Imagine four weeks of acupuncture, saunas and hot tubs. There are yoga, Pilates, meditation and tai chi sessions, too. And don’t forget the massage therapists, stretch therapists and chiropractors at your disposal. Oh yeah, and sleep, lots of sleep. It’s mandatory. Sounds like a blissful all-inclusive vacation, doesn’t it? Except there’s no mile-long white-sand beach or five-star hotel. No sun tanning, sipping margaritas or napping on lounge chairs. Just a gym and a long summer of training ahead.
When NHLers start training in the off-season, they don’t begin by pounding out squats, deadlifts and bench presses. Heck, they usually won’t lift anything for three or four weeks. After eight months or more of hockey, they’re so beat up that strength and conditioning coaches like Matt Nichol and Ben Prentiss spend up to a month just rebuilding their bodies. All those massages, yoga sessions and therapists are just part of the initial process of taking these broken-down jalopies and turning them into finely tuned machines again.
“A guy that plays an average number of minutes who doesn’t make the playoffs, he’s still going to show up at the start of the summer beaten, battered and bruised, probably malnourished and lacking sleep and all the rest of that,” said Nichol, who trains the likes of Tyler Seguin, Wayne Simmonds and Mike Cammalleri. “The focus of the first part of the summer is just getting healthy.” And those are just the guys whose seasons end early.
For players who make it to the playoffs, especially those who go on long runs, the post-season is like doing a hardcore workout after having run a marathon. The irony of the playoffs is the best hockey is played when the players are in their worst shape of the year. By the time their seasons are done, players have little, if anything, left to give. “I’ve been training guys now for 16 years, and I’ve yet to have a guy that’s come to me and said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go, 100 percent, no problems,’ – that doesn’t happen,” said Prentiss, whose clients include Jonathan Quick, Max Pacioretty and James van Riemsdyk. “They’re what I call ‘skinny fat,’ weak, toxic and injured – that’s pretty much what you’re getting. And the more minutes they play and the further they go in the playoffs, the worse they are.”
By “skinny fat,” Prentiss is referring to players losing muscle during the season but without dropping any bodyweight. With all the practices, games and travel, there’s no time to build muscle. Players are just trying to hold on to what they’ve built in the off-season, but they end up losing at least some muscle, which changes into fat.
Rebuilding a player’s body depends a lot on how much time trainers have with them. Prentiss can do a lot more with guys who have missed the playoffs than he can for clients who go on long spring runs.
There’s also age to consider. The older the player and the more years in the league, the more recovery he’ll need. Seguin played 274 games in his first three seasons, but his body could handle it because he was in his late teens/early 20s. “If that was anyone else,” Nichol said, “if that was a 32- or 33-year-old veteran player, that would just destroy you.” Nichol describes the early weeks of rebuilding a player as “more therapy than training,” and it begins with the basics: good nutrition and proper sleep.
Seems so simple, right? But getting players on a normal sleeping schedule can be tricky. Game times, travel, pre-game coffees and energy drinks, stress and low vitamin D levels (players don’t get a lot since they’re inside arenas all season long) all play havoc with players’ health, particularly their hormone levels. Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that should be highest in the morning and lowest before bedtime, while melatonin, which helps regulate sleep and the immune system, works the other way. Players’ levels of cortisol and melatonin are usually out of whack and sometimes completely reversed. In the off-season, they’ll get tested and possibly prescribed herbs and supplements to help get their levels back in line, but one of the simplest things they’ll do is change their sleeping habits. “These are players that have not been sleeping well,” Nichol said. “Getting eight hours from 2-10 isn’t the same as getting eight hours from 10-6. When it’s dark outside and the temperature goes down, if it wasn’t for artificial light, TV and computers that we have in our homes now, traditionally people would be winding down and your body would be getting ready for sleep. But if you’re an NHL player…these guys are getting fired up and wound up at 7:30 at night, which isn’t natural.”
Nutrition-wise, players start by detoxifying. Every player’s program is unique, and every strength and conditioning coach has a different philosophy, but Prentiss puts his clients on some variation of a high-fat diet that can include fish, chia seeds, walnuts, egg yolks, avocados, coconut oil and olive oil. He takes all the sugar out and has his guys rehydrate with lots of water.
The reconstruction process continues in the gym. Instead of weight training, players work on stretching, breathing and proper posture, using medicine balls, tubing bands and very light weights, if any at all. Nichol said some of his guys won’t even go near a dumbbell or barbell in the first few weeks of training.
The trick is to get players to tap into muscles they don’t usually use on the ice. Most are so one-side dominant, with one side of their body overcompensating for the other, that Prentiss has to even his guys out by putting them through what sounds like a grade school gym class. “That program might be rolling, tumbling, monkey bars, almost a gymnastics type of a workout,” Prentiss said. “Why? Well you’re getting back to nature, you’re getting more kinetic energy, you’re basically working all of these muscles…Your first time you do that, you might be a little dizzy, but all of that is working these muscles that, especially in hockey, never get worked.”
All of this, of course, is just the beginning.
The real work comes after Nichol, Prentiss and other elite trainers have rebuilt their broken-down clients. Once they’re put back together, players can begin to build the size and strength they need for next season.
“Players will come in from their summer training, and they’re really fit, from an off-ice perspective,” said Ryan van Asten, strength and conditioning coach for the Calgary Flames. “Their muscle mass is really good, and they’re typically really lean.”
NHLers live a charmed life, no doubt, but their summers are no island-paradise vacations. These dudes put in sweat equity equal to their profound contracts, and they’re willing to do it all over again every year. If anything, trainers have trouble making sure their guys don’t do too much too quickly. “It’s a tough sell sometimes, because they’ll see other guys in the gym and they’re lifting heavy and they’re doing conditioning and they’re doing sprints, and they’re like, ‘OK, I think I can do it, I feel OK, I think I can do it,’ ” Nichol said.