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Staying in peak condition all year long

March 2, 2011 General No Comments

By Sam Laskaris

Savage: You have to keep a mental focus. ©BBS

January and February are not the best times to be a hockey player. In most years, the excitement of a new season has long worn off—this year being an exception for NHLers. And the possible thrill of competing in the playoffs is still far in the future. Professional hockey players, however, have to battle through these blasé times. In order to maintain their jobs, they have to keep producing on the ice. And there’s also plenty of off-ice work to be done to remain in top shape.

In this article, four seasoned pros—Dale DeGray, Rick Knickle, Mike Hurlbut and Reggie Savage—offer some insight on keeping in shape during the mid-season. Though they’re currently staying in shape with minor league clubs, all four have spent some time in the National Hockey League.

DeGray, a defenseman, plays for the International Hockey League’s Cleveland Lumberjacks. Knickle, a goaltender, also plays in the IHL, with the Detroit Vipers. Hurlbut, a defenseman, and Savage, a right winger, are toiling with the Cornwall Aces of the American Hockey League.

DeGray says off-ice training has become considerably more important in the years since he started earning a pro paycheck back in 1983. “It’s become an all-year thing now,” he says. “Before you would do a little bit here and a little bit there. (Now) everybody wants to have that edge in the game. And staying in good shape and top shape is the key.”

DeGray, who began the current campaign with the Detroit Vipers and was traded to Cleveland in mid-November, said despite having an 80-game regular season schedule, there’s plenty of time during the year for off-ice workouts aimed at keeping in shape.

“In the NHL, you play throughout the week,” says De-Gray. “But (the IHL) is more like a weekend league. You’re usually playing most of your games on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights.”

As a result, depending on their travel schedules, most IHL clubs will do the majority of their off-ice training early on in the week. DeGray says these workouts remain constant during the year, and players for the most part do their own thing in the club’s exercise room—working out on tread mills, lifting weights and riding stationary bikes.

Shape up or ship out

“At this level and in the NHL, if you don’t stay in shape, you’ll be replaced by the next guy who’s just waiting to take your spot,” says DeGray, who from 1986-90 had stints with the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres. He appeared in 168 NHL games.

According to DeGray, players don’t usually compare themselves against teammates during off-ice workouts. “On the bike ride sometimes it’s competitive. (The bike) is set at zero, so the faster you go, the further you ride. We usually ride the bike 30-36 minutes. You’ll get some guys who go hard and then say, ‘I did 6.2 miles. What did you do?’ You say, ‘Oh. 5.4’ And then you get a bit upset. You have the competitive drive to do better than the guy next to you.”

During his pro career, DeGray, 31, has also played for squads in Colorado, Moncton, Newmarket, New Haven, Rochester and San Diego. He also spent the 1991-92 season with Alleghe, a First Division team in Italy.

Though clubs overseas traditionally have 30-to-40 game regular season schedules, DeGray says he worked just as hard to keep in shape while in Italy. “If anything, it got me more into the off-ice training,” he says of his one-year European sojourn.

DeGray believes the lockout affecting the current NHL season will dramatically hinder the players, and not just financially. “It will hurt them a lot,” he says. “You can do anything you want, but no matter what you do off the ice, there’s a difference between being in shape and being in game shape. Anybody who plays the game knows what I’m talking about.”

DeGray adds the commitment level to training during the season varies from player to player.

“You’re always going to have guys that don’t do much during the season because they’re excessively gifted. But if I miss a day of skating, I have to make it up the next day.”

One of DeGray’s teammates earlier this season, Knickle, is one of those players who admits he has a lackadaisical attitude to off-ice preparation.

“I really try to conserve my energy,” Knickle says. “I do what’s best for me. I don’t try to fix anything that’s not broken.”

But that’s not to say Knickle chastises others who work hard off the ice to keep in shape.

Goalies are different

“I never say to anybody ‘Do what I do.’ What works for me might not work for somebody else. Goalies, however,” notes Knickle, “don’t have to be big and strong like the other players. We do some drills for our skating but we don’t need that explosiveness.”

Knickle, who turns 34 on February 26, has experimented with lifting weights in the past. He still does some exercises for his lower legs, but chances are you won’t catch him pumping iron to improve his upper body strength. “I did that one day and then I couldn’t move for the next couple days,” he laughs. “I don’t need that.”

During his pro career, which began during the 1979-80 season, Knickle has had minor league stints in Erie, Rochester, Flint, Sherbrooke, Saginaw, Peoria, Fort Wayne, Albany, Springfield, San Diego, Phoenix and now Detroit. During the past two seasons, he also appeared in 14 NHL games with Los Angeles.

Since a goalie’s main job is stopping the puck, Knickle believes off-ice preparation isn’t really going to help him much. “Being able to see the puck is the key,” says the stopper. “I teach at some hockey schools and I always tell everybody; being able to see the puck is an ability you have or don’t have. It’s not something that can be taught.”

Since hand-eye coordination is vital to netminders, Knickle adds there is one exercise which he occasionally performs. That’s the old bouncing-a-tennis-ball-and-catching-it-off-the-wall routine.

Hurlbut, who is Cornwall’s captain this season, says the mid-season months are traditionally are among the hardest for hockey players.

“Eighty games is a long season,” he says. “By the time January and February roll around, it gets mentally as well as physically hard. Those months seem to drag on. And it’s good once in a while to get away from the rink.”

Most coaches realize this, and in order not to wear down their troops prior to the playoffs they will ease up on the length of practices. “They start to get shorter,” says Hurlbut. “But you’re just working harder for less time.”

And in many cases, after these shortened on-ice sessions, it’s off for another workout in the weight room. “You do the weight circuit and ride the bikes to maintain and improve your cardiovascular system,” says Hurlbut, a 28-year-old alumnus of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY.

Hurlbut, who has appeared in 24 NHL games (23 with the New York Rangers and one with the Quebec Nordiques) said he prefers not to do any off-ice training away from the arena.

“I try to get my work done at the rink,” says Hurlbut, whose minor pro league stops have also taken him to Denver, Flint, San Diego and Binghampton. “When I’m at home, I try to get away from it all. I don’t get any exercise, unless you count walking the dogs.”

Hurlbut’s family, which includes wife Julie and 2-year-old son Jacob, has a pair of golden retrievers.

Watch what you eat, drink

Though he hardly performs any strenuous work at home, Hurlbut, like most other pro athletes, has to keep a close on what he eats during the season.

“Guys at this level are well aware of their nutritional needs. They tend to eat a lot of pasta and a lot of chicken.”

Replenishing one’s fluid loss is also important. “The average guy loses about four pounds of water weight each game,” notes Hurlbut. “You’ll put that right back on again through meals. But if you don’t have a good meal afterwards, you’ll lose about two pounds of muscle or, in some cases, fat.”

Hurlbut’s teammate Savage agrees that the months of January and February can provide some difficult times. “After Christmas everybody starts getting more focused on the playoffs,” says Savage. “And there’s a letdown if you don’t keep the same diet or sleeping patterns. You have to keep a mental focus. You don’t want to fall into any bad habits.”

Savage, 24, says some teams test the fitness levels of their players in mid-season, much as they do at the beginning of training camp. “It’s more to find out about yourself,” says Savage, a fifth-year pro who has had NHL stints with the Washington Capitals and Quebec Nordiques. “You have to try and keep higher on things like the bench press or squats.”

Chances are those with less than satisfactory results won’t have them go unnoticed. “Sometimes a coach will give you a hint by saying, Did you sleep okay? or Did you eat right?,” Savage says. “Or sometimes a coach will come right out and say you’re not keeping in shape. I’ve seen lots of guys lose their shape.”

Most minor league clubs have limited contacts with dietitians throughout the season. But a lot of NHL teams have them around.

“I used to call quite a few times when I was in Washington,” reveals Savage. “I’d have questions like, Why do I feel sometimes feel lousy after playing two games in two nights but I’m okay after three games in three nights? It’s nice to know you have somebody there to answer those questions.”

Even after the final buzzer has sounded, Savage says pro players still have work to do to keep in shape. “I lose 3-to-5 pounds a game,” he says. “I try to eat a lot of pasta, like lasagna and spaghetti. And the main thing is to drink a lot of water to avoid cramps.”

And before calling it a night, Savage says there’s one final thing he does to maintain his shape. “I always try to do a good stretch before getting into bed.”

So do what you can to avoid hitting your own mid-season wall. Take some tips from these pros, and stay in shape from the season opener right through to the playoff drive.

Sam Laskaris is a freelance sportswriter in Toronto.

This first appeared in the 02/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2011 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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