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Rookies try to steer clear of 'the wall'

by John McGourty
The NHL's top rookies -- Matt Duchene, John Tavares, Victor Hedman, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Myers -- are in uncharted territory: None of them has ever played this many regular-season games.

The fear with rookies at this time of the year is that they'll hit "the wall." The rookie wall differs for players who came to the NHL from college and those who took the major junior route. College teams play about 40 games. The Western Hockey League has scheduled 72 games the past few years while the Ontario and Quebec leagues play 68.

Last season, Boston Bruins left wing Blake Wheeler became the poster boy for rookies hitting the wall. Wheeler scored in his first NHL game and had 11 goals and 9 assists through 32 games. He had 10 goals and 25 assists over the next 50 games and really slowed down in March. Wheeler was honest about tiring last year and took steps to prevent a similar result this season.

"It's more of a mental thing than it is physical, knowing how to handle the grind," Wheeler said. "In college, I played 45 games -- and that's half a season here. You really have to learn how to bring your focus to every game. If you take a mental night off, you're not going to be very effective. It's about knowing how to turn it on as the game approaches and to turn it off after the game and focus on other things.

"As weird as it may sound, it's important to have other things in your life. It helps you to take your mind off the game for a while. If you're sitting home grinding the game in your mind all the time, you'll be mentally exhausted. Be professional at the rink but away from the rink, relax and focus on other things."

Players like Myers, who came out of junior hockey, say it's not so much the number of games, but what they take out of the body.

"The biggest thing I've noticed is not so much more games in a season, but the intensity of the games," said Myers, the Buffalo defenseman who leads all rookies with an average of 23:40 ice time. "The players are so much faster and stronger, the games take a lot more out of you than they did in juniors. I'm really trying to focus on taking care of my body and getting a lot of rest so I'm able to play a full season.

"They've been doing a really good job giving us our rest time and allowing us to take care of our bodies," Myers said. "We have a strength and conditioning coach that puts us through some workouts that allow us to keep up our strength throughout the year and goes over some nutritional stuff ....  I think they've been doing a really good job of showing me what it takes to play at this level for so long. I'm learning a lot from them."

Van Riemsdyk, who has earned a regular job with the Philadelphia Flyers after playing at the University of New Hampshire, agree that playing in the NHL bears little resemblance to college hockey.

"It's a lot different than anything that I was used to in the past," van Riemsdyk said. "Not only are you playing more games, but you're playing against better players than you've played against in your life so that's a different dynamic in itself."

"The biggest thing I've noticed is not so much more games in a season, but the intensity of the games. The players are so much faster and stronger, the games take a lot more out of you than they did in juniors." -- Tyler Myers

Several rookies said their teams are ready to help rookies prepare for the longer seasons. Strength and conditioning coaches and the training staff monitor off-ice workloads and recommend nutrition programs and rest schedules. Coaches limit ice time when they feel it's necessary.

"It's all about coming to the rink prepared, taking care of yourself away from the rink and taking advantage of the time that you can rest and recover," van Riemsdyk said.

The added workload of being an NHL player also means making lifestyle accommodations.

"It's a player's responsibility to take care of himself in terms of rest and nutrition," said Duchene, a center picked No. 3 in last June's Entry Draft by Colorado and now leading all rookies in scoring. "I know I can't burn the candle at both ends. I have to eat right, get rest and take care of my body. It's necessary to balance your nutrition and rest with what you have to do on the ice and the stuff we do outside the rink."

Rookies also have to deal with what is the most frustrating part of the game even for veterans -- nagging injuries. The bruises from little chops on the arm while carrying the puck, the blocked shots, hitting the boards -- they all add up, and even limit movement, but players are expected to play.

To a man, the rookies said they've benefited from the Olympic break.

"When you play as much as we do, even if it's a small injury it will last a lot longer than it probably should," van Riemsdyk said. "This was a great chance to heal a little bit and work out some of the kinks. That will be huge, not only for me but for a lot of guys in the league."

Said Myers: "At this level and this intensity there's always going to be bumps and bruises and obviously the break was nice for regrouping and recovering the body and get ready for the last 20 games this year."

But the hiatus also presented the challenge of staying in game shape at a time when NHL teams were barred from practicing for most of the Olympic break. Many teams said the Olympic participants were in the best shape when play resumed.

"I wanted to make sure that I did some (hockey-related) stuff and also wanted to make sure that I cleared my head a little bit and get refreshed for the stretch run," van Riemsdyk said. "I went up to New Hampshire to visit my brother, Trevor. He plays for the Junior Monarchs. I also saw some of the UNH guys I played with last year and I got to skate with them a couple of times. I got to stay on the ice a bit and hang out there. It was a good week to get away and recharge the batteries."

Duchene felt the break will help keep him strong down the stretch as the Avs try to lock up a playoff berth.

"Physically, it's been OK," Duchene said. "I think just before the break I actually had more energy because I had gotten used to competing at a higher level. I was getting used to the minutes that I'd been playing. But the Olympic break will be a blessing while we are coming down the stretch. I won't know for sure but we'll see in the upcoming games.

"I felt a little out of shape after our first practice," Duchene said. "It's amazing how fast you lose conditioning when you're not practicing or playing every day. I didn't feel in game shape during the first practice. But I think I was at the same level as everyone else at practice. Everyone is getting back to game form."

All three players are in contention for the Calder Trophy that goes to the NHL's top rookie. None wanted to talk about their prospects but van Riemsdyk noted that the more you do for your team, the better your chances.

"When individuals play well, the team plays well and vice versa. It works both ways," van Riemsdyk said. "When the team is playing well, individuals get recognized. Everyone has to buy into their role here. If that happens, the team will have success. If the team has success, individuals get recognized that way. First and foremost, it's about the other 22 guys we have in the room and the team goal we all set at the beginning of the year. Everything else is nothing compared to that."

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