Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Going stride for stride with the NHL’s young guns - How a stronger emphasis on training is keeping veteran NHLers in the NHL

John Q. Dangler, a retired NHL vet in his late thirties, is sitting on his Muskoka-area cottage’s dock with a beer in hand and the sun drifting lazily across the sky. He matches the sun’s lethargic approach to the day and slowly lowers his feet into the tepid water.

You’d assume that what’s going through his mind is deciding on the best way to kick back and relax for the day; what to barbeque for lunch or how to avoid the bunker on the second hole of the back nine at the local golf course – but really he’s wondering how a game he once dominated has passed him by, forcing him to retire earlier than he intended.

Meanwhile, veteran players like Rod Brind’Amour, Gary Roberts, Chris Chelios, and Doug Weight have started their day bright and early, and are well into their training routines. This brigade of veteran players who have not only taken training seriously throughout their whole career, but have actually intensified their training programs in the later stage of their career, train throughout the summer to keep themselves competitive with the influx of young talent that has characterized the NHL in recent years.

NHL veterans once believed it was best to rest your body during the offseason, relaxing all summer, training very minimally. “Training camp is the place to get in shape,” echoed many-a-pro. “Golf, beers, and barbeques are what the summer is meant for, my body needs to heal.” This mindset has gone the way of the dinosaur, and the players who had practiced this way of life have since become extinct in today’s NHL.

“It’s definitely a year-round job, I think the guys that approach it that way are the ones that last the longest,” said veteran NHL captain and Stanley Cup winner Rod Brind’Amour in an interview with NHL.com.

And not only are players training year-round, but the way in which players are approaching training has changed as well. There’s been a major shift away from just focusing on weight-lifting and aerobic exercises, towards a focus on improving the core strength of players.

John Paul Laciak, trainer for the AAA - Toronto Marlboros describes the shift as: “An emphasis on trying to get players off the weight machines [and] into positions where you draw upon the strength of the entire body, rather than isolating a single muscle.”

Core strength exercises are especially important for veteran players. Once players reach a certain age – and obviously this age varies depending on the individual – they can’t expect their bodies to perform with the same raw speed and agility they were used to having in their younger days. Veterans have to compensate by keeping the core of the body strong and keeping their reaction time quick. Strong calves and quads are essential because you need the core of your body to be working in a strong and coordinated fashion.

After suffering an MCL injury during a recent game, Doug Weight of the New York Islanders spoke to a team trainer about playing “a young man’s game.” He reflected on his earlier days in the NHL:

I remember that feeling every game, I still have the same drive and expectations, but I remember being young…where you felt you had the puck on a string and you would have a huge impact every shift and every game. You can still have an impact when you’re older, but you’re not going to be that dynamic player every night.

Players entering the NHL today are faster, stronger, more creative and dynamic; it seems like almost every NHL prospect coming in has the right combination of speed, good hands and a strong shot. Obviously teams looks to veteran players for experience and leadership, but if you can’t continue to play the game at a high level, you’re either going to be riding the bus down in the AHL or out of the game entirely.

As far as training goes, it’s a constant learning process for veterans. The mentality that players can rely upon a stagnant routine of exercises that they’ve been doing since they were young has definitely been left behind - “I’ve done it this way for fifteen years and it’s worked, why should I change now?” The truth is players probably could get by on what they’ve been doing for the greater length of their career – the traditional, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach – but like technology, training techniques are constantly evolving to meet the needs of today’s athletes.

Doug Weight, 38, believes that one of the reasons he’s been able to keep his body in top form is because trainers in the league have influenced his training program, “The trainers in the game are the most influential – they are always learning new techniques through seminars, they study and test these techniques and introduce them into the dressing room.”

Physically, vets are training to keep their bodies strong, but sometimes it’s all about training your mind to meet the physical strain of playing such a high-impact sport for so long. Doug Weight describes this challenge as, “ … relearning what you did when you were young,” he goes on to say, “Let’s face it, we’re playing a young man’s sport. You have to adopt that no fear, confident swagger you had when you were young. Young guys have less worry about the game, injuries and other stuff like that.”

No fountain of youth exists to magically transport players back to a time where they were at their physical peak and dominating games on sheer athleticism. With a lot of hard-work and dedication to training all-year round, veteran players can still be in top physical shape and as effective as they were when they were younger.

“Sometimes you get an opportunity in the first 10 seconds of your shift, but it could come at the end of your shift. If you’re tired, you might miss your chance.” said Jarome Iginla, a top-flight veteran and captain of the Calgary Flames during an interview with Sports Illustrated.

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