The Future of Hockey: How the game looks now and how it is evolving

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Friday January 13th, 2017

Hockey has come a long way from the outdoor games in the late 1800s played with frozen dung and bent tree branches. As the NHL celebrates its 100th season, it’s unfathomable to imagine a game without Zambonis, composite sticks or even instant replay.

The game has moved across North America, from the cold, wet northeast to warm, sunny locales in Arizona and California. As the league prepares for the arrival of its newest franchise, set to play in the dry heat of Las Vegas, it’s not easy to conceive what comes next for the game. The players have become bigger, faster and stronger, while their equipment has gotten lighter and safer. Coaching has gotten more complex. Players train for niche on-ice roles. 

While no one out there can say with absolute certainty where the game is headed over the next century, here’s a look what we can expect on the way there. 

I. Equipment

He flashed the leather. Got some wood on it. Went to the bench for a new twig.

There’s a lot of history in the vernacular of hockey. While those idioms conjure very specific images of hockey equipment, they’re also a sign of how much things have changed. Where there was once leather and wood, now there’s space-age composites, light plastics and foams that keep players speeding along, ripping off amazingly fast shots (and stopping them) while being safer than ever.

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Much of that has to do with players continually searching for lighter, more responsive and durable pieces of equipment. The biggest place this can be seen is right in their hands.

“The carbon composite weight advantages, custom flex profiles depending on the type of shooter you are, improved consistency, and the overall increase in power of the shots are areas that wood sticks of the past could never compete with today,” says Jeff Dalzell, Vice-President,  Product Creation of CCM Hockey.

“Players are able to handle and shoot the puck like never before,” says Chris Joswiak a pro rep with equipment manufacturer Brians Custom Sports. “The weight, flex, and whip of the sticks allow the shooter to be more precise and exert more energy into every shot making it quite the nightmare for goaltenders at all levels.”

For those goalies, tasked with blocking shots that are coming at them harder and more accurately than ever, gear has never been better. Instead of deer hair-filled leather pads that got heavier with water weight as games went on, goaltenders now wear ones with engineered foam cores, that not only stay dry, but help deliver a more consistent performance while being as light as ever.

A change to elastic and velcro from thick leather straps with buckles has helped as well, though it took some time to win over hockey’s masked men. 

“Many goalies were hesitant on this change and couldn't trust the concept of relying on velcro to hold the leg secure” Joswiak says, “but today we have had virtually no issues and almost every other brand has now headed in this direction. Overall, these changes might not sound like much, but goal pads now weigh a fraction of what they did twenty years ago and players are able to move and perform like never before.”

One of the ways equipment makers know this is the growth of player input, which can help point them in a direction during the gear-making process. 

“We have players of all levels coming through our Performance Lab throughout the year, to help guide our future designs,” Dalzell says. The lab, he says, allows CCM to understand how players are using their technology, as well as playing a part in guiding and adapting future designs.

For Dalzell and CCM, some of the biggest equipment advancements have come pushing the limits of performance. That pursuit leads to some very non-hockey places for inspiration. For instance, he says that CCM will begin using Sigmatex material in its sticks, a carbon composite weave that was developed for other industries such as Formula 1 racing, to improve durability and performance. 

“The evolution of composite materials and its use into all equipment areas is something we don’t see ending soon, as the weight to performance ratio is tough to beat,” he says.

Dialogue with the league is important, however, as the rules concerning equipment—especially goalie gear—continually evolve.

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“Most recently, the NHL's efforts have been directed towards making the goaltenders pants more streamlined and will continue in the near future doing the same with their chest protectors,” Joswiak says. “These changes have a great impact to the hockey equipment brands and the equipment they make. Every time one of these rules are proposed, prototypes need to be made, and once the rules are in effect, much re-tooling is to be done to accommodate the new sizing or fit on the production line.”

With all of the tweaking and adjusting, there’s bound to be some innovation along the way. There’s no knowing what players will be using wearing under their uniforms in the years to come, but Joswiak has some ideas.

“It's hard to say what's in store for equipment in the future,” he says. “However if I was to look ahead I would say computer body scanning for customized fit, 3D printing, and modular two piece pads are all possibilities for where equipment technology is heading.”

Jon Blacker/SI

II. Training and Conditioning

For the next generation of NHL stars, it’s going to be all about the data. 

In addition to the goals and assists, there will be whole host of metrics available to help analyze a player’s health, fitness, sleeping and eating habits and more. 

And we’re only on the cusp of getting to the bottom of all of it.

“There's so many metrics now easily extractable through technologies and through sports science,” says Mark Reilly, the found of Systems Training Technology. “Sport has never been worth what it's worth right now. As a result, you have industries learning about sports and really helping sport evolve. So that competitive nature that's always going on in the background with athlete-vs.-athlete, now you've got companies in the background really trying to dive in to figure out their niche. As a result, we're learning a lot about how to improve muscle memory, how to improve speed, what hydration can do for an athlete.”

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Reilly, a former pro volleyball player, developed his program, an app where players create a detailed profile, follow workout and nutritional programs and share information with coaches and parents eager to see their progress. Among his partners is ex-NHLer-turned-trainer Gary Roberts, who counts Steven Stamkos and Connor McDavid among his clients at High Performance Training.

"Today, we use many technologies to measure an athlete in meaningful ways,” says Roberts, a 23-year NHL veteran who found the benefits of proper training and conditioning at rookie camp with the Calgary Flames in 1984. "Tech that was simply not available when I was a player is now used to better understand each player's individual needs and develop programs that are specific to them.”

That includes things like electrodes, compression sleeves, hydro therapies, yoga and more, Roberts says. Reilly points to wearable technology, a recent trend that’s making a lot of waves, allowing athletes to monitor their daily lives and get instant feedback. All of that data, however, has to have meaning. For instance, knowing how high a player can jump is only useful if there’s a pool of comparable data. It can allow a player to hone specific areas of their game, or in Roberts’s case, learn how to best recover from a serious injury.

“When I lost my career at 30 years old and had to reinvent myself, that's when I personally focused on getting the most out of my recovery days,” says Roberts, who had to retire in in 1996 due to a neck injury, only to come back the following season and play for 12 more. “The technology we use is designed to collect data, visually graph and analyze it to help us design a program for the player that will be what they need it to be. We assign daily questionnaires to the players evaluating their sleep quality, hydration, nutrition, and body awareness. The data tells us and the player how effectively they are recovering and gives us an opportunity to make adjustments to their program that will benefit their performance.”

For Reilly, collecting all that data and putting it together in an informational hub is the future, especially as players begin to train and get educated at younger ages now. Future generations would be able to track their progress and compare it with their favorite players.

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“How cool would that be?” Reilly says. “For an eight year old to check out Steven Stamkos's metrics at eight years old and match themselves? What are my metrics in relation to him?”

For those already in the pro ranks, however, the approach to things like nutrition and training is now a year-long commitment. Teams employ trainers like Roberts to keep their multi-million dollar investments in top-top shape.

“I've come to realize that the team behind the team is becoming as elite as the players,” Roberts says. “Everybody, in all aspects of high performance training, have had to up their game and recognize that standard programs aren't as effective as individual, more specialized programs. It's up to the agents and the grassroots organizations to give these players the right information or make it available to them through other avenues.”

In other words, we’ve come a long ways from Stan Mikita smoking cigarettes in the locker room, and the data says there’s even more to come.

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