Conditionning & Modern Hockey
Why fitness is fundamental
Being in peak physical condition is an important, if under-discussed factor to playing great hockey.
At the NHL level, the vast majority of players and teams understand the importance of training, nutrition and recovery, so it is difficult to leverage “being fit” as a competitive advantage.
However, as Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe noted after a loss to the Arizona Coyotes, “being less fit” or “being fatigued” can be a huge competitive disadvantage.
TOR’s recent struggles (5-4 OTL vs. COL after being up 4-1, 4-3 SOW vs. VGK after being up 3-1, 2-1 loss to ARZ) can certainly be attributed to the team not being in peak form.
The Leafs were searching for game fitness, having played few games in recent weeks due to COVID postponements.
The team is also dealing with a depleted F rotation, with the absence of Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall.
Long road trips erode a team’s fitness level. Players don’t sleep as well away from home, strength coaches need to adjust their programming due to inconsistent equipment availability and air travel across time zone disrupts everyone’s natural rhythm.
These situations are nothing special for NHL teams, however.
Such stretches occur for all 32 teams during an 82-game regular season.
Everyone tries their best and it all evens out in the end.
But not so at lower levels.
In minor hockey, junior hockey, college hockey and especially beer league hockey, fitness is a sustainable competitive advantage for those who invest.
Being in better shape offers clear tactical benefits.
Here are a few.
On the Forecheck
At lower levels, a team’s forechecking effectiveness is dictated by individual work rate rather than a high collective standard. Consequently, a team’s OZ FC is as good as its weakest link.
If F1 is out of shape, it will be difficult for a team to kill exits and to create scoring chances off turnovers.
If F2 is out of shape, F1 is left on an island and can easily be bypassed.
If F3 is out of shape, opponents will have an easy time changing sides and finding the middle through the NZ.
If the Ds are out of shape, they’ll be less inclined to gap up early and to make timely pinches. Getting caught flat-footed in the opposite direction will be even more disastrous.
On the Breakout
A litmus test for one’s aptness for the modern, possession-based game is the ability to start low in the DZ and then sprint to join the rush.
This attribute is a plus for wingers, who do have the option of leaving the zone early and using their hand skills to corral stretch passes in the NZ.
However, it is a must for centers and offensive-minded defensemen, who are often called to stop the cycle below their goal line, make a first play to get off the wall, and then sprint the middle to join the attack as F3 or F4.
If a C or D is gassed after playing in DZ coverage for 30 seconds, that player will be hard-pressed to make a clean exit pass and then sprint to form a second offensive layer.
A dump-out by a tired skater often leads to a NZ turnover and another DZ siege.
Ds sitting back instead of working to join the rush not only prevent their teams from creating odd-men situations off the rush, but also create bad gaps that savvy opponents can exploit off counter-attacks.
In High-Leverage Situations
As a former high-school player who wasn’t always in the best of shape, I gained a much better appreciation for the importance of fitness when working for coach Peter Smith of the McGill University women’s hockey team.
Peter, a former assistant with the Canadian Women’s National team (Turin 2006 & Vancouver 2010), put McGill Martlet players through the infamous Beep Test, among other physical assessments, twice per year: once at the start of training camp and once after the Christmas break.
By setting high physical standards and following through, the Martlets were invariably among the fittest, best-forechecking team in Canadian university hockey.
But there was another reason why Peter valued that process. By having data on his players’ fitness level in addition to their on-ice analytics, he had a better idea of who to lean on in big moments.
A third-period lead.
A late-game powerplay.
A playoff overtime.
A national final.