5 Things I Learned About Making NHL Players Strong and Powerful at Prentiss Hockey Performance

5 Things I Learned About Making NHL Players Strong and Powerful at Prentiss Hockey Performance

Posing with Stanley Cup champ, MVP, 2x Art Ross winner and Olympic gold winner, Martin St. Louis of the New York Rangers

Posing with Stanley Cup champ, MVP, 2x Art Ross winner and Olympic gold winner, Martin St. Louis of the New York Rangers

I just wrapped up my one-week internship at Prentiss Hockey Performance in Darien, CT – a sports performance facility known for its top end pro hockey clientele.

I had the great opportunity to observe numerous NHL players (not to mention AHL and college players and guys who play in Europe) training for improved strength, power and conditioning.

And obviously I got to pick the brain of head honcho and owner, Ben Prentiss, on any training related question I could come up with. Ben was even nice enough to give me daily homework to ensure I got the most out of this fantastic experience.

One of the things I believe strongly in is that if you’re gonna do anything, you better do it in style. So naturally, I rented a sailboat for the week I was staying near Darien. Chillin’ on deck while working on getting more tan plus designing training programs based on the template and instructions Ben gave me was definitely not a bad way to spend my evenings.

 Daily view from the deck of my sailboat

Daily view from the deck of my sailboat

As you probably know – at least if you’ve read any of my recent posts on this site – I already spent a day at PHP in June when most guys were just starting their summer training with Phase 1 – something that Ben calls his structural balance/hypertrophy phase.

For instance, Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues had just started his workouts (his first summer training with Ben) and let me tell you, you wouldn’t have been able to pick him as a pro athlete in a crowd of regular office workers.

Now, ca. 7 weeks later, he had leaned down noticeably, gotten stronger and better conditioned, and was ready to enter training camp in the best physical shape of his career in a few weeks.

Obviously what the pros training at PHP are doing works, which not only manifests itself in the improved physical qualities of guys training there but also the ever-growing clientele of top NHL players finding their way to Darien, CT each summer.

One look at the names on the jerseys on the wall, and you know something great is going on at PHP

One look at the names on the jerseys on the wall, and you know something great is going on at PHP

Here are the top 5 things I learned during my stay at PHP.

#1. Hockey Is a Sport of Power

Hockey, as most other sports, is about force production at high velocities and high rates of speed.

Hockey is about being powerful.

There’s a tendency – especially in Europe – to focus on improving the aerobic capacities of players, even though the game largely consists of fast turns, short bursts of speed, checking and shooting hard, and keeping up with the high tempo of the game.

Having witnessed several young Finnish hockey players try and make the leap from the top league in Finland over to the NHL over the years, I can think of no better example for demonstration purposes of this glaring disparity between the North American and European strength & conditioning practices than the case of budding Finnish hockey star Mikael Granlund.

A short recap of Granlund’s achievements before the start of his NHL career:

– World champion (2011)

– Finnish champion with HIFK Helsinki (2011)

– 21 points in 21 games in the AHL during the lockout season 2012-2013

– Generally regarded as one of the best players in the world outside of the NHL

Now, I don’t even pretend to speculate about how big of an influence moving to a new country and getting accustomed with a new culture over in the US had on Granlund’s performance on the ice (or if it even had any bearing at all in the first place) since I don’t know him personally, so all I will do is reflect his level of play with the expectations of him being NHL-ready from day 1.

During his first season at the NHL level, Granlund struggled with the pace of the game, constantly losing puck battles, getting upended by bigger opponents, and not being able to produce much in the way of offense (8 points in 27 games – a paltry 0.3 ppg for a guy who has been a point-per-game-or-higher player all his career both in the juniors and men’s). This lack of production resulted in him being sent down to the minors during the regular season.

Fast forward to the 2013-2014 season, where Granlund elevated his game (41 points in 63 games – a 0.65 ppg) as the season progressed, and was arguably the best forward in the playoffs on a Wild team that made it to the Western Conference semis before being finished off at the hands of reigning Stanley Cup champ Chicago Blackhawks.

Apart from the clearly improved offensive numbers #64 put up, he was winning a ton more 1-on-1s, coming out of the corners in possession of the puck, spending a lot less time struggling to get back on his feet after being run over by the D… and at times he was nearly unstoppable – like when scoring this great OT goal against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.

What we can deduce from this is that one summer spent focusing on getting stronger and faster has made all the difference in Granlund’s on-ice play. He always had the vision, puckhandling skills and hockey IQ to excel against the best players on the planet, yet that never fully transitioned onto the NHL level until his physical qualities were brought up to speed.

Obviously getting used to the faster pace in the rink and the player’s confidence levels play a part in his overall performance as well, but like I said, I’ve followed young Finnish hockey players with great interest for years now, and it’s always the same story – physically they’re not ready to play in the NHL when they first go overseas.

In my eyes, the reason for this is simple. The strength & conditioning practices of young Finnish hockey players are lackluster, often implemented by a hockey coach who knows very little in the way of proper strength training with barbells, dumbbells and the individual’s own bodyweight.

Instead, most off-ice training modalities consist of bodyweight push-ups, abdominal work (a.k.a. tons of crunches) and endless jogging before and after practice (more on this a bit later).

So what sets elite players apart on the ice when it comes to physical qualities in the game of hockey, is the ability to generate power, multi-directional (forward, backward, lateral and diagonal) bursts of speed, the ability to stop on a dime and change directions in the blink of an eye (deceleration, stopping and acceleration), and keeping up a high pace for the entire shift that averages around 45 seconds in most situations.

Which brings us to the next point…

#2. Anaerobic Capacity Over Aerobic Capacity

Now, unless we’re talking about a special team (powerplay/shorthand) situation or a situation where the head coach has his top players on the ice every other shift when the team desperately needs to create some offense, guys generally get to rest 2-3 minutes between shifts in a typical period. In a game that has multiple stoppages due to off-sides, icings or penalties, the rest periods will be even longer.

Obviously then, hockey is a game of intermittent activity in nature, so improving the players’ anaerobic capacity carries much more importance than improving their aerobic levels of fitness.

Tuesday night skate at the local rink in Stamford, CT

Tuesday night skate at the local rink in Stamford, CT

I don’t think I’m uncovering anything groundbreaking here, but you’d still be surprised to know that even at the top levels of competition, these principles are often neglected. For example, my hometown team Jokerit Helsinki, that just began its first season in the KHL this week, had the 30-minute run as one of their fitness tests for the players a couple of years ago (I’m not aware whether this still applies today).

Testing athletes for performance is crucial in determining whether they’ve gotten better, stagnated or regressed over time. But the testing protocols need to evaluate the physical qualities actually required on the field or in the rink; they should not be used as arbitrary tools just for the sake of it.

A more intelligent test for anaerobic capacity would be performing the 400-meter dash or the 6×50 yard shuttle. That way we’re actually using an evaluation tool that requires similar energy systems characteristics as skating. An added benefit of shuttle runs is that they require direction changes (meaning deceleration and acceleration), which is inevitable in hockey.

Then again, anybody who has ever laced up knows that running performance does not directly correlate with on-ice skating performance, but at least with the two tests mentioned above we’re actually measuring an aspect of human performance that has greater validity in the game of hockey than running for longer distances at a slower pace.

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Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy Colton Orr (on the right) teaching Buffalo Sabres prospect Jordan Samuels-Thomas his fighting secrets after regular practice

#3. Hockey Players’ Nutrition Habits Suck

I remember reading former-NHL-player-gone-strength-coach, Gary Roberts, say in an interview that when he was playing for Tampa at the end of his career, guys had 4 different dessert options available to them on their charter flights after games.

From what I understand, things are not exactly any better these days either.

It was interesting to hear what a Conn Smythe Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champ had for dinner at a party the previous night while at PHP. Not chicken breast, sweet potatos, veggies and a protein shake, that much I can reveal here.

Hockey players are notorious for their abysmal eating habits and inclination to having a few cold ones after a game – sometimes before a game (just ask Alexander Radulov) or even more than just a few tasty drinks (Patrick Kane catching a cab ride, anyone?).

All that hard training will not off-set a bad diet

All that hard training will not off-set a bad diet

I sometimes find myself wondering how great some of the top players in the game today could really become if they dialed in their off-ice activities and went about them like true professional athletes instead of how a middle-aged office worker generally treats his training and diet.

Would Phil Kessel score 50+ goals if he knew how to train and eat properly?

Could Jake Gardiner finally take the next step towards becoming an elite level offensive D-man that the fans in Toronto expect him to be?

What about Alex Ovechkin, could he crack the 70-goal mark if his summer diet consisted of something smarter than hookah, beers and fried steak? (Seriously, Google that shit)

Which brings us to the next point…

#4. Genetics Matter

This was perhaps the most eye-opening revelation during my time at PHP.

Based on the conversations I had with Ben and from listening to the NHL’ers talk about their teammates and other guys in the league, it became apparent to me that you could be weak as a teenage girl, eat like crap and still make a pretty good hockey player who enjoys a nice seven-figure annual salary.

I could name a few handfuls of guys straight off the bat who don’t know a thing about training properly for their sport, yet have made more money with their last multi-million contract than most people see in their entire lifetime (which I’m obviously not gonna do here).

One guy who made it despite his less than optimal genetics - Nathan Gerbe, the shortest player in the NHL

One guy who made it despite his less than optimal genetics – Nathan Gerbe, the shortest player in the NHL

People look at all these silly “motivational” quotes or pics of jacked guys on Google and Facebook, and think that they can achieve the same level of physical excellence when the truth is, that level of physical excellence may just not be in the cards for you. I know this is something that people don’t want to hear, but everyone of us has a genetic limit we won’t be able to surpass, no matter what we do.

Now am I saying you should drop everything you’re doing because you won’t make your living chasing a rubber object while gliding on skates in front of 20.000 people or look like The Rock? Of course not. That’s why we train.

To get better.

To reach higher ground.

To achieve more.

But at the end of the day, you gotta realize that even if you did everything right from a training standpoint 24/7, that may still not be enough to get you into the big leagues or help attain a magazine cover body.

#5. You Have to Make Them Strong First

Ben told me that when people come in to look at what he does with his high level athletes, they typically take his advanced training methods and try to apply them on people that are not there yet, physically speaking. So obviously this turns out to be a sub-optimal approach to training.

What these guys don’t realize is what they see going on with an NHL player at PHP is the work of several years of progressive strength training.

imageYou can take all the advanced training methods like potentiation (for example, clusters or a heavy squat single followed by a box jump), loaded isometrics or slow eccentrics, and exercises such as bench press throws, squats with bands and/or chains, bench presses with weight releasers, then have a young athlete (not necessarily young as in chronological age but young as in not many years of proper strength training in the gym) actually get worse from all that stuff because you’re applying the right methods but at the wrong stage of the athlete’s physiological development.

I had a few people ask me about Martin St. Louis’ leg training since they want to have wheels as big and strong as Marty does. Having them follow his exact training program that consists of lots of power work is very likely not going to be an appropriate approach unless they’re already very strong to begin with.

So that would mean spending several years of getting as brutally strong as possible with the most basic stuff in the gym (all variations of squatting, benching, pressing overhead, chinning, dipping, etc.) before mixing in the more advanced training methods.

As Ben put it:

“You make them strong first. Power is the cherry on the top.”

I’ll be spending the next 11 weeks with Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ training hockey players and other athletes ranging from juniors all the way up to the collegiate and pro level.

Gonna be fun!

If you enjoyed this article, please do a brother a favor by liking, commenting and sharing it with others who might dig it as well.

Thanks!

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Yunus Barisik
 

Yunus Barisik, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for an elite junior hockey organization based in Espoo, Finland. He has trained hundreds of hockey players at the junior, college and pro levels, including NHL Draft picks and World Champions. An accomplished author, Yunus has had articles published on top fitness and performance sites, including STACK and Muscle & Strength. He also wrote Next Level Hockey Training, a comprehensive resource for ice hockey players on building athletic strength, size and power, while staying injury-free.

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