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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Certainly, the NHL has changed this season.

With a focus on quickness and skating, goal scoring is up and the world’s best players display their skills on a nightly basis for an exciting and entertaining product.

However, this emphasis on skating and speed has changed what’s going on in the NHL’s medical rooms, too. Since the NHL has evolved into a game of quickness instead of toughness, Penguins head athletic trainer Mark Mortland is seeing more muscular injuries in the players’ legs.

“That’s exactly what we’ve seen; it’s been a big change. I’d say if there was an increase in injuries, it’s more soft tissue and muscular injuries because of the increased demand on skating,” said Mortland, who is in his 11th season with the Penguins’ training staff. “We’re getting more people who are pulling their groins and a little bit of hip flexor strains. We’re seeing more soft tissue and less injuries related to the trauma – meaning we haven’t had many guys get high sticks or not as many people having to get stitches, not as many collision-type injuries like separated shoulders, things like that.”

While the players, coaches and fans have had to adapt to the new NHL environment, so have the league’s trainers.

“There has been a big difference this year,” Mortland said. “There’s a lot more massage and stretching this year than there was in years past. The treatment is the same now as it was before. It’s just now, you happen to be seeing more of it. If you treat them appropriately – knock on wood, we’ve only had a guy out with a groin injury anywhere from four to seven days. That’s if you can treat them quickly.”

The trend isn’t limited to the Penguins.

“Talking to the different trainers around the league, they have seen the exact same thing – an increase in muscular injuries and an increase in muscular injuries with the older players,” Mortland said.

Indeed. Another common theme seems to be an increase in injuries with veterans as opposed to younger players. Of the four Penguins to miss at least one game this season with a groin injury, three of them were veterans – Sergei Gonchar, John LeClair and Ziggy Palffy. The fourth, Shane Endicott, is a rookie.

“I just talked to another trainer with another team the other day and he, too, is finding that the younger kids aren’t having as much trouble,” Mortland said. “It’s more the people who are a little bit older, maybe a little bit tighter and who have a little bit more miles on their bodies where they are getting more groin injuries.”

While Mortland would rather not see any player suffer an injury, he is happy to see a decrease in the severity of injuries than in the past.

“Absolutely. There is still contact, but it’s not like it was before,” he said. “It’s different. It’s good in some respects, too. There are fights, but not like before. You don’t have many guys getting banged up in that respect. Fighting isn’t just getting black eyes or stitches, they injure their backs and necks and shoulders. You aren’t seeing that as much now.”

Mortland, along with assistant athletic trainer Scott Johnson and massage therapist David Sampson work together with strength and conditioning coach Stephane Dube as well has head coach Michel Therrien and assistant Mike Yeo to formulate the best preventative maintenance plan for the players.

“It’s all tied together,” Mortland said. “You have to work together, especially the coaching staff knowing ahead of time that there’s more demand on skating, so practices have to incorporate the same thing.”

The increase in skating puts an emphasis on training and conditioning.

“For the most part, skating hasn’t changed. There’s just more of it and it’s faster,” Mortland said. “Your training will be specific to that. We are doing more on-ice conditioning now than we have in the past. Certainly, it’s something your strength coach will do – emphasize weight bearing. I think the problem with groins over the years is the fact that the guys used the [stationary] bike too much. That’s a sedentary form of exercise. You can’t go do a weight-bearing sport after that; they just don’t match.

“I don’t think the conditioning aspect is any different, but I think it needs to stay away from certain things, especially the bike, and you need to do agility drills and weight-bearing drills that change directions just like you do on the ice. There’s nothing better than skating.”

Dube stresses that in his weight training plan.

“The way I see it, you have to go with the basis of the sport. This game is about speed more than ever,” he said. “We hit the weight room because you have to be strong to be fast, but we pay a lot of attention to speed, endurance, balance and coordination.”

Mortland is curious to see if the season will bring about further change in injury frequency and type.

“It’s a different game with the skating. We’ll see if it stays like this. We don’t know. This is new territory for us,” he said. “Maybe even some of the younger guys might start coming up with some more soft tissue injuries. Groin injuries are higher now, but who knows what they will be by the end of the season?

“I think the story is still unfolding,” he said. “It will be interesting to see.”

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