Hockey on horseback: Inside Shane Doan’s upcoming polo debut and training regimen

Former longtime Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan (right) prepares for his upcoming debut at the 11th Annual Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships. (Photo by Marlee Zanna Thompson/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – For 21 grueling hockey seasons, Shane Doan put his body through the rigor. Every game he was checking against the boards, flying through the air, colliding on the ice. Doan, the Arizona Coyotes’ all-time franchise leading scorer, represented his team with class and grit while playing one of the world’s toughest sports.

Now, five years after hanging up his skates in retirement, Doan enters into a new sporting realm: polo. From a chilly ice rink to the humid and dry outdoor grass pitch, Doan says he is ready for the challenge ahead of his debut for the Arizona Polo Club at the 11th Annual Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships Saturday at the WestWorld of Scottsdale.

Even with the physicality in hockey, Doan has seen firsthand the impact that cowboys encounter in the rodeo, including being thrown off a bull.

“That was my joke, I wasn’t tough enough to be a cowboy so I had to be a hockey player, and I enjoyed it a lot,” he said.

Rodeo runs in the Doan family blood. In Canada, the Doan name is known more for cowboys instead of hockey players.

Doan, born in Alberta, Canada, grew up in a horse-friendly environment. Before his interest in hockey, Doan’s main passion was riding horses with his friends and family. He even had his own pony named ‘Beauty.’

Doan has a picture of his uncles and grandfather participating in the Calgary Stampede back in the day. They were competitive cowboys who Doan describes as “real men.”

There was a time when Doan considered following in his family’s rodeo footsteps, but the fit never seemed right.

“I got too big and heavy. By the time I was 12, I was almost the same weight as the calves,” he said, referring to colts and fillies. “So that didn’t work out. So then I had to ride steers, and they buck too hard. So I wasn’t going to do that. I rode a couple of bareback horses, but I’m not built to be like one of those guys who ride the bucking stock.”

A bucking stock is a bull used in rodeo bull-riding competitions that weighs more than 1,500 pounds.

“I’m probably more along the lines of a bulldog or team roper,” he said with a laugh.

For comparison, a bulldog or team roper is far less physically demanding than what is used at the Calgary Stampede.

So far, Doan does not look like a polo rookie. Since beginning training in September, he has received rave reviews from his trainers and teammates in advance of his debut next month.

As part of his preparation, Doan trained and practiced for the event weekly to get adjusted to the new sport.

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He has a strong team of experienced polo players from the Arizona Polo Club including Andres Camacho, Diego Florez, Natalie Camacho and Martin Rincon. Under their guidance, Doan’s transition from hockey to polo appears seamless.

“It’s been really easy because he is a natural athlete,” said Florez, an Arizona Polo Club member who has been playing since 2008. “Obviously he comes from a sport that needs a lot of hand-eye coordination. Besides, he’s done a lot of riding in the past so it’s a perfect match.”

“It’s very similar to hockey with a lot of anticipation and the idea of following each other,” Doan said. “Where in hockey, we’re harped on to stop on the puck, and in polo you’re not allowed to as you have to keep moving. Like, if I stop, the opponent would be able to claim that I’m blocking them. So I have to keep moving, which is a different mindset. So those are the things that I’m learning.”

The motion of shooting a hockey puck with a stick is similar to shooting a polo ball with a mallet. Doan obviously has the basics down, but it’s all about learning the mechanics of shooting from a horse rather than on his skates.

“He’s fiercely competitive,” Natalie Camacho said of Doan. “You can see he has a pretty good shot already. That doesn’t normally happen on the first lesson.”

Camacho, who has been with the Arizona Polo Club for over 15 years, said patience, respect for the horse, and commitment are key traits that make a successful polo player.

As an athlete and as a person, Doan fits all of these traits. As a past captain of an NHL team, Doan embodied respect and commitment to his teammates.

Doan has already established a connection and respect for horses through his upbringing and childhood. When he is riding a horse, he gets a feeling unlike any other.

“It’s truly one of the most relaxing things,” Doan said. “There’s something with being connected to an animal like that, where you don’t really worry about too much else. And even if you are, different things will pull you back into the moment of being aware of your own 1000-pound animal riding around.”

Doan was first introduced to the Scottsdale Polo Championships last year when he participated in the “First Drop” to start the match. More than 13,000 fans turned out for the one-day event.

Seeing the event firsthand ignited Doan’s interest in possibly getting involved with the sport.

Doan is no stranger to being in the spotlight after playing two decades with the NHL, in front of crowds of up to 20,000 people each night.

He admitted he might have some nerves and some “awkwardness” when the event starts but will remember the feeling he had during his NHL debut in 1995 to help keep his mind clear.

“There’s a moment where you feel kind of isolated by yourself on the ice in various small circumstances,” he said. “But as soon as the game starts, you don’t notice anything and you don’t notice people around, and you’re just realistically being a kid and playing the game. I think there’s an element of that I’m looking forward to once it starts to be like, ‘Alright, I don’t really care.’ But there’s an element of walking and riding onto the pitch and feeling that excitement.”

Doan said he would not be in this position without the help and guidance from his trainers.

He already sees the progress he’s made and credits his training staff for their patience in working with him.

“They’ve been so welcoming and encouraging and they have the horses so it’s been great,” he said. “I’ve been so fortunate, by no means there’s no chance I do any of this without them, literally holding my hand through the whole process. I’m so grateful and thankful for that.”

Don’t expect Doan to include any trademark NHL goal celebrations after a goal during the polo match.

“I watch my kids now and they drag their hand on the ice [in celebration],” he said with a smile. “I am not going to be doing that out there, just keeping it simple.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Danny Karmin expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He has interned with The Abercrombie Agency and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Marlee Zanna Thompson mar-lee zann-uh
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Marlee Zanna Thompson expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Thompson has interned in public relations with the Arizona Coyotes and earned a Pulliam Fellowship in sports news with The Arizona Republic.