They’re never going to be given nicknames like ‘flash’, ‘speedy’ or ‘lightning’ but at the same time, Zack Stortini and Rob Schremp have come a long way from their days of losing races to turtles and molasses.
When the Edmonton Oilers drafted Stortini 94th overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, they knew exactly what they were getting. At the time, the behemoth 17-year-old was already renowned for his world-class pugilistic abilities as well as his leadership skills, but all that came at a cost: speed.
It’s a similar story with first rounder Rob Schremp in that the center from Fulton, NY also had a unique, elite level skill set and yet also struggled when it came to his skating.
Player agent Scott Norton represents both players and took it upon himself to ensure that his clients would have the opportunity to succeed in their hockey dreams. The solution meant uprooting them in the summer of 2003 and sending them to the small Canadian prairie city of Regina, Saskatchewan.
A person hearing the story for the first time could find that they could take the major players of the tale and insert them into the screenplay of The Empire Strikes Back with surprising accuracy. Stortini and Schremp must travel far to what is a strange world to them where they would train under the guidance of a top specialist in the art of the skating technique. Playing the role of the power skating instructor or master, if you will, was Liane Davis.
While certainly many years younger than Yoda and living in a slightly nicer locale than a swamp-planet, Davis has been the trainer of many young players on their journey to the NHL. Davis isn’t one to advertise her availability but those in the know recognize her as one of the best in the business and she never lacks for students. She does have some basic guidelines though because she won’t accept just any player off the street.
“Players have to be 16 and it’s never ‘I saw your name in the Hockey News or picked up your brochure in the rink’, it doesn’t work like that,” Davis explained to Hockey’s Future earlier this month. “Every kid that comes in is sent here by somebody; it could be a friend, a linemate, their agent, a coach or their team. It might not be the best way to make a million dollars, but it also guarantees that every player that comes in is here for the right reasons.”
“Anybody is welcome, but I want to know how they got here and who sent them,” she added. “Most guys come in through their teams or agents; I can’t think of an NHL team that hasn’t had someone come through here.”
Davis says that one of the toughest obstacles in the way of getting players to her is actually the city she lives in. In the off-season when many players are headed to vacation hot spots, Regina usually isn’t near the top of that list.
“Regina isn’t always an easy sell; to get players to commit to coming here for three or four weeks is not necessarily where they want to be,” she laughed.
Schremp, Edmonton’s 25th overall pick from 2004, recalls that initially Regina was not as exciting a summer destination as most 16-year-olds hope for.
“The first year sucked because we didn’t know anybody, it’s not a big place at all and we were like ‘oh man, what did we get ourselves into?’” laughed Schremp. “But over the last two years we’ve had a really good time and we’ve improved our skating. It’s really been the best thing for me.”
For Schremp and Stortini their relationship with Davis began in 2002 when their agent flew the skating guru to Syracuse in order to meet with them and Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown, another Norton client. It was July 2nd, Schremp had just finished celebrating his 16th birthday and the initial meeting with Davis couldn’t be described as ‘smooth sailing’.
To understand the circumstances better you have to remember that back in those days Schremp had the reputation for being a bit of a hot shot who was still full of himself as a future hockey super star. Like most boys his age, Schremp was of the attitude that his talents would far outweigh his faults and certainly wasn’t interested in hearing from some strange woman that he needed her help.
“I was young and cocky, everyone can be at times and I was, especially when I was younger,” Schremp said as he recounted that initial meeting.
What Schremp perhaps didn’t know at the time was that he wasn’t dealing with some pushover girl from the local hockey school. Liane Davis is the daughter of one of the most respected scouts in the NHL and her brother has also been in the hockey business as both an official and now a scout as well. Anyone who knows Lorne or Brad Davis can quickly pick up on the fact that Liane is cut from the same cloth.
“I was pretty arrogant that first day when I came out onto the ice but she’s such a tough lady that she’ll put you in your place right away,” Schremp continued. “She definitely put me in my place and let me know where I stood.”
“It was the day after his 16th birthday so he was a punk kid and not a good skater,” Davis’ version began. “Rob, on my first day on the ice, was not very pleasant.”
Davis, as per her own policy, would not elaborate on the details but while Schremp reiterated the scene to Hockey’s Future, a smile crept across his face as if to say ‘I can’t believe I was ever like that’.
“She was like ‘You’re a cocky little bugger!’” Schremp exclaimed. “She basically called me out on it right away and I was kind of taken aback from it, it was a rough day for me. It took all of about five minutes!”
“The first day we were like ‘Man, our agent’s got us out here…’ and I was like ‘Oh, here we go!’ but once she started speaking about and video taping our stride and pointing out what we were doing wrong all of us knew ‘man, she knows more about this stuff than we do obviously!’” he continued. “The next day all of us were on the same page and we realized she was for real, knew what she was talking about and we definitely worked harder than on the first day. We definitely ended up appreciating her work and her time with us.”
“I didn’t know who he was, didn’t know who any of them were because I’m a ‘Dub’ girl,” Davis proudly stated referring to the WHL, the league she grew up around.
Davis spent four days in Syracuse and then it was decided that Norton’s stable of players would venture to Regina the following summer for a full program. In an unconventional manner, it was decided that when Stortini and Schremp arrived in the Saskatchewan capital, they would bunk at the home of their instructor.
“(Schremp) was young, he had never been away from home, it was right after the OHL draft,” Davis said setting the scene, “We decided that because he had never been away from home, he was going to stay at my house; him and Zack have been doing that every summer since. The first year was in Syracuse and it’s been three years here since then.”
Talk about taking your work home with you, Davis has allowed Stortini and Schremp to stay at her house each summer, adding two more mouths to feed to her household which already includes two teenaged boys of her own. It might sound like the premise for a television sitcom or a reality show, but others might consider that scenario to be a powder keg waiting to explode. After all, reports of Schremp’s negative attitude were rampant back then, especially in his draft year, so one would assume that living with such a head case would create serious tension and problems in the house.
“Zack’s easy but when I met him I didn’t know Rob from a hole in the ground so I didn’t know anything about the supposed attitude issues,” Davis said. “He comes into my house like any other kid does and he’s fantastic. Robbie and I honestly have never had an issue after our first day together.”
Davis believes that the notoriety Schremp has been painted with has been incredibly unfair and inaccurate, but understands how it likely happened.
“He’s ‘no spin’; he says what he means and it doesn’t always come out the way he’s thinking it but there’s no bullshit about Rob. I keep telling him ‘please don’t be the Jeremy Roenick of the 2000’s’ but he’s very honest and maybe that comes across wrong. Is he confident on the ice? Absolutely, but then at home he’s cooking breakfast for everybody at my house,” Davis said with a chuckle. “He has too, I’ve got a house full of guys here and I’m working so they have to. I’ll come home and he’ll be cutting the lawn and Zack will be barbequing.”
Schremp and Stortini domesticated?
“I got some tips from her dad and my dad has been helping me out when it comes to cooking too,” smiled Stortini when asked by Hockey’s Future if he had some BBQ specialties. “It looks like I’m going to be living on my own this year so as much as I can get in so I’m not eating at restaurants all day would be good.”
“She takes me into her house and basically takes me in as part of her family,” Stortini said. “She’s just a great lady and she’s helped me out both on and off the ice.”
The week after Stortini was drafted, the Oilers held their first-ever top prospect camp in the city, which Stortini eagerly attended but was then panned for his sloth-like speed. Fortunately for him, his summer sessions in Regina immediately followed the week in Edmonton so he immediately got to work with Davis.
By the time Stortini returned to Edmonton that fall for the main Oiler camp, his skating ability had already improved by leaps and bounds for which he was openly crediting to Davis.
“This summer I spent a month in Regina working with Liane Davis working on my stride and power skating and it’s something that I’ve really improved upon,” the 6’4 225lb winger told HF at the time. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do in that area but I’ve just got to keep working hard to get to where I want to be.”
And continue to work hard he did as each summer he returned to Regina for another stint at Chez Davis. Stortini has impressed again this fall at the 2005 Oiler camp, his first as a pro, and this time Davis says the credit belongs to Zack.
“Everything that Zack does is very methodical and very planned out, he does his own lesson plan every day before we go on the ice so I know exactly what he wants to do, that’s Zack,” she described.
However, the similarities between Stortini and Schremp end right after the words ‘Oiler prospects’.
“With Robbie and Zack, you couldn’t find two more different styles of players and skaters,” Davis began. “The first week they’re here they do whatever I want and we do a technical breakdown of their forward stride and of their forward acceleration, then we have to branch out into all the transition skills likes turns and changes of direction. Once we get into the second week then they are allowed to format how much time they want to spend on their forward stride, how much on acceleration, how much on tight turns, etc.”
“Every night when we come home, usually after dinner, we decide what we’re doing tomorrow,” she continued. “Zack always has bigger and better plans for the next day and Robbie just pretty much did his forward stride and forward acceleration every day, almost to the point where I had to say ‘I’m bored Rob, can we do something else?’ and he’d say ‘No, this is what I need to do.’ And he was right.”
Like a doctor or a scientist, Davis analyses her students as if they were lab rats in order to figure out the problem and the best way to solve it. According to Davis, this year has been somewhat of a breakthrough for Schremp.
“I think this summer he finally figured out that it can’t be all me, he can’t just be out there running the drills that I tell him to run as many times as I tell him to run them,” she said. “He’s looked fantastic every year that he’s left me but he’s never been able to hold onto it and I think this winter he’s going to be able to because he realized that he needed to take charge of making his skating look good.”
“It doesn’t matter what it looks like in Regina, it matters in London or Edmonton or wherever it is that he’s going to be playing,” Davis continued. “I haven’t seen him since he left here but from what I hear he’s just been blowing people away with his skating. Like I said though, every year he leaves here he looks like that so I just hope this time he’s able to hold onto it.”
When Schremp left Regina this past July he went to Lake Placid and Team USA’s World Junior camp. There he received rave reviews for his new upright skating stride having drastically gone away from his distinct wide stance.
“The surprising thing about Robbie considering how wide and crazy as his skating is in a straight line, he can have it looking good in one day. It’s frustrating for everybody on the ice with him but he can have it looking good in one day,” Davis added. “I finally talked to a kinesiologist about it because I wanted Robbie to be convinced about what I was saying which is, as he begins to skate wider and wider he actually begins to change the musculature of his legs to accommodate that stride. So the more he skates like that, the more he skates like that.”
“My stride just wide tracks when I get tired and it does that as the season goes and my stride gets worse and worse,” he echoed. “This year I went at it with a different attitude really to figure out the details of how to get a better stride.”
“We took him totally out of any competitive nature this summer so he wasn’t allowed to play,” Davis explained. “Robbie’s such an instinctual player that if he skates with me in the morning and then scrimmages at night it’s like we’ve taken two steps forward every morning and a step and a half back each evening. So he didn’t play, as far as I know, until he went to World Junior camp. That was his decision; with Robbie it’s about him doing it with a conscious effort. He just turns himself over to me and lets me do it for him because he gets such immediate results.
“He works so hard on the ice but I don’t think he ever understood what he was doing, he just did it,” she added. “When I saw him this year in London he was apologizing to me for his skating not looking good and then I realized he doesn’t know how he’s changing it, he’s just changing it.”
“I think this year it’s going to change because it already feels differently from the last two years that I’ve gone there to now, I’m not really having to think about it, it’s just happening kind of natural.” said Schremp. “It’s stuck for the last two months so hopefully I have this stride for good.”
In the end all that matters is that both Schremp and Stortini have the skating ability they’ll need to play in the NHL. But if you ask Davis, she’ll tell you that these two players would have made the big time even without her help.
“I think Robbie had probably been told he wouldn’t play in the OHL skating the way he did and he proved everybody wrong there, and I’m sure he’s been told that he’s not going to play pro if he’s not going to improve his skating and I don’t believe that either,” she praised. “He is a gifted, gifted hockey player.”
“If Robbie had never spent even one day improving his skating I think he could still play because I’ve just never seen anybody as individually skilled as him,” she continued. “I say to Robbie all the time that he would never ever be as gifted with the puck if he had been a naturally gifted skater when he was growing up, it just wouldn’t have happened. Do you want to lose 20 goals and make him a better skater? No, he is what he is.”
The same goes for Stortini.
“Zack is a big powerful guy and I think anybody given the right role… I mean, for goodness sake Dave Andreychuk captained a Stanley Cup winning team!” she laughed. “Zack has better hands than people give him credit for too just because he’s so big he gets slotted into a certain role.”
Whether she’s right about it or not, the two prospects realize that the work she and they have done over the past few years has contributed greatly to the success both players have enjoyed through their OHL careers and they know she’s deserving of some of the accolades.
“Skating in the Edmonton organization is a big part of the game and Liane does a great job with me,” Stortini summed up.
“When it comes to offense, I can do that stuff but my skating is the crappiest part of my game so that’s what I need to work on and she’s definitely improved it,” agreed Schremp.
The next step is waiting for them, but Davis isn’t above taking some credit for getting them this far, by relying on a typical Davis zinger.
“Neither one of them were on the Oiler radar screen when I met them,” she said. “People think they’re here because they’re Oilers but I tell them that they’re Oilers because they’ve been here.”
She’s probably right.
Comment on this story at the Oilers section of the Hockey’s Future Message Boards.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.