Archived Rubber Magazine Article April 2010.
What On- and Off-ice training for youth players is becoming as much a part of hockey as lacing up skates off-season?
By Chris Bayee
There were no goals, dangles, passes or even pucks at this practice. Yet a group of Bantam and Midget players enthusiastically ran through drills to enhance their strides, stopping and turning as State and District playoffs were approaching. When some finished they went to work on their shot, while others followed up with some conditioning. What in the name of Jake LaLanne is going on? “I’ve been working on my skating and conditioning for a year,” said Orange County Hockey Club Bantam Alex Kalau. “I can definitely tell a difference. My skating’s improved, and I’m in better shape all the way around. That translates to better play.” Fellow OCHC Bantam Aaron Murray also was part of the group on the ice. “I’ve done this for three years,” Murray said. “I work on my skating during the season, and I do off-ice and weight work in the off-season. My stride is getting better and I’m getting stronger. I also do track at school in the off-season.” By mid-April, youth hockey’s off-season will be here for all teams in the state. So California Rubber Magazine decided to take a closer look at how training for the sport has evolved from convenience to necessity. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to hockey – all youth sports have an increased focus on development at a younger age. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise with college scholarships, junior team berths and for a few, the potential of being paid to play the sport. The NHL has evolved to emphasize speed and skill more than ever. “Today’s game has adapted more to the NFL as far as the training involved,” said Rick Kelly, a former minor-pro player who coaches for the LA Selects, serves as the USHL’s West Region scout and tutors NHL players on shooting. “From Pee Wee to pro if you’re not in top shape you can’t compete. “At one time being in top shape was an advantage, but today it’s an absolute must or you just can’t play and recover. A smaller weaker player has to prove he can play, while a bigger stronger player has to prove he can’t.” It wasn’t that long ago that training was something pro hockey players did at training camp. “Everybody would do whatever they wanted,” said Kelly, who also is an agent for Rich Winter’s The Sports Corporation. “The big joke used to be who would have the garbage bags on at training camp trying to lose the weight. It was summers off.” Not anymore. And it’s not just pros who working on strength and conditioning, and skating and skill development. Youth hockey players around the state are involved in conditioning and skill-building programs more than ever. What follows perspectives from a handful of experienced, certified trainers and coaches about training’s impact on youth hockey in California.
Strength and Conditioning
What is the player’s fitness level? What level is he or she at or hoping to play at? How physically mature is he or she? These are among the questions to ask when the subject of strength and conditioning training comes up. “Hockey is unique compared to other sports – look at the demands it places on the body,” said Chris Phillips, who operates Complete Sports Performance in Orange County and has more than 20 years of professional experience, including several years in the NHL. “You have to determine an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.” Rob Armstrong is a
former strength and conditioning coach for the LA Jr. Kings with an extensive background training hockey players, speed skaters and figure skaters. He owns Hockey Evolution and also has a Level 4 coaching certification from USA Hockey. He advocates a holistic approach to training, with consideration given to body type. “The balance of body is key,” Armstrong said. “You will see kids who are strong and overdeveloped in the upper body, but not as much in the lower body. I start with the lower body first. You have to make sure the speed and movement patterns are there.
“So you’d focus on the core for shooting, taking and delivering checks. You find that balance, where each athlete is weak and working on that. “Kids in particular don’t train to counter balance that
stuff as much. We’re all born with certain genetic frames. I tell all of my kids to see a masseuse and a chiropractor if there is posture issue.” Chris Martin, a trainer for Barron Hockey Academy in Yorba Linda, recommends a comprehensive evaluation of a player before skating full speed into a strength and conditioning program. “You have to assess up front, and it’s not just strength testing” Martin said. “Flexibility is important to evaluate. You don’t want imbalances. You don’t want to build strength on top of dysfunction. “There’s a start and a finish. Along the way, the evaluation continues to make sure there is progress. Parents appreciate that. They can tell if their kid is working or not.” And work is the operative word here, said Barron Hockey Academy owner Larry Barron, who has 20 years’ experience training players. “I don’t care how much talent you have, you have to give the effort and have the discipline and attitude if you want good things to happen,” he said.
So how much should a player train?
“Age is a factor, but so is the level they play at,” Philips said. “Ages 10-11-12 are a good time to start with functional body weight resistance. It takes younger players more time to develop, and a training program should complement their ice skating. Coupled with skating lessons, a player can get better faster. “For example, an 18AA player might need to lift weights to get bigger, whereas you would not train a younger player that way.” Said Barron, “At the Pro and Junior levels, players shut it down for 3 to 4 weeks after a long season to rest and recover. When they do get back to training they are preparing their bodies for the next season, working on weaknesses and deficiencies that lead to better on-ice performance.” Added Armstrong: “It’s a balance, find out what you need.”
Skating and Skill Development
The introduction of AAA hockey raised the bar for everyone in youth hockey in California, and nowhere has that been more apparent than in the areas of skating and hockey-specific skills. “Things changed a lot,” longtime skating coach Punky Vandenberg said. “You have to be on the ice x amount of hours per week for many years as you’re developing, and you have to have instruction. It parallels figure skating, only with hockey it’s skating, shooting and stickhandling. Without those three elements, I don’t know how you become great. Those are the basics you cannot ignore.” Go to any California rink and the chances are good you’ll see advertisements for skating and skill clinics and camps. There is a good reason for that, said Vandenberg, who has taught skating for 30 years in Southern California. “Off-ice conditioning and skating gives them a break and lets them concentrate on improving,” she said. “During the season, they’re on someone else’s agenda. They can’t go out and work on their weaknesses during a practice or a clinic.” The in-season and off-season training is an important differentiation to make, Barron said. “All of my privates are year round. Whether it is in-season, or off-season I am always evaluating what players need to work on,” he said. “I am picking apart certain aspects of a player but also boosting them up, building their confidence. I work on details in confined areas – just as USA Hockey’s ADM specifies. The fundamentals, skating, passing, shooting, all the things that translate into a game. The same fundamentals that should never stop being worked on, no matter how good you are or what level you play. “In the off-season, it’s more of an emphasis on skills because the kids aren’t committed to practices or games. It’s an education process; you keep tweaking things. Teaching players the importance of hitting the net and forcing the goalie to make a save – how to handle a puck along the wall under extreme pressure, how to use their body for leverage or to protect the puck. High level players work on these type of details every practice, and it makes a huge difference in a game.” Said Vandenberg: “You cannot stop working on skating. If a player has every intention of moving up to NCAA Division I or the NHL, they don’t have the choice– they have to work on their skating and speed on the full ice, and they have to get re-evaluated every year. “A coach can’t give them speed, but conditioning and better technique can add speed to the player. “These next six months, they better kick up their speed because everyone’s moving up a level.”
You Are What You Eat
Each of the training professionals interviewed also emphasized proper nutrition. “Your diet and what you put into your body is just as important as your time spent in the gym,” Barron said. Armstrong also stressed in-season nutritional strategies. “Come to the rink prepared,” he said. “Make sure all of the player’s snacks are the right kind. I’ve seen a few large families come to practice, and in the back of their Suburban they have a full cooler of food for the long drive home. It’s a special, committed group of sports families. If you have that commitment, you’re going to get better.”
If all of this sounds tiring, it can be. So what’s a young player to do? Take a break. “Rest is tough to get,” Phillips said. “No matter what, you’ll hear, ‘You’ve got to be on the ice.’ “Players need one day off during the season. Give them a chance to be a kid. If we’re breaking them down, we’re not helping them.” Said Armstrong: “Rest is probably the most overlooked area of development. Without rest, your hard work doesn’t pay off. The trouble is June is when tryouts are and then there are exposure camps that put pressure on people to not be on the sidelines. The pressure is there to play 12 months a year from the team point of view. So if some players did rest, they’d have to set it up during the season on a daily or weekly basis.” Added Barron: “Once the season ends, we tell our players we want them to check out for a few weeks to unwind, reflect on the season. Sit back and set some goals. The key is finding a balance of what you’re going to do all summer. This is where we’re trying to educate players and parents about what is too much, what is not enough. “You’re trying to build the body up, not keep beating it up. “And go to the beach, have a social life. Sometimes less is more.”
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