TORONTO — It is the end of summer and about a dozen National Hockey League players have just finished an hour-long skate. They are now spending the rest of a Friday morning in August tucked inside a windowless workout room at the back of St. Michael’s College Arena, sweating, shouting and slamming weights.
Two giant fans are set to the highest setting and a door leading outside is propped open, but the room, which is about the size of a master bedroom, is hot and sticky. With a mix of hip-hop and dance music echoing off the walls, it sounds like a nightclub. Players are even sipping on pink cocktails — full of protein and vitamins, of course.
“Character is what you do when you think nobody is watching,” is written in big, block letters on one of the walls. It is a slogan the players are putting into practice.
In one corner of the room, Montreal Canadiens forward Devante Smith-Pelly is doing jump squats. A few steps to the left and Washington Capitals winger Michael Latta is tacking on as much weight as he can handle for rep after slow rep of deep squats. Beside him, Anaheim Ducks forward Chris Stewart is standing on his tippy toes, while balancing a barbell on his shoulders.
Everyone else is either shouting encouragement or catching their breath, waiting for their turn.
“C’mon boys!” shouts BioSteel strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol, a former football player and power lifter who could easily out-lift everyone in this room. “Don’t think! Work! Work as hard as you can!”
This is what most hockey fans picture when they imagine off-season training: players pumping iron, pushing themselves to exhaustion. Thanks to Gatorade and Under Armour, hockey players are portrayed in commercials as part-time strongmen; when they are not playing one of the most physically demanding sports, they spend their off-seasons flipping tires, swinging thick ropes and running with a parachute attached to their backs.
Actually, for most of the summer, you’re more likely to see a hockey player in the downward dog pose than pushing a weighted sled across a football field.
“I bring this upon myself, because we show pictures of guys at BioSteel Camp and they’re mashing ropes and throwing stuff,” says Nichol, a one-time Toronto Maple Leafs strength and conditioning coach who now trains a stable of players including Mike Cammalleri, Wayne Simmonds and Tyler Seguin. “And kids are like, ‘That’s how I should train for hockey.’ But that’s one snippet of what we do at the very end of the summer. That’s totally not representative of how we train most of the time.
“If you looked at what we do here, 50% is rehab.”
If you had visited the gym a month ago, you would have seen players performing yoga or Pilates or simply getting a massage. You would have left believing hockey players are not that impressive and the commercials are lying to us. In reality, the biggest component of off-season training is rest. And plenty of it.
The NHL schedule consists of 82 gruelling games, not including the pre-season and playoffs. The sport is intensely physical and takes it toll on the body. By the end of the season, players hobble off the ice with an assortment of nagging injuries — some which may need surgery — and are physically drained. When Phil Kessel told reporters a year ago that he did not skate much in the summer, it was not a sign of lethargy.
After getting crosschecked in the back hundreds of times for the better part of eight months, some players cannot even lift themselves out of a chair. Forget lifting weights.
“I would say skinny-fat is a good description,” Toronto Maple Leafs forward Shawn Matthias says when asked what his body looked like after the season. “You look around the room at training camp and everyone’s big and strong and they’ve got abs. But by the end of the year, you’re so worn out. You definitely don’t have the muscle you once had.
“No matter what you do, you’re just so tired and you’re just trying to maintain.”
Beat-up bodies need recovery time. So players are told to stay out of the gym for the first few weeks and get back to a normal sleep schedule. Eight months of staying up late to play games, travelling late at night after games, while eating post-game meals of chicken wings and pizza, not to mention the mental stress of competing at the highest level, takes its toll. The summer is about building the body back up, piece by piece.
“The first half of the summer, we’re just trying to get these guys into alignment,” Nichol says. “For some, training camp hits and they just ditch their strength training and just hold on. A lot of the guys will show up at the end of the season like they haven’t had a solid meal.”
The off-season is split into four parts. The first month involves transition and recovery. Depending on specific diets catered towards the age of the player and how long his season was. Gary Roberts, who trains Steven Stamkos, Mark Scheifele and James Neal, ships in his favourite spring food from Italy and has Nature’s Emporium prepare organic meals for his clients.
“I’m an extremist when it comes this nutrition part and the holistic part and the whole foods part,” Roberts says. “I’m not a big supplement guy. I don’t push four shakes a day, like guys say I did.”
Players usually don’t lift weights for the first month. But they might do gymnastics-based training, like rolling and tumbling. They might head to a nearby playground to climb on the monkey bars.
“If you see all these guys in January or February, they’re all walking like ducks, because their IT band (the muscle on the outside of the leg that runs from the hip to the shin) is fused. You need to recover from that,” said Beyond The Next Level’s Dan Ninkovich, who trains John Tavares and Sam Gagner. “People used to train for exercise. Now they train for the movement. A healthy player is the best player. Not the player who can squat 500 pounds.”
As the summer progresses, players go from recovery training to building strength; then turning that strength into power and speed. By the end of August, it is about conditioning.
The few weeks before training camp is sort of like the remaining hours before a final exam. Players are cramming for what lies ahead. They want to do well on their team fitness test. But they also want to be sharp for the first day of practices and drills.
Nichol’s camp brought in Steve Spott, an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks, to run an informal practice that included a bag skate. Ninkovich had skills coach Joe Quinn, who invented a stickhandling device called Power Edge Pro, to help the players work on their hand-eye co-ordination. Whatever it takes to get ready.
“Everybody’s body is different,” Cammalleri said. “You get to a point where I’m as strong as I need to be. This phase of the summer is where conditioning kicks in and working to fine tune my skills.”