Once upon a time and long ago, NHL players came to training camp to get into good physical condition for the upcoming season.
Serious modern players spend at least 11 months a year in intensive conditioning programs and hit the ground running at training camp. If for no other reason, they face a battery of physical tests to gauge their fitness on opening day of camp. And no one likes to be left behind when those results are known.
Players and teams can no longer afford to use training camp as a place to get fit. Every team makes training facilities available throughout the season and every player is given a list of conditioning goals at the end of every season. Players know that if they are not fit for Day 1 of camp, they could lose their job to a player more committed to his conditioning and the team's goals.
John Whitesides, the strength and conditioning coach of the Boston Bruins, spent his summer at the team's practice facility in Wilmington, Mass., working on-site with several members of the team and preparing and monitoring conditioning programs for players who spend the summer in other locales.
"Our No. 1 goal is injury prevention and our second goal is sports performance," Whitesides said. "People always think they're training to get better, well, they are training to get better, but primarily they're training not to get hurt. If they get hurt, it hurts our club and their careers. We focus a lot on the places where players get injured: Ankles, knees and shoulders."
Whitesides would love to be able to supervise Bruins' players year-round, but the Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits that.
"The NHL does not allow teams to keep players around during the summer," Whitesides said. "They're allowed to do what they want. Each player is on his own, but we can monitor them and what they're doing during the summer. I spend a lot of time on the phone with our players that are overseas or in Canada.
"The people who stick around tend to be the players with children in school. They're the ones you usually see here in the summer along with the younger players who really want to make an impact and make physical gains."
Actually, the Bruins have an 11-month conditioning program.
"I give them a month after the season, no matter when that is, hopefully, the later the better. That's just to let them get recovered, get back into better shape and let their minds and bodies recover from the season," Whitesides said. "A lot of guys do start their workouts during that time. They'll come to me and say they want to get started, get something going, start with something light and easy. If they're talking about conditioning, I'll say go for a light jog or play some tennis, do something athletic at that time. In that first month, it's individualized and some guys do nothing at all which is fine with me.
"The season is so long and strenuous on these guys, some just need to recover," he continued. "During that time, a lot of guys have surgeries. So, then I have them in different stages. With them, there's definitely a different approach because they can't do a lot of what the other guys can do."
With the players facing such a variety of hurdles, there's a knack to getting all 40 players on the roster to the September training camp in relatively similar physical condition, ready for the hard drills prepared by the coaching staff.
"We have to pinnacle all together at the same time, but through the summer people are at different points in their rehabilitation and thus their conditioning programs," Whitesides said. "Mike Knuble and Nick Boynton had their shoulders operated on this summer, so they couldn't do any of the upper body stuff. They started upper-body work in late July. I talk to those guys a lot more and work with them on what they can do and with their limitations, what they can't do."
Modern conditioning programs have gone far beyond running and weight lifting. Plyometrics, or exercises to improve quickness and agility, is a major component and NHL trainers have adapted plyometric exercises to be hockey specific.
"Running is a component of off-season training, but I give it a while before I start," Whitesides said. "On May 19, I had them start lifting on their own three days a week, plus an aerobic choice. They could go for a jog, they could do Stairmaster, they could ride the bike. My running didn't start until June 16. Everybody in the system has a manual with instructions that start at the same time. Later, running becomes a huge component. We will do a lot of agility and footwork, a lot of plyometric work, a lot of speed work running straight-ahead sprints, and I do a lot of overall conditioning with hard anaerobic stuff early in the phase. Running is a huge aspect of my training program. The ultimate thing would be to have them on the ice skating but you use too many of the muscles you're using during the season so we give those muscles a chance to heal and repair, but we still keep the cardio-vascular aspect up. In summer, we train the energy systems that we really want our players to work on.
"I start high-volume to low-volume, so I start early on in this phase of the program, with six 60-yard dashes, four 40s and two 20s around a track. So, that's high anaerobic, a lot of running. Later in the summer, I get it down to more sprint work, straight ahead, 16 110-yard sprints. My volume goes down, but my intensity goes up. Speed goes up and intensity goes up."
Hockey players don't do the kind of exercises you do at the gym to maintain your fitness. Nor do they train like marathon runners or shot putters. They train with the needs of the game in mind.
"It's all interval training. It's based on the game. You sit down and watch the game and then train the players the way the game is played," Whitesides said. "It's a 1-to-3 work ratio. They work and then they rest for a block of time that's three times longer and then they work again. You want to mimic that as closely as you possibly can. Early in the summer, they train for about 1 1/2-to-2 minutes that they're running so the work is really high, then later they train for about 45 seconds and rest for two minutes. It's just like when they're on the ice and then they rest for three shifts."