Hockey player's switch to bobsled fuels new dream
Through minor hockey, junior and university, Mike Evelyn was a typical winger.
“Power forward. Big digger. Dump pucks in, retrieve pucks, scare guys into making mistakes; that was kind of the name of my game,” said the 27-year-old Ottawa native.
As a member of Canada's national bobsled team, he is anything but typical, as most male athletes cross over from running sports like track and field, football and rugby. Hockey players are the rare exception.
“It's something I had never thought of,” said Evelyn, who made the transition in 2018 after Bobsleigh Canada recruited him at an RBC Training Ground regional final. “Being a hockey player, running means doing some high knees, taking a couple of strides before you get on the ice. And what we call the running gait, what your stride looks like, tends to be pretty hideous coming from hockey.
“Skating is a lateral movement that just makes a mess of your gait. I have consulted with a few sprint coaches who could immediately tell that I'm a hockey player, just based on the way that I'm running, some of my stride recoveries, which are quite sloppy in the world of sprinting.”
Or rather, they were. He pushed for the Bobsleigh Canada development squad on a couple of North American tracks in 2019-20 and showed promise despite the stride issues. The pandemic wiped out the back end of the season and most summer training camps, so Bobsleigh Canada officials weren't sure what to expect from many of their athletes when they showed up for testing in the fall in Calgary. By improving his technique, Evelyn opened eyes and a spot for himself on Canada 2, the four-man sled piloted by veteran Chris Spring, a former sprinter. The other members of the team — Shaq Murray-lawrence, Chris Patrician and Mark Mlakar — all have football backgrounds.
“Mike had an unusual gait when he first came out last year and it's rare for that to get cleaned up,” said Morgan Alexander, Bobsleigh Canada's high performance manager. “Last year, he got thrown on the back of a four-man sled on short notice between runs at a race in Park City (Utah) and he immediately stepped up and maybe showed that he was a little bit of a gamer.
“We didn't see him from March to October and when he showed up in October, you could tell he had not only done the work, but done the work methodically and precisely where he was able to translate that power he had developed in hockey into a more linear running form. That really showed in testing. He really opened some eyes.”
Team Spring is in Altenberg, Germany, preparing for a couple of January races on the Europa Cup circuit, before joining the World Cup tour. Spring is coming back from a year off to rehab a variety of injuries, and needs to compete in a handful of races to maintain status for next year's World Cup tour. It's also a rare opportunity for Team Spring to take extra runs on the track that will host the 2021 world championships.
“They are all very mature, intelligent students of the sport,” Alexander said of Team Spring. “When you have that mix of guys with a high athletic ceiling, as well as leadership from a pilot like Chris Spring, who has won World Cup medals and has been to three Olympics, there is some pretty high potential to do some great things.”
Spring said he has every intention of challenging for a medal at Beijing 2022, and Evelyn is just now coming to terms with the fact that he could be an Olympian after all.
“When you're 16 and you're not getting drafted first overall, and you're playing junior A and not major junior, and you're playing for a Canadian university out in Halifax, not Boston U or something, you come to terms with, maybe not that you won't go to the NHL right away, but at least that you won't end up on Team Canada, the greatest hockey team in the world. I'd come to terms with the fact I wasn't going to be an Olympian,” said Evelyn, who finished up his hockey career in 2018 at Dalhousie University, where he also earned an engineering degree.
“When I made this transition to bobsleigh, that still wasn't really on my radar, not until I had a big showing at this year's testing and managed to make it on to Chris Spring's team. That's when it started to occur to me that there might be a shot.”