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Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton is one of the largest, and most fit of the Bruins, using his size and strength to create room for himself around the net.
Year-round conditioning

By John McGourty | Impact! Magazine

Once upon a time and long ago, NHL players came to training camp to get into good physical condition for the upcoming season.

No more.

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.

Glen Murray
Glen Murray is one of many Bruins that supplements John Whitesides' program with workouts with his own personal trainer.

"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.

Sergei Samsonov
Whitesides stresses fluidity in his workouts and the shifty Sergei Samsonov, one of the most elusive players in the NHL, may well be his poster boy.

"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."

Nick Boynton
Nick Boynton had a tough time doing upper-body training this summer after undergoing shoulder surgery, but John Whitesides was there to help him along.

Possession changes occur every few seconds in hockey. Players must be able to start, stop, jump and change direction quickly and they must be able to do it over and over again.

"You have to be able to change direction quickly. Hockey is a game of stops and starts and changes of direction and the guy that can stop and start and change direction quicker is the guy that is going to get the puck," Whitesides said.

Tiger Woods enjoyed phenomenal success earlier in his career by following a workout program specifically designed for the needs of a golfer. Similarly, hockey players have to be ready for the lung-busting effort of a 45-second shift.

"There's nothing quite as taxing as a hockey shift with the speed, plus the holding and the banging," Whitesides said. "That's why these guys have to be in such good physical condition. You just can't slough your way through the summer and then jump into the season because it's hard and it's a grind. The players that don't train and don't get themselves ready are more prone to getting injured.

"There's a lot of rehabilitation work in my program to try to make those areas stronger so that they don't get hurt," Whitesides said. "I try to do a little 'pre-hab' before I have to do 'rehab.' I do a lot of stuff that physical therapists do after you've hurt your shoulder. I really focus a lot on that stuff."

Whitesides said it isn't hard to get compliance from players who spend the summer away from Boston. Today's players know there's a whole world of players ready to take their jobs if they're not prepared. Failure to follow a summer conditioning program is a serious black mark on that player's record and in the minds of coaches. So, many players hook up with a local fitness trainer and they often contact clubs for guidance.

"I deal with a lot of personal trainers. Some don't have a lot of specific training in hockey," Whitesides said. "The players go right from our program and their trainers call me and ask different questions. It's been good because I've brought some of them along to where we need to be. Some have a different theory, but we stress to our players that they should do it our way so that when they get to training camp you're ready to go and you're on our page and know what we are doing. I spend a lot of time talking to personal trainers and working with them and telling them what tests we do and how to train for them.

Mike Knuble
Mike Knuble has used strength-and-conditioning work to help revive his career after he joined the Boston Bruins nearly five years ago.

Gyms across North America bustle with young adults eager to maintain their physical condition. What do the hockey players do in their workouts that's different?

"In hockey, we're doing a ton of leg work because the sport is so leg-dominated," Whitesides said. "You're on your skates all the time. We do a lot of balance work because the players are balancing on two-centimeter blades all day. We're targeting areas where these guys are going to get hurt. We do a lot of shoulder work, a lot of work around the knees and ankles. These guys are working out hard for about 90 minutes, then we go out and run hard for 35 or 40 minutes.

"We do a lot of footwork and lot of conditioning that way. We do a lot of plyometrics, which is an explosive movement that helps your legs become more powerful. So it's really, really geared to the hockey player becoming fast and explosive. The average person who wants to stay in shape is probably going to bench and squat and do a lot of the stuff that we have in our program, but we do it to a greater extent."

Conditioning programs have helped players get bigger and faster. That has resulted in more injuries.

"As the average-player size changes and increases, the speed changes, the velocity changes and the hits change. You have a guy at 195 pounds who used to be 180 running into you, it's a whole different ballgame," Whitesides said. "That's why you are seeing a whole lot more injuries. Retired hockey players tell me they didn't see these injuries. They didn't see all these concussions. They didn't have the speed in the game then and the size of the players were smaller. With the increases in size and conditioning, these players are a lot more physically dominant. We're now seeing hockey players who are 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, and who weigh 250 pounds. Size is increasing every year and we're seeing different injuries because of that."

Hockey executives and coaches long harbored a bias against large athletes, believing their response time was too slow and that they couldn't learn to skate effectively. That thinking has changed.

"I believe there are specific body types that we want to avoid in hockey. We don't want muscle-bound athletes," Whitesides said. "We don't want athletes that have low flexibility and get that 'gym look.' We want lean athletes that can move. We hugely stress flexibility, because as I said, our No. 1 priority is injury prevention.

Andrew Raycroft
Andrew Raycroft works hard to stay flexible and explosive as he looks to emerge as the Bruins number 1 goaltender.

"We don't want the body-builder look because that will detract from what you can do on the ice where you have to be fluid. If you're 230 pounds but you've got a nice lean build, good flexibility and you can move, then you can play at that weight, but we don't want athletes to go to 230 just to be 230. It's a whole different game than football where players put on size just to put on size. There's more straight-ahead movement in football, especially with linemen. Hockey players move in every direction and have to be fluid. We like our body fats to be down around seven percent. Nothing over 10. We like them lean and fast so they can move.

It's a real change to increase a player's weight without increasing his percentage of body fat. It takes an intelligent program, including nutritional advice, plus a serious commitment by the athlete.

"It's a challenge but there's so much money to be made in the sport and there are so many people coming into the sport that want to take their jobs that they're motivated," Whitesides said. "When they go home, they're eating right and living right. Half of my job, the hard part of it, is with the young kids, explaining the benefit of it and explaining how to live their lives. All the older guys in the NHL, they pretty well have it figured out. That's why they're in the NHL. They know that people want their jobs and can take their jobs. They know there are other people willing to go the extra mile so they do too. They're learning how to work and eat and live their lives right so they can be in the best physical shape they can be."


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