September 28, 2014

Pucks On The 'Net: On Injuries And Lost Love

The NHL exhibition season is in full swing, helping NHL veterans round into mid-season form.

Unfortunately, NHL medical staffs are already there.

Take a look at the list of injuries already piling up. Jordan Staal and Derek Stepan both have broken legs. Pavel Datsyuk will miss weeks with a shoulder separation. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Milan Lucic, Jonathan Quick, Tyler Bozak and Ryan Murray are among the long list of guys who have had to miss some or all of training camp/exhibition schedule because of some ailment or another.

That all adds up to millions of dollars of hockey talent being paid but not playing already. And the NHL wars haven't even begun yet.

In his popular 30 Thoughts column, CBC's (or is it Sportsnet's?) Elliotte Friedman says there is growing concern about summer training regimens among NHL players. More specifically, there is concern about the inability of NHL teams to monitor their talent's training and their lack of proper rest.

Friedman quotes Toronto's strength and conditioning coach Anthony Belza's main concerns. 

“Anything to do with quantity over quality. Are our guys getting enough post-season rest? How much are they working out? How much are they lifting? And, are they doing things that don’t help you with hockey?"

Friedman suggests guys like Belza, Biosteel trainer Matt Nicholl and Vancouver Canucks president Trevor Linden are leading what may become a industry-wide rethink on off-season training. Too many players, especially rookies, are training more specifically for training camp tests rather than for on-ice longevity and improvement.

“That’s a problem, especially with younger players or guys going to new teams,” said Nicholl. “If they don’t perform well, they’ll be called unfit or undisciplined in the media, may not get a spot or be looked-down upon. But many of these tests are out of phase with the actual act of the sport, making players ill-prepared for actual on-ice demands.”

Summer training and, for all intents and purposes, off-ice training really became part of the hockey players job after 1972 when the Russians challenged Canada at the Summit Series. The Russians proved to be every bit as good as the NHL professionals. A big part of their success was the intensive off-ice training they endured.

To become such good hockey players the Russians adopted the training principles of a dismissed Canadian doctor/author named Lloyd Percival. I say dismissed because he was years ahead of his time and the hockey establishment dismissed his book The Hockey Handbook.

But the Russians read it word for word and adopted and then perfected all of the principles. They subjected their athletes to all sorts of training to improve their endurance, their flexibility, their foot speed, their reflexes and their coordination.

So the next time a top draft pick thinks he needs to focus strictly on bulking up and getting bigger, maybe he should read Percival's Hockey Handbook first. And so should his trainer. Prospects and other such borderline players should work on core and balance as well as improving on the ice as much as bulking up in the weight room. And NHL organizations need to re-evaluate. The Canucks may already be heading down that path, with focus starting to look at injury prevention.

I can tell you from first hand experience that proper rest is such a key component. Through a number of seasons of competitive running I have now read countless of articles and medical documents that praise rest as nearly as important as the workout routine itself. Rest is when the body rebuilds itself and allows for all the hard work of training to be maximized. Not to mention the mental benefits of stepping away.

I can tell you as an amateur runner the rest component is the toughest part to adhere to. Right now I'm "tapering" for an upcoming marathon and I'm itching to go out running for an hour or two. But I know the most important thing I can do right now is not run more than a few short outings and get as much rest as I can.

If little ol' me, about as an average of an amateur athlete as there is, has trouble following through on this, I can imagine it's not hard for young hockey players with millions of dollars on the line also having trouble. But in the running world the amount of rest is such a big factor in separating the elite athletes. I suspect the same can be said throughout the athletic world.

The question the hockey world is now asking itself is do players get enough rest, both in the summer and during the grind of the season, to allow for optimal performance night in and night out. With all the studies on the value of rest perhaps we will see more changes in the future. Perhaps more players, even the stars who play the most minutes, will sit out the occasional game, like they do in baseball.

All of this adds up to one thing - love of the game. Or perhaps I should say subtracts, not adds.

In a recent interview with the Raleigh News Observer Carolina Hurricanes forward Chad Larose, a former key player who is attempting a comeback after a year off, talked about losing the love of the game.

“I had just built up a lot of anger towards the game,” LaRose said. “I wanted to get away. I didn’t know I would ever play again, to be honest. I kind of fell out of love with the sport and didn’t have much passion for it anymore. But sometimes you have to lose what you have to realize what you had.”

I think most veteran players like Larose would tell you it's not so much the love of the game that they lose, but rather the tolerance level of what it takes to continue surviving the game. All that off-ice training being first and foremost here. Everyone loves the game. Sooner or later you hate all the sacrifices and even the lifestyle.

Bottom line - off-ice training is very important to on-ice success. But I will never believe that it separates players of similar ability.

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