The crux of the matter
Fitness trainer Mike Boyle's studious nature has helped him stay ahead of the pack when it comes to conditioning athletes. He lives and breathes his subject matter and is a glib and knowledgeable advocate for his programs, especially those that pertain to hockey and NHL players.
A decade ago, Boyle's early products, players like Shawn McEachern, Joe Sacco and now-Boston Bruins coach Mike Sullivan, caught the eye of knowledgeable hockey people with their improved speed and conditioning.
Boyle's Winchester, Mass., facility now hosts up to three dozen NHL players each summer as they prepare for the upcoming season. Boyle's clients became his advocates and his clients' teammates noticed the impact of his training programs, particularly improvements in straight-ahead speed and quickness in lateral movements.
Boyle offers athletes a core program and then designs programs that address each athlete's specific needs.
"There is one basic template that we start with, a basic concept that with most of these NHL guys we are trying to restore their strength, rehabilitate their injuries and get them as fast, hopefully, as they were when they were kids.
"One of the things that we're all losing as we age is lean muscle mass, speed and power. When you see older players losing the ability to play, that comes down to losing the ability to produce force, losing the ability to be fast. So, the basic concepts don't change a lot.
"What does change is, what can't a guy do? The basic template for a healthy guy would be the same as another healthy player. Goalies may be slightly different. For forwards and defensemen, we're going to start out the same. Then, we've got to take that concept and figure out what is his injury history, what is his training history? What do we know about him? Is he overweight? Is he inflexible? Has he had a back problem? Has he had a shoulder problem?
"That's where the individualization comes into the program. That's where we start to learn that this guy can't do this, that guy can't do that. All of our young, healthy guys are doing very similar programs. Conceptually, from a conditioning standpoint, which is a third of what we're trying to work on, the energetics of the game are very similar for a lot of guys.
"One thing that's different is that some guys play a lot more. If you're looking at a team playing three lines you have a ratio of rest-to-work of approximately 2-to-1, 3-to-1 on a good team that's rolling four lines all the time and playing six defensemen all the time. We make sure the conditioning respects the energetics of the game. I think that's one of the things that we do that a lot of other people don't do. A lot of other places are very concerned with aerobic capacity, they're worried about what's the VO2 Max, the ability to carry oxygen."
From the first prehistoric man to pull an oyster off the ocean floor and ask, "Wonder what this tastes like?" to Galileo to Edison to Scotty Bowman, innovators do things differently and raise the skepticism of others. Eventually, it becomes hard to argue with their success. Soon, the rest of the world starts tinkering with the original, radical concept -- the oysters go well with spinach, a shade makes the light less harsh, someone tries a right-wing lock. Many of Boyle's "radical" ideas now comprise the core of modern athletic training.
"Our philosophy is not built so much around oxygen-carrying capability as it is the ability to play the game, the ability to exist in that rest-to-work ratio that is hockey," he said. "It's an interesting game because it's the only one where people are regularly going from playing to sitting down to playing again within a short period of time. In all the other sports, between plays, guys are standing around or walking. In hockey, they literally go sit down. That's a unique aspect to ice hockey."
Get to the puck first
You didn't hear the word "plyometrics" much before Boyle became one of its most vigorous advocates. Now, they're part of every team's training.
"Plyometrics are jumping and hopping exercises when it comes right down to it," Boyle said. "The simplest way to look at it is that weight-training builds the muscular system while plyometrics trains the nervous system. What we're trying to do is get their brain to get the impulse to the muscle faster. That's what we're talking about in trying to make somebody more explosive. It's one thing to get a muscle to be larger, one thing to get a muscle to be stronger, but to get to that muscle to respond in the appropriate time frame is really the essence of athleticism. That's where plyometric drills come in because we are trying to work on developing the ability to jump, to do things explosively and reactively.
"We work a lot at the beginning in teaching guys to jump and land because trying to be explosive and reactive can be, for some guys, damaging to joints when they have not developed a base ability to just jump and land. We teach them to jump and land, a lot of times on a single leg. A lot of it really falls under the injury-prevention category, then we get to the more explosive stuff."
"Much more of what we're doing is geared toward force production," Boyle said. "The one thing you realize in hockey is it's not about the ability to skate for a long period of time, it's about the ability to get to the puck, to beat someone else to the puck. Historically, when we look at the Boston University guys that we started with, Shawn McEachern, Joe Sacco, Mike Sullivan, and others, a lot of those guys made their living because they were able to beat guys to the puck. They had great speed. We realized that if we could take smaller guys and make them bigger and make them faster simultaneously, we could make NHL players.
"I think that's the template that we've tried to apply to everybody else that's come along. Historically, players have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Now, we have players like Hal Gill, who is 6-foot-6 1/2 and 250 pounds. Ten years ago in the NHL, everybody agreed that there would never be a player as big as (6-foot-9) Zdeno Chara, who has that agility and ability to move. But now there are and there are more of these guys coming. We used to look at forwards like Cam Neely and think they were huge forwards. He played mostly at 212 pounds. I know you probably think he was bigger, but he worked very hard during the summer to be below 220 pounds. His best years were when he was between 212 and 217. Today, there are guys routinely playing in the 230-240 pound range.