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More NHL players find summer is for sweating

by John McGourty

"It's a lot more in-depth than that now. We have skating coaches and everything is hockey specific. It doesn't resemble anything like what I was doing before I retired."
-- Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton

If your image of an NHL player during the summer involves sun, surf and sand, you've got it wrong, very wrong.

While spending the summer in the sun might have been true 20 years ago, it no longer holds water. Why? As we speak, NHL players are hitting gyms and rinks around the world to prepare for the September training camps that precede the 2009-10 season.

"Training camp is very short now compared to the past, and you have to be ready to go right away," Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Brian Lawton said. "In my first years as a pro, Willi Plett never even took his equipment home for the summer and he never skated. A teammate once told me that his training routine was walking all summer -- he didn't use the golf cart.

"It's a lot more in-depth than that now. We have skating coaches and everything is hockey specific. It doesn't resemble anything like what I was doing before I retired."

In today’s NHL, there's no such thing as getting ready in training camp. Now, players have to come to camp ready to go.

"You have to be ready right out of the chute," Buffalo Sabres right wing Mike Grier said. "The coaches expect you to be ready to perform at a high level right away. The first day of camp is medical testing, the next day we're on the ice, scrimmaging at a high level, and by the fourth day, we usually have an exhibition game. You better be ready or there's a good chance of injury.

"I do about 100 days of training before training camp and that's a good amount. I tell guys that if they can't get into shape in three months, they're doing something wrong in there."

NHL teams are barred by the collective-bargaining agreement from directing players during the summer -- but they can, and do, make suggestions to players about how to prepare for the upcoming season.

"We give them a booklet and they can be in contact with the strength and conditioning coach," Lawton said. "Each player's program is tailored and there is a high level of participation from our athletes. All the players maintain the ability to do what they want, but I find our guys lean on strength and conditioning coach Chuck Lobe and (consultant) Kevin Ziegler a tremendous amount for advice and direction.

"They e-mail back and forth, but the players are on the honor system. Then we do a lot of testing at training camp. There's no hiding from it. Players have the responsibility to show up in tip-top shape. They want to be training the way we want them to."

There are hockey-centric summer programs all over North America. In Los Angeles, T.R. Goodman gained considerable fame through his offseason work with Chris Chelios, 47, a free-agent this summer who is the oldest active player and has played the most games of anyone who was active in 2008-09. It would be hard for Goodman to find a better form of advertising -- and many players have flocked to him.

Minnesota Wild forward Martin Havlat returned this month to Montreal, where he's been following the same conditioning program for most of his career.

"I've been working out with a group of guys that I've worked out with the past five or six years in Westmount, Montreal," Havlat said. "The program is led by Paul Gagne and we have a lot of guys from the Czech Republic -- Milan Michalek, Michael Frolik and Ondrej Pavelec. Zbynek Michalek is here most years, but he's back home in Czech Republic with his wife and new baby. There're a lot of other guys too, like Derick Brassard from the Blue Jackets and my new teammate, Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

"Each player's program is individually tailored by Gagne at the start of the summer. He asks us about our injuries and where we need to improve. Then he makes some guys stronger, some heavier, some faster and some quicker.

"The staff works as a team and we get everything we need, on and off the ice. That's why we come here. We feel we are ready for the year after training here. No one in this group has had any trouble with any of our training camps, we're ready to go. I like it here because there are no distractions, like back home. That's another reason to come here.

"We do a lot of training, indoors and out. It's a good mix and we start about five or six weeks before training camp. It's a tough six weeks but it's worth it because you don't have a lot of time for training during the season because there are so many games and we're flying everywhere."

Grier spoke to from Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning in Winchester, Mass., north of Boston. Grier has been training with Boyle since he attended Boston University from 1993-96, where Boyle headed the school's strength and conditioning program.

"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," Boyle told "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."

Boyle was an early advocate of plyometrics, since widely adopted in hockey-conditioning programs.

"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."

Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco attended B.U. from 1987-90, going to the NCAA Frozen Four in his final season. The conditioning regime he began in college helped Sacco to a 15-year NHL career.

"(Mike) is an innovator, a pioneer. He always believed that if you train fast, you play fast," Sacco said. "If you train slow, you play slow. His philosophy is all about speed and strength. When you did plyometrics or sprint work, it would make you faster on the ice. If you were going to run a marathon, then you train for distance, but when you're talking hockey, it's all about speed and strength. I always felt like I went to training camp in the best possible shape."
"(Mike) is an innovator, a pioneer. He always believed that if you train fast, you play fast." -- Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco, on training with Mike Grier
In contrast, summer hockey leagues are declining in popularity as part of conditioning programs. They're usually no-checking leagues and can't duplicate actual NHL game situations. An writer watched a game five years ago with Mike Sullivan, assistant coach of the New York Rangers, and Sean Coady, assistant women's hockey coach at Brown University, when both were with the Boston Bruins.

That night, a high-scoring AHL player dominated. Sullivan was asked if the player was on course to make an NHL team.

"They all look good when there's no hitting," Sullivan said.

A rink official said there are fewer NHL players participating in that league now.

"I don't think that playing in the summer leagues, playing once a week or so, is as much a serious element of the summer-conditioning program," Sullivan said. "It's probably more about enjoying the relationships you've built over the years. I think these guys just love to play hockey. That's what the summer leagues are. It allows them to touch the ice and touch the puck and that probably doesn't hurt them, but I'm not sure it's a critical element of their conditioning program.

"For the most part, guys play in no-check leagues," Sullivan said. "The last thing they want to do is get hurt. Because of that, it's a very different game. Some players who thrive in 'pond hockey' have a really hard time when you start to play real ice hockey at the NHL or college level. There are some players who look fantastic in summer hockey, can dazzle you with their plays, but when you add physicality to the game, it neutralizes them."

Grier said summertime skating isn't a big deal to him.

"As I've gotten older, I've stayed off skates more during the summer," Grier said. "I'm just starting to skate now, in mid-August. I've focused on my off-ice conditioning. When I was younger, I was skating and playing shinny in July. It's good to get back on the ice and feel the puck and there are some summer leagues that are competitive. When I do that, I'm just looking to work up a sweat and feel the puck. It can get to be too much and I don't want to pull a muscle.

"You can't simulate an NHL game in a no-check league, especially things like going into the corners or getting ready for a defenseman coming at you at full speed."

This story has been edited to correct an error made by the writer in gathering a quote.
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