INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When Detroit Red Wing defenseman Paul Coffey was 12 years old, he wanted to be like the other kids in his neighborhood.
In the summer, his buddies would attend a popular hockey school and have the time of their lives - a little skating, a little shooting, a lot of extracurricular fun.
Not for Coffey. He had work to do.
He had to work on his skating. And it has paid off, considering he's one of the most beautiful skaters the National Hockey League has ever seen.
"The guys across the street would go to a school where they'd skate for an hour, then they'd go water skiing and do stuff like that," Coffey said. "It was summer fun stuff. But my dad told me that if I was going to a hockey school, I was going to learn something. I used to go to a power-skating school for two weeks. It was two hours a night of pushing a net around, diving onto the ice and getting up and skating. I did that for three years.
"It was like a boot camp. And at the end of it, you'd feel like you survived. It wasn't a place to have fun. They would put a stick across two chairs. You'd have to skate as fast as you could, then fall and slide under the stick and get right back up and skate.
"If you weren't working hard, they'd slap you across the (butt) with a stick to get you going. That was two hours a night, three or four days a week. And it was all without pucks. We didn't see pucks until maybe there were 15 minutes left. Then we'd get some as a treat."
But that work ethic has had a marked impression on Coffey, who, at 32, still appears to be in the prime of his career. The ethic was further honed when he was 19 years old and played for Canada in the Canada Cup tournament.
"Larry Robinson was on the team," Coffey said. "He was 30. I thought, `This guy is old, but look at what he can do.' I marveled at him.
"I remember we had lunch in Montreal and we had a good talk. He told me that if you take care of your body, your body will take care of you. I looked at that and thought, `That's the way I want to be.' I work out harder today at 32 than I did when I was 22. And I feel better, more in shape at 32 than I did at 22."
Though he logs more ice time than most defensemen, Coffey works out on the stationary bike after most games to keep his conditioning at a high level. It's all part of the mix that permits him to freewheel better than most 20-year-olds in the league.
Oddly, he still believes that there is room for improvement after 14 years in the NHL. Personally, Coffey considers it a cop-out when players say they are pleased with the level of their play.
"I'd like to get better, in every respect," he said. "I hear players say they're comfortable with where they're playing. That's brutal. You can always improve."
Can Coffey actually improve on his skating?
"Well, that I might have a problem with," he said, smiling. "I've always been a smooth skater. But at 32, I feel better. I think I'm faster now. But that's because I've continued to work at it. I think some of it is natural; it has to be. But I don't like when people say you're a natural. It sounds like you never worked at it."
"He's such an exciting player," teammate Dino Ciccarelli said. "I think for the last 20 games, he's been great. His game has really picked up. And when he does that, the rest of the team picks up. Everything starts from our own end. And when you have a guy like Coff bringing the puck up, it's coming fast."