Ever start a workout and realize it’s just not your day? Maybe you had one too many sugary alcoholic drinks the night before and your head is pounding. Maybe the Popeyes chicken sandwich isn’t sitting right and the burpees make you want to throw up. So you call it. You shave a few minutes off and leave before finishing that final set. It’s a normal civilian fitness experience.
But it’s not something we associate with NHL hockey players during their rigorous, gladiator-like off-season training regimens. These guys leap out of swimming pools and pull sleds on football fields. It’s tough to picture athletes of this caliber simply walking away from workouts.
But that’s exactly what happened one day recently at Prentiss Hockey Performance in Stamford, Conn., to the surprise of founder and lead trainer Ben Prentiss, who works with numerous NHLers. The client had begun his off-season program. Prentiss was putting him through the paces like it was any summer between seasons. Suddenly, the client stopped.
“I just can’t get my head into this,” the client said.
He had to walk away, mid-workout. His heart, body and mind weren’t in it. It was the bubble hangover.
The client played for a team that made the NHL post-season tournament. He’d spent weeks and months training after the March-12 shutdown in hopes of peaking physically in time for the bubble. He trained inside the bubble. He played a rigorous schedule that commonly included three games in four nights and regular back-to-backs. Now he was embarking on an off-season workout plan with no confident understanding of whether the NHL would meet its planned return date of Jan. 1. And something just switched off. After a pattern of training, waiting, training, playing and training, then back to training…he wasn’t ready. Prentiss and his staff paused the program.
The NHL just completed the first “bubble season” in its history. Doing so required unprecedented preparation for the athletes who competed inside. Once there, they endured unusual physical and mental strain during the tournament. Now that the athletes have left the bubble, they need a different timeline of recovery and workout-plan customization than in any other off-season.
What has the experience been like from a training perspective for NHLers before, during and after the bubble?
The NHL’s COVID-19 shutdown in Mid-March created a unique set of problems for every team when it came to staying physically fit. The first hurdle was, simply, access to proper equipment. The majority of players rely heavily on their team training facilities, and using them was prohibited in the early lockdown days. That put the onus on players to find ways to stay fit at home using whatever gear they could muster up. For private trainers like Matt Nichol, owner and coach at Paragenix Systems, that meant prepping his clients for the return to play by making them as self sufficient as he could and writing at-home programs for them. As phase-2 workouts and phase-3 training camp got closer, he was even helping players learn how to properly warm themselves up.
“For a very significant chunk of time, there was a very significant number of guys in the league that had access to no ice, and some of them had no access to anything that would bear resemblance to real, structured off-ice strength and conditioning,” Nichol said. “Certainly everybody can stay fit. There’s no excuse to be completely out of shape. Even if you’re in a condo by yourself, you could maintain some basic, requisite level of fitness, but that’s nowhere near what you would need to come into a traditional training camp in terms of strength and speed and power and the hockey level of conditioning.”
Some players and teams were also better positioned to stay fit than others. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup started out on the right foot because of the warm climate in Tampa. Lightning director of high performance and strength coach Mark Lambert estimates about 20 players stayed in Florida during the NHL shutdown. Even though they couldn’t train together, the organization was able to outfit them with individual garage-gym setups.
“Obviously it wasn’t ideal, but the main thing was, and we as an organization said that right off the bat, the team who’s going to win the Cup is the team that is going to stay, who’s going to check out the least,” Lambert said.
Lambert was as hands-on as he could be virtually, regularly meeting with the players via video chats and discussing each of their programs. He was pleasantly surprised to see the players embrace their predicament. Many of them participated so enthusiastically in the workouts that they started smashing personal bests. One player improved his vertical jump, which affects skating speed, by almost 15 percent. Lambert was ecstatic.
Not every team had the same level of access to gym-like environments, however. And on top of struggling to secure proper training equipment, players faced the challenge of simply not knowing when to train or, more specifically, when to peak. For the first couple months of the shutdown, the NHL hadn’t announced an official plan for the return to play.
“Most of these guys don’t enjoy working out – they enjoy playing hockey, and when there’s no (set) start of training camp, or in that case, the bubble kept getting pushed and pushed, the (battle) becomes more mental than physical,” Prentiss said.
Only by late May did players know the timeline, which was set at roughly two months with games beginning Aug. 1. Once phase 2 arrived and teams could train together, the Lightning may have had a slight mental edge as one of the teams that accomplished the most during the solo phase. Once they could interact in person for small group workouts, they were enthused to start pushing each other.
“In the gym, I could feel it in the sense that everybody was happy to be there,” Lambert said. “We were doing certain exercises for speed, and everybody was writing their scores on the board, and there was a friendly competition in the gym which I’d never seen in my nine years with the team.”
Once players entered the bubble tournament, they were tested physically like no other NHLers had ever been – because of the game action rather than the training. They didn’t do intense conditioning once inside. As Lambert explains, their workouts were primarily about “nervous system activation,” doing enough to get the blood flowing but not push the body to the point it needed recuperation. The players couldn’t have handled any more than that because of the schedule. Three games in four days were typical, as were back to backs at playoff-level intensity, sometimes after the first leg went to overtime. The condensed schedule naturally inflicted some physical trauma on the players, as their private trainers learned once the players exited the bubble and debriefed them.
As Nichol puts it, baseball players might get rotator-cuff problems from the repetitive stress, and football players could have Achilles and hamstring issues, but it was “hips and groins” most commonly damaged among hockey players in the bubble. It wasn’t just about the wear and tear specifically happening in the games. It was that the players had no way of preparing to withstand it. A soccer player can still run on a proper pitch and kick a ball into a net even when training solo, and a basketball player can run on a real court and shoot on an NBA net, but the NHL players didn’t have access to ice or bodychecking, Nichol said. That made it difficult to suddenly dive back into training camp and playoff hockey.
“There’s absolutely nothing you can do that replicates the demands of skating off the ice,” Nichol said. “You can try to replicate movement patterns, and that’s good, and it’s helpful – and we use things like sideboards, and there’s all sorts of different devices that we use, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing that replicates skating other than skating. And then you level that up to say there’s nothing that can replicate hockey outside of hockey, which is obviously more demanding than skating. And then, anyone who’s lived it would tell you there’s nothing that replicates playoff hockey.
“You can practice all you want in the summer. It’s not the same as playing a game. In the first game, the adrenaline rush, the level of physical contact you’d have against an opponent versus a friend or someone that you train with is different, and then anyone who’s played playoff hockey will tell you that the intensity is just a different level. It’s impossible to quantify scientifically, but any player who’s played it will tell you that you feel a lot different the morning after a playoff game than you do after a regular season game.”
From what Prentiss’ clients told him, the physical experience was gruelling, yes, but so is playoff hockey every season. It was the mental and emotional toll that made the bubble such a mountain to climb. Living there started out as something fresh and exciting, but the novelty wore off quickly.
“You were hearing stories of the guys that were younger and sort of enjoyed the experience more than the guys that had families and, from what I’ve heard first hand, it was sort of like an adult camp,” Prentiss said. “It was a very surreal thing where they’re walking around in a giant hotel with nobody in there but NHL hockey players. And, in the very beginning, they’re playing tennis and football and soccer, and they’re able to go on the field. It was a very weird sensation to say the least. And then, once they got going, those games kind of went away, and guys got more serious, and then it became: go right to your room, get recovery, things of that nature.”
“I think that, almost to a person, these guys really underestimated the mental and emotional effects of living in that bubble,” Nichol said. “For all of the media play – kicking some field goals or hitting some golf balls – that was nice and provided some good media moments, but what you didn’t see was all the time with guys being locked up inside and guys being lonely, being stressed out, being anxious – all the normal human emotions that everyone else went through (from the pandemic), except you weren’t able to get out and do what you want. You weren’t able to create your bubble family or your bubble group as you wish.”
After the season ended, some players obviously needed more time to physically recover than others, especially members of the Lightning and Stars, who spent 65 days in the bubble and played 25 and 27 games, respectively. It was a given, then, that some players would be ready to train again sooner than others. Lambert is treating each Lightning player on a case-by-case basis, activating him when he’s up for it.
But it’s the mental element that requires the most delicate maneuvering of players’ workout programs in the post-bubble landscape. That’s why, when his client walked out on training, Prentiss immediately shut him down. He knew the player needed more time. It was just too much between the end of the season and launching right into free agency and starting to prepare for a season with another murky start date, currently pencilled in for Jan. 1 but not looking very realistic considering the NHL wants fans in stands at some point in 2020-21.
In a way, the post-bubble training is more challenging than pre-bubble. Players are recovering from their experiences and once again dealing with uncertain timelines. That makes them challenging to train. If you get them peaking at the wrong time, they could be mentally checked out by the time the next season starts.
“The last thing you would want is to – it’s great if guys are breaking records in the gym in September, but if they hate working out and they hate training and they hate hockey by December, that’s going to be a big problem when the season starts in January,” Nichol said.
That means mixing up exercises and trying to keep them fresh and interesting. But if training the players who came out of the bubble is a unique challenge, it pales in comparison to working with players from the seven teams who missed the playoffs altogether and didn’t qualify for the 24-team tournament. They last competed in mid-March. In the best-case scenario, they’ll be returning after 10-month layoffs. It’s more likely 11 months will have passed by the time they suit up again. Rink rust is a real problem to overcome. Prentiss estimates some of his clients are facing their longest competitive hockey hiatuses since they were about four years old.
His solution has been to essentially give the rink-rust players the equivalent of two consecutive off-seasons, meaning the training cannot consist of 10 straight months of “peaking, peaking, peaking.” Instead, he builds them up, brings them back down, gives them a break and starts a “second off-season.” Part of the plan also includes having members of the rink-rust group play games against each other to refamiliarize them with the feeling of competitive games against NHL-caliber opponents.
So it’s a matter of keeping the rink-rust clients busy but not so busy for so long that they can’t stand it anymore.
“Skating is such a specific movement that, scientifically I would tell you, you need to make sure that you maintain a certain amount of skating,” Nichol said. “And then from a skill perspective in hockey, again, it’s so highly specific that you need to make sure that you have a certain volume of work on the ice, a certain amount of touches. That’s the science. The art (of training) would say: my fear is that you want to make sure that these guys still look forward to coming to the rink in January, that it hasn’t become so monotonous. For most of these guys, it’s not pulling up underground in your private parking space and going to your team facility that’s the Four Seasons or the Taj Mahal of hockey. It’s getting out at the local public rink, going into your trunk and lugging your bag out like you did when you were (a kid) and hauling it into the rink, and pretty soon you’re going to be hauling it into the rink with your snow boots on and your coat.
“That’s not something that a lot of these guys are looking forward to, so it’s striking that balance between making sure that they’re getting enough work on the ice to maintain their skills and to maintain their hockey-specific fitness without burning them out and having them really, really start to dislike hockey.”
It’s been the strangest season of training for NHL players – ever. And there’s no guarantee things return to normal any time soon. Players must again prepare for shifting timelines, and even if the NHL never wants to stage games in a bubble again, COVID-19 may have something to say about that.