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There’s No “Off” In Off-Season

By: Mike Peck
05/05/2011 9:20 AM - The following is a feature in the summer edition of the "IceHogs Insider"

I’m sure you’ve read or heard stories about hockey players back in the 1930’s or 40’s that had to return home to work in factories, construction  or whatever job they could find to make ends meet until the winds of another hockey season blew through.

Well, this isn’t your grandfather’s professional hockey anymore. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and they certainly don’t get this way during the season. Plus, the paychecks are a little bit larger these days.

As players scattered after the 2010-11 American Hockey League season in Rockford, they all left with a plan in place to ready themselves for the 2011-12 campaign. Now, all 28 skaters who were on the IceHogs roster at the conclusion of the 10-11 season won’t be back in Rockford, but just about all of them will be playing professionally somewhere come late September, early October.

It’s the job of IceHogs Athletic Trainer D.J. Jones, Strength and Conditioning Coach Shane Lawson along with Chicago Blackhawks Strength and Conditioning Coach Paul Goodman to send the players to their off-season destinations with a plan.

For Jones, however, he doesn’t feel the off-season structure is consistent with the in-season philosophy and this makes setting summer training regiments a challenge for the staff.

“It’s tough, call me the antagonist, but it’s one of my biggest pet peeves about the sport of hockey,” said Jones about the offseason training structure. “Currently as it is, we work in a unified setting with everyone on the same page organizationally and then when the summer hits we turn all the players away to their respective homes or wherever they choose to train and we rely upon individuals that we don’t even know to work with these players.

“Ultimately the program that they are on is created by a combination of Paul Goodman and Shane Lawson to kind of act as the foundation for what they do.  But it’s one of those things that when we come back for training camp in September we’ve got 80 or so players possibly coming into camp with 80 different approaches to how they trained in the summer.”

When the season reconvenes in the fall, it’s the job of the training staffs in Chicago and Rockford to make sure that all 80 of those players get reassessed to gauge where their fitness levels are in preparation for the long regular season.
Players don’t exactly jump into their offseason training, however, as there is some much needed down time following seven to eight months of straight hockey with minimal off days. Some guys don’t even return to the ice until early July.

“I get really intense down the backstretch of July and into August,” said IceHogs winger Kyle Hagel. “But right after the season I normally like to take four-to-six weeks of just like an active rest period where I’m not really on a strict workout plan. I try to do some other fun active things like play squash or go for bike rides.

“If I feel like working out, I go ahead and work out, but I’m not really on a strength building program. I feel like the reason to do that is to peak at the right time. If you start too early than you don’t want to hit your peak at July 30, you want to hit it right before training camp.”

Hagel and other IceHogs skaters like Brandon Bollig often train in boxing gyms in the offseason as well to work both on conditioning and their fighting skills. Some other non-hockey offseason activities enjoyed by some IceHogs players include playing some baseball, tennis or mountain biking.

Hockey players do get turned loose at the end of the season, but most of them also have trainers back home that they work out with or a group of other professional hockey players or friends to skate with to help keep the intensity at a high level as the summer grows old.

The biggest adjustment is probably for rookies like Jimmy Hayes who will make the fulltime jump from college hockey at Boston College (NCAA) to professional hockey in September. Hayes will rely on some older pros back in Boston to help him make the transition.

“I have a trainer back home, Brian McDonough, who’s unbelievable. He works some pros like Brian Boyle and Joe Callahan. He has some pro hockey players under his belt there so I might follow their lead and see what he does with them. 

“It’s a 40-game schedule in college and I’ll have to get used to playing (76) games and hopefully some more with the playoffs. It’ll be a little different preparing my body this year, but it’ll be the same dedication that I put in the last few summers.”

More games also mean more of grind and when you have 19, 20 and 21-year olds competing with 30-something-year-old men, the increase in workload can be quite daunting.

“With the young guys, it’s to put on some size and put on some pounds,” replied Lawson.  “They’re not at the NHL solid playing weight yet.  A lot of these guys can afford to gain 10-15 pounds over the summer, hopefully all lean muscle. Their bodies aren’t fully developed so that’s their time to get bigger and stronger.”

The term “offseason” is a misnomer. Chicago will have 80 players competing for basically 25 spots on the 2011-12 Blackhawks roster. Most of the players cut from Chicago will head to Rockford to try to earn a spot on IceHogs. That’s about 50 spots for 80 players, meaning 37.5-percent of players in Blackhawks camp won’t start in the NHL or AHL with the organization.

A roster spot can be earned or even lost with poor summer conditioning for prospects or free agents on the fringe of making either team.  That’s the challenge for Jones and Lawson as the season comes to a close and they try to prepare players for the offseason.

“All of them are athletes so they know what it takes to play the game,” said Lawson. “The only thing I tell them not to do is take it easy over the summer. Summer isn’t a summer break for them like kids out of school. They’re professional athletes so summer is the time for them to work. Couple weeks off is really all you really get in a hockey season because after that it’s go time getting ready for the next season.”

Not only is it important for players to take a step back from hockey physically, but also mentally. After the long haul of the summer, training camp, regular season and in some cases postseason, the mind needs a break just as much as the body.

If a player cuts short their break over the offseason and get back into the training regiment too early, early peaking or even mental burn-outs can occur before training camp starts. That’s why skaters team up with trainers back home, to keep them focused and on course for training camp.

“Definitely do some training back in Edmonton, I have a trainer there, Body by Bennett,” said IceHogs defenseman Ryan Stanton.  “It’s a 13-week program that I’ll probably start up a month or so after I get back. But before that, I’ll take a week or two off and go to the gym once in a while and keep in decent shape. Main thing is to try to eat healthy.

“The first skates that I’ll do will just be some shinny hockey with some buddies back home. We usually have some free ice every day back in St. Albert (Alberta), usually just me and a couple guys on it so I’ll work on some stuff there but nothing too hard until it gets a little closer to camp.”

Even before training camp commences in Chicago in September, the training staffs know which players put their time in over the summer, which guys are behind and who’s already peaked in their training.

“Every program that we try to send the players into the summer with is individualized,” commented Jones on player’s offseason training. “With the ultimate goal being the bigger picture of them coming into camp healthy and ready to give it their best to try to make the Hawks. Every guy has individual things that are different from one guy to the next and a lot of it stems from the things we observe from day one at training camp and throughout the course of the season.

“Medically speaking, there are protocols that they’ve carried on based on injuries they’ve had throughout the season that transfer into the summer because they’re a lot of the foundation for the guys to set up correctly to train.”

The fault in the system, though, is that there are no offseason minicamps like in the National Football League. Players are held accountable for finding a way to execute their offseason conditioning program. Whether it’s through personal trainers, skating schools or getting together with a group of friends for work outs, players are expected to come into training camp ready to play and in shape.

Hayes has worked with Blackhawks Skating Coach Paul Vincent in summers past and plans to utilize “Coach V” again this summer along with McDonough for some off-ice conditioning.

Entering his first full professional season, Hagel thinks the rookie Hayes will have a leg up when it comes to his off-season training plan over a lot of the other first-year pros.

“The one thing that I’ve learned over the past couple of years of playing pro is that you have to spend more time actually cultivating your technical game,” said Hagel. “Like your skating, your puck handling and shooting, it can’t be overlooked. When I was younger, when I was in college I used to spend almost the whole summer lifting weights, getting stronger and charting my progress in terms of how much stronger am I getting.

“As I get older I realize the guys who play in the NHL aren’t necessarily always the guys who are squatting the most amount of weight. It’s who has the nicest stride and who has the best hands or whatever. So you kind of have to balance your strength and power movements in the gym with actually translating that into an effective skating stride. You have to make sure that you do a lot of power skating, a lot of stuff like that to keep yourself fluid and athletic.”

Most importantly, however, is keeping workouts fresh and re-establishing the passion that they have for the game of hockey. Sometimes the time away from the ice is just as important as the time spent on it. The older players get, the better they know their bodies and the more efficient their training becomes.

When July rolls around, players need to be excited about the start of the long haul that is the hockey season and look forward to getting back onto the ice. An insufficient break from the daily grind will deter players’ drive to get back into shape for the season.

Guys will faze into their on-ice training starting with up to three days a week in late June, early July and maxing out at five days a week in the final weeks leading up to training camp.

Away from the gym, players must watch what they eat, like the consumption of lean meats and avoiding fast foods.

“Organizationally, for the future of the Blackhawks and the success of the IceHogs, we have to take the early on fazes of the new players and really try to get them on the program that we want them on and hopefully that carries through,” said Jones.

And with that, continue to develop NHL ready players right here in Rockford.

Season Tickets On Sale For 2011-12: It'll be a long summer without IceHogs hockey and season ticket packages for the 2011-12 season are now on sale. To find a ticket package that quenches your hockey thirst, call (815) 847-6399.

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