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Fitness and nutrition are paramount in today's NHL ... no more beers in the dressing-room fridge anymore

by AARON VICKERS @aavickers /

The times, they are a changing.

Or, more to the point, have already changed.

Because back in Craig Conroy's day, things around the rink were a lot different.

"When I started, when I got to the rink this is what I did…you grab a coffee and sit around and kind of loosen up," explained now Flames assistant GM Conroy, a veteran of 1,009 National Hockey League games before retiring in 2011 and graduating to the executive ranks.

"Now it's a full-on routine. You see the guys in the hall. When we warmed up for the game you'd come and grab your coffee and do a few little things. And then when you took warm-up, that's when you got warm. Now they're fully warm when they get there. 

"I remember we would do a 10-minute bike ride after. That's turned into a bike ride and weight lifting.

"In the morning, only a few guys would come in early and do a little workout. That's become the norm. 

"It's come from, when I broke in, doing nothing really to now there's all the different steps of the day. It's amazing how much guys do to get ready for a game." 

Former Flames forward current assistant coach Martin Gelinas also has some interesting stories from the old days.

"I remember as a young kid, the fridge was not full of water and Gatorade," said Gelinas, whose 19-year career began with the Edmonton Oilers in 1988. "We had beers in there, in Edmonton.

"A few years later it starts changing. Now everything is about what you eat and fitness and what you drink and hydration and how you push yourself. There's a lot of science in it.

"It started a while back, in the NHL."

How it used to be sure isn't the way it is these days.  

With a premium on wins comes an emphasis on performance. With that emphasis on performance comes an effort to gain any edge on the ice.

And off it.  

Teams employ strength coaches, nutritionists, psychologists, all to help players excel.  

The science of sport.

"The science has changed," Gelinas said. "We've learned more about what to eat, how to train…guys are coming into camp now in peak, mid-season form. Guys are in peak shape right from the start of camp.

"But I think the maintenance is really important. With all the off-ice training comes injuries. You see more groins. You see more hip flexors. If you're not maintaining properly, it's when you get hurt."

That in itself becomes the full-time job. 

Making sure one is at peak performance. 

And maintaining that peak. 

"One of the biggest obstacles, honestly, is maintaining strength levels and power levels…just trying to find time to get in the gym from an off-ice standpoint between games or whatever, finding time to do that kind of work is hard," said Flames strength and conditioning coach Ryan van Asten.

"The priority in-season shifts to the on-ice performance and playing in games. In the offseason, priority is training.  

"We want to put the best product on the ice so we can win games. That takes priority over anything. It's a balancing act, for sure, structuring the volume and intensity of the off-ice training to allow them to perform at their best on the ice.  

"That's the biggest obstacle." 

Maintaining that high level, funny enough, begins long before the player reports to camp.

Work in July and August, said Gelinas, is the key to keeping things going in May and June.

"You've got to make sure you're setting the bar high for yourself and you're coming in in good shape," he said. "That's step one. To me, the guys that are successful in this league are the guys who are consistently doing the right thing year after year. They put layers and layers and layers.  

"A guy like [Mikael Backlund] … he's strong. He put a lot of time in the gym. He's doing the right thing. He's eating properly. There's no quick solution. It takes years before you can get to that point. The guys who will be successful are the guys who keep doing it. The guys that will lack are the guys that didn't think it was that important.  

"You can see a big difference."

The point is stressed to the players.

Summer comes at the end of a long season, but it's the start of one, too.

 "That's the most important thing," captain Mark Giordano said.  

"I think No. 1, the most important thing for me is to come in in the best shape you can. You aren't going to get the chance to lift as heavy, to do as much heavy cardio sessions. You get most of your cardio through practice and games.  

"But you want to build that base so you can keep it there, and really maintain throughout the season. That's what you're trying to do.  

"For me, I try to get in as many lifts through the season as I can. If we have a few days between games, I really push the lifts. Then after that, it's just proper maintenance with cold tubs, massages … making sure you feel fresh." 

It hasn't always been the norm in hockey's highest league.

What Giordano saw when he broke into the NHL in the mid-2000s, and what he sees now are two very different environments.

 "We've learned more about what to eat, how to train…guys are coming into camp now in peak, midseason form," he said. "I still think that training camp is valuable though, because you get into that game shape. Guys are in peak shape right from the start of camp.  

"But I think the maintenance is really important. If you're not maintaining properly, it's when you get hurt." 

Maintaining strength is significant. 

Maintaining conditioning is critical .

Maintaining diet is important, too.  

And even that continues to evolve.  

"I remember I was in Fredericton (in 1995). We went straight to the Calder Cup Final," Conroy said.  

"I was down to 178 pounds. I probably started at 195. That was the worst. That was one thing they said I needed to figure out. You played all the time and played every other day. It got to a point where I wasn't even hungry. They were like, 'you need to eat.' Nutrition came in. I was down…not quite 20 pounds, but it was too much to lose in one season.

"Now you have hydration, nutrition…what you're supposed to eat.  

"Even at the Cup run here in Calgary (in 2004) you'd never have food. You'd never have breakfast. Whatever you get at home, then you'd come to the rink. We had a few things here like toast and some cereal.  

"But now they have breakfast. They have lunch. You only have to worry about dinner, which is amazing. We never had that. It was 'what can you grab on the way home.' You just grabbed whatever. That's completely gone now. 

"First of all, you walk in and the shakes are there. You talk to Ryan, and Ryan's got his stuff. And the trainers have their stuff. The nutritionists have what we should be eating. We've dummied it down. You don't need to think. You just need to come and eat this and drink this. As you go along, as a player, you kind of say, 'okay, I did this and this and this and I felt great' and you're going to stick with that.  

"I see guys now with Pedialyte. They just feel like they need to get something in them. They'll drink that before games. 

"We're always evolving and trying to get better to figure out that next thing. From where I went to where it is now, it's amazing." 

Conroy admits he envies today's players. 

"It would've been nice to have, especially when you're young," he said.  

"You didn't have charters all the time. You had commercial flights, so you didn't have food on the plane. It's just a whole different world now. Even the guys who played before me, they had even less.  

"You're always trying to figure out what the next best thing for you.  

"It would've been great, especially as a young guy not knowing what to eat and coming back from practice and eating whatever…if there's a cheeseburger there, there's a cheeseburger. You're eating whatever's convenient." 

Because convenience is still key.

"The biggest thing for me is the resources," Giordano said.  

"You have food around you all the time in this league.

"The NHL: Never Hungry League."

Michael Frolik, pronounced the fittest Flame at training camp in September, has seen the evolution.

"When I started, I don't think guys were much into diet and stuff like that, or taking care of what you're eating," said Frolik, who busted into the NHL with the Florida Panthers as a 20-year-old in 2006.

"Now definitely you know more. Everyone's a little different, but you try to learn what's best for you." 

There's little choice. The fuel players are putting into their bodies isn't consumed by accident.

Plenty goes into the purchase.  

"So much detail goes into it," Van Asten said. 

"Everything from food on the plane to at breakfast, what kind of nuts and seeds we have that they can put in their oatmeal. It's a lot of detail that goes into it. Supplementation goes into it.  

"With the plane food, before every road trip they send me the menus and we go through them with a fine-tooth comb just to make sure everything's on point. We'll get them to change a lot of things. We have certain guys that have special needs, so we'll have to add that.  

"At home, it's the same thing. We get meals and menus ahead of time. Things are changing daily. We're always making new requests for things. That's a full-time job in itself just to make sure nutrition is on point. Plus we have hotel foods, meals, everything. It's pretty extensive, actually." 

Food isn't the only thing that's regimented.  

"We do weigh-in, weigh-out daily," Van Asten explained.

"The weigh-in, weigh-out daily is voluntary, but we do one mandatory roughly once a week. But most guys will do it daily for their own curiosity. We do body composition testing every quarter throughout the season, just to make sure we're staying on track.  

"In terms of any other fitness testing, traditional fitness testing, it's next to impossible to find time to do something like that. Usually they're maximal in effort, and to find time to do that when we don't have a game the next day or whatever…logistically it's really tough to do.  

"That's why we're tracking workouts, we're tracking fatigue levels using different technologies, we're tracking on-ice workloads … that kind of thing."

All with the goal of keeping his group at the top of his game.

And that'll never change.  

 "On average, we're playing roughly every other night and that's what is important," Van Asten said.  

"The biggest obstacle is juggling between volumes and intensities of off-ice work and gauging how that's going to affect them on the ice.

"Is it going to take away from their ability to play the game, or is it going to enhance that?  

"It's a fine line in some cases. You go off the experience you've had in the past in how guys have reacted. It even changes from year-to-year. We're not doing the same things year-in, year-out. As technology evolves, we have to evolve along with that.

"That is the biggest obstacle, making sure they're ready to play in the game."

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