater, but he salutes Bobby Orr as the fastest skater of the era. "There weren't too many guys I couldn't catch when I wanted to. That guy (Orr) was a guy I couldn't catch." Larry Robinson recalled a particular game played against the Bruins in which the speedy Cournoyer intercepted a pass and was off on a breakaway with a 15-foot lead on Orr. Bobby caught Cournoyer and stripped him of the puck. "That's when I realized just how great a skater Orr was," Robinson said. Orr was deceiving, as he had several gears to his game, but when he flat-out needed to skate, he could peel away from opponents with effortless strides that seemed to be made with relative ease, yet could recover to the defensive zone should it be required. The innovative Orr revolutionized the sport through the use of many extraordinary facets to his game, including his skating.

CONTEMPORARY BLAZING BLADES
Mike Gartner won the fastest skater event at the NHL All-Star Game skills competition on two occasions. In 1993, he set a record by flying around the rink in 13.510 seconds. Two years later, he broke his own record by achieving a 13.386-second mark. "I was always was a good skater. It came naturally to me," stated Gartner. "My Dad used to send me to power skating school in the summer. I didn't really like it too much because we didn't handle the pucks very often, but I developed really good technique in skating. I think there certainly was a natural, God-given ability and I also worked very hard at it and when you put both of those things together, you end up with a pretty good asset as a hockey player."

A gifted stickhandler, Fedorov often takes on two or three opponents at a time
A gifted stickhandler, Fedorov often takes on two or three opponents at a time. (HHOF Images)
Sergei Fedorov was also winner of the fastest skater event, sandwiching Gartner by winning in 1992 and 1994. "I still can picture him charging down the ice during the competition, his blonde hair waiving back and forth with each stride a la Guy Lafleur," recalls a fan. In 2003, The Hockey News selected Fedorov as the best skater in the NHL. "It's a bonus to my game," he told the noted publication. "I am proud that people recognize my skating. It's a big honour, but at the same time, I like to be known for being a good hockey player."

Paul Coffey's skating was so smooth that most observers didn't appreciate his speed. He contended that the secret to his blinding speed was wearing skates three sizes too small. "I'd like to say that I worked so much harder than any other kid and that's why I became as great skater but a lot of it is God-given talent and I worked hard at that gift," he admitted. "I did the hockey school and the power skating stuff and I was always trying to become a better skater." Scotty Bowman added, "The biggest thing about Coffey was his tremendous speed. If he couldn't skate like he did, he would not have been able to move up and play like he did. He was like a fourth forward on most attacks."

A human highlight reel, Pavel Bure was a magnificent skater. "Even the guys on the bench stood up," recalled teammate Cliff Ronning. "I've never seen a guy skate that fast; that confident. I don't know if you'll ever see that again, how fast he skated." When the spotlight was on, so was 'The Russian Rocket,' who won the Fastest Skater competition at the NHL All-Star Game in 1998.

Paul Coffey embodied everything an offensive defenseman could be throughout his remarkable career
The smooth-skating Paul Coffey embodied everything an offensive defenseman could be throughout his remarkable career. (HHOF Images)
Kevin Allen, writing in USA Today, loved the speed of the Dallas Stars' Mike Modano: "Every time he was on the ice, he was a breakaway about to happen." Watching Modano skate is a thing of beauty. "I'm lucky that I was given the gift of a pretty nice skating stride that allows me to do a lot of things at top speed," Modano confesses. Glen Sather contributed his thought: "Mike Modano is the fastest player in the NHL. The way he handles the puck at full speed is something beautiful."

In his prime, Paul Kariya of the St. Louis Blues was one of the NHL's most explosive skaters, and as Sports Illustrated stated, "can go from standing still to full speed in a stride or two." Combining blistering speed with outstanding hand-eye co-ordination, Kariya has flown up and down the ice-lanes since debuting with Anaheim in 1993. In fact, when the Mighty Ducks paired Kariya with Teemu Selanne, it may very well be the fastest duo in NHL history.

Power skating helped make many players stronger and faster skaters, and Bret Hedican, who took the lessons from his father, certainly responded in kind. "A lot of times you have to thank your genes. I have two athletic parents, and maybe that had something to do with my speed," laughed Bret. (Imagine his kids, the children of superior skaters Bret Hedican his champion figure skating-wife Kristi Yamaguchi). "Growing up, I always worked on my stride. I remember working on my edges all the time and doing power skating drills."

Mike Modano was one of the most exciting NHL stars of the 1990s
An imposing blend of size, speed and grace, Mike Modano was one of the most exciting NHL stars of the 1990's. (Getty Images)
Although blinding speed attracts attention, it isn't the only component needed in the NHL game. Konstantin Koltsov possessed stunning speed, but wasn't able to adapt to the NHL game, and after parts of three seasons wth the Pittsburgh Penguins, returned to the Russian League in 2006. Jason Chimera and his incredible speed attempted to crack the Edmonton Oilers line-up for several seasons, but as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, is now finding the other elements of his game. Rico Fata, who was able to burn defencemen with his dazzlingly speed, struggles with the other parts of his game, and after eight NHL seasons, took his game to Europe.

Sami Kapanen twice won the fastest skater contest at the NHL All-Star Game. The 'Flying Finn' starred with the Hartford/Carolina franchise before joining the Philadelphia Flyers. Sami retired in June 2008, but no one would deny that Kapanen, whose father played hockey and mother was a figure skater, had innate speed and will be long remembered as one of the fastest skaters in recent memory.

Scott Niedermayer is blessed with outstanding speed and offensive instincts
A strong puck carrying defenceman and one of the league's best skaters, Scott Niedermayer is blessed with outstanding speed and offensive instincts. (HHOF Images)
Scott Niedermayer twice won the Fastest Skater competition at the NHL All-Star Game, and thanks his mother Carol, a former power-skating instructor, for helping his development. The Sporting News wrote, "Niedermayer's speed and puckhandling can put fast forwards on their heels, unable to take offensive risks for fear he'll capitalize on any mistake and quickly take the play the other way."

ESPN.com conducted a poll on the NHL's fastest skaters, asking insiders to contribute their opinions. Marian Gaborik was the number one choice, garnering 26% of the votes. Sports Illustrated referred to Gaborik as "a Maserati on the Autobahn." Gaborik won the Fastest Skater competition at the 2003 NHL All-Star Game. Several fans who watched the Minnesota Wild over the past several years believe that, before his retirement, Wes Walz was even faster than his Wild teammate.

Marian Gaborik is one of the most skilled offensive threats in the NHL
The speedy Marian Gaborik is one of the most skilled offensive threats in the NHL. (Getty Images)
Maxim Afinogenov bristles with energy, and Sports Illustrated commented that Maxim was "blessed with a shifty knack for making defenders look silly." The Hockey News added, "It used to be hard to see Maxim Afinogenov; his blinding speed often made it appear he was powered by rocket fuel, while opposing defencemen were running on fumes."

Gifted with blazing speed, Simon Gagne uses his skating to overpower defencemen. Philadelphia's 40-goal scorer was selected to compete with Team Canada at the Olympic Winter Games in 2002 and 2006.

Chicago's All-Star defenceman Duncan Keith is mercury-quick skater. Able to gamble with his speed, Keith can venture into opposing offensive zones, but his quickness allows him to fly back into his own zone to catch opposing forwards.

FUTURE SPEED DEMONS
The 2008 NHL Entry Draft exposed several players with who combine blistering speed with immense hockey talent. Nikita Filatov came to light in North America when he led Team Russia to a bronze medal in the 2008 World Junior Championship.

Dane Mikkel Boedker is a speedy winger with great offensive intuition
A native of Denmark, Mikkel Boedker is a speedy winger with great offensive intuition. (HHOF Images)
Filatov was ranked as the top European prospect by Central Scouting, and was subsequently selected sixth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2008 draft.

"He's got speed to burn," said an OHL coach about Mikkel Boedker, who had left his home in Denmark to play with the Kitchener Rangers. "He's real fast, real skilled and he competes. I think his biggest strength is his speed and his shot." McKeen's Hockey Draft Guide claims Boedker "skates like a machine." The Phoenix Coyotes, selecting eighth in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft wasted no time in claiming the lightning-quick Dane.

CONCLUSION
By trying to be as objective as possible, selecting the fastest skaters in hockey opens discussion with those who'll propose that there are plenty of players who skate faster than those presented. And on any given night, they'll be correct. "How can you have missed Ovechkin? Or Draper? Zetterberg, Staal and Malkin?" But it's opinions like these that make hockey so interesting. Suffice it to say that each of the players mentioned had blazing speed, and exhibited it well on their blades of steel.

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This article was written with opinions gathered from a group of hockey historians with the Society for International Hockey Research. Visit their website at www.sihrhockey.org.

Kevin Shea, a SIHR member, is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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