The term ‘hockey specific training’ gets thrown around a lot in the hockey world, and parents are all too eager to sign their kids up for summer camps and weekly hockey lessons to help shape their budding child into the best player they can be. Is making kids play exclusively hockey, and spend hours on the rink per week the right method to develop an athlete?
A lot of professionals don’t think so.
It’s been made very public that National Hockey League coaches and scouts can tell when a prospect played multiple sports as a kid, and a prospect who only played hockey. Players who only play hockey while growing up tend not to develop properly as a hockey player, and although the skill is there, the athleticism and core strength is below average. On the other hand, prospects who played football, basketball or other sports while growing up develop into all-around better athletes, which in turn makes becoming an elite athlete easier.
Where is the balance between simply playing sports and focusing on hockey, and when should young athletes focus specifically on a single sport?
I spoke with Adam Nugent-Hopkins, a strength and conditioning coach for elite athletes in British Columbia. Adam has started his own company, ANH Strength Performance, and he is recognized as one of the top young sports performance coaches for hockey Canada. He studied Execise Sciences at Concordia University last year, and he played for the Varsity team, the Concordia Stingers. His brother is also Edmonton Oilers superstar center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Adam believes that parents and kids are being sucked in to the fad known as hockey specific training.
“The term hockey specific is thrown around very loosely these days for more reasons than one, but I find the biggest reason is that it’s a good market tool to sucker and lure kids and parents into spending money and taking part in the services offered.”
Adam does not deny that practicing hockey is important to developing skill, but it isn’t the only aspect which needs to be focused on.
“Being someone who does only off-ice training, I do believe that there are things we can do to transfer over to hockey specifically, but my philosophy is more about improving overall athletics.”
Hockey is a sport that requires a lot of skill, be it skating, stickhandling, checking or shooting. However, Adam truly believes that training the body and mind into one of an athlete is the building blocks for success in any sports.
“I do believe that kids need to develop hockey specific skills, but not at the rate they do today. I’ve heard of some kids being on the ice for 10-15 hours per week. That’s ridiculous, and what’s not being understood is how to train the athlete’s central nervous system, and allow for essential growth and development.”
If you need living proof, look no further than his brother Ryan, who is already leaving a mark in the National Hockey League as a super star.
“Both Ryan and I spend time away from the rinks for much of the summer, playing other sports such as basketball, track & field and the casual game of football. Ryan didn’t even play his second year of Peewee hockey. He spent time in the weight room and skated maybe once a week.”
He said parents who want their children’s dreams of becoming a hockey star to come true must realize that playing one sport is not the way to develop an athlete. Focus on becoming an elite athlete before deciding what sport to play. Just playing hockey day-in and day-out won’t turn someone into an elite athlete.
“Everyone wants their kid to play in the NHL, but there’s a lot of trends out there that just won’t be effective in the long run.”
If you want your kid to develop into the best athlete that they can, make sure they don’t play one single sport. Play summer sports in the summer, winter sports in the winter, and develop into an all-around athlete. Playing hockey year round may make them the best player on the local rink, but in the long run it will hinder their chances of developing into elite athletes.
A few weeks ago, I was offered a very unique and exciting opportunity.
As a student at Concordia University, I write for the university’s paper, The Concordian. I went to interview the men’s hockey team and their coach, Kevin Figsby, for an upcoming article I was working on. Coach Figsby was extremely accommodating, and he ended up inviting me to join the team on their away game in Trois-Rivières the following day. It was an offer I was not expecting, and I could not turn it down.
I got to the Verdun auditorium at 1:30, where the Concordia Stingers have been calling home while the university’s arena is under renovation. The team had ordered food from a local catering service, and we all enjoyed a nice meal of penne with meat sauce and garlic bread, a perfect pre-game meal. There were no tables, so we all just ate standing up. As coach Figsby walked by, he laughed and said “welcome to a road trip!”
Just to give you an example of the atmosphere and sense of humour these guys have, not five minutes had gone by after getting on the bus before the on-board entertainment had begun with “Mighty Ducks: D2”, the perfect hockey road trip movie. At one point during the movie, one of the players in the back of the bus said “EMILIOOOOO” when Coach Bombay (played by Emilio Estevez) was on screen. A bunch of players got a good laugh from the Night at the Roxbury reference, with someone even replying with “The Mighty Duckman, I swear to God!” At this point, I realized that this was going to be a fun road trip.
We arrived at the Trois-Rivières arena at about 4:45. The players all helped unload the bus, working as a team to get everything set up. The equipment manager, Stewart Wilson, has a great setup for away games, including a portable skate sharpener, a box full of extra tools, pieces of equipment etc., and even a machine to dry gloves and skates. As soon as everything is set up, the players start their pregame preparations. Some tape and re-tape sticks, some sit on the bench listening to music, and some head to see the athletic therapist, Robin Hunter. The coaches begin talking strategies right away, even though the game was not for another two hours.
It was a little surreal at the arena. The team is playing at a very high level, and preparation is important. While a few players sat on the bench (some likely visualizing, others staying focused while listening to music), the local figure skating association was finishing their lessons for the day. It makes you realize that these players are not professionals, but students. They do not have the Bell Centre free for them to prepare in peace, as you see in a show like CH24. Although the preparations are very similar, the venue and atmosphere is very different.
Just before the pre-game skate, I noticed Coach Figsby speaking with a man who was wearing a Los Angeles Kings jacket. Coach Figsby introduced me to him. His name is Denis Fugere, and he is a scout for the Kings. He was at the game to check the talent at the University level. This is his 21st season with the Kings organization, and he scouts Quebec and the Maritimes for major junior and university players.
I asked him about what it is like being a scout, and he gave me some invaluable insight. “I went and asked Kevin [Figsby] for players to look out for, so he have me three names. As for UQTR (Université de Quebec à Trois-Rivières), I am looking at one player in particular.” He mentioned that being a scout involves making judgement calls about the future. “With a player, you’re not looking for what he is going to be next year, but in 3 to 5 years. That’s not easy.” He told me that you have to look at so many different factors (family, schooling, friends, alcohol, drugs, skill, future goals, and so on) that it can be very difficult to make predictions about players. It was very interesting to speak with a scout, because it is a part of hockey so many know so little about (myself included).
Finally, the game was under way. The first thing that struck me was how good these players really are. I believe that a lot of people fail to realize many of these players have come from the Canadian Hockey League, the pool of talent the NHL dips its hand into more than any other league. A lot of these young men have played with or against future NHL stars, which says a lot about the calibre of play. If my research is correct, 4 of the current Stingers are former Memorial Cup winners, the Holy Grail of the CHL. It’s fast, hard-hitting hockey. I believe that Concordia’s assistant coach Peter Bender put it best when he referred to university hockey as hockey’s best-kept secret. This was entertaining hockey, and you could tell that both teams wanted to win.
Between periods, the players have 15 minutes to re-energize and refocus. Some hit the athletic therapist’s bench again, getting the bruised muscles and tight ligaments all loosened up. Meanwhile in the other room, the coaches go over game strategies. Much of what they say is gibberish to me, with something about F2 covering here when F3 does this. It really made me realize how little I knew about the structure of the game, especially from a coaching perspective.
Coach Figsby made a small speech between each period, successfully getting the team refocused and ready to hit the ice. Although the players joke around a lot, when it’s time to hit they ice they’re all business.
The Stingers lost in overtime, with a final score of 4-3. Although it is sometimes difficult to find positives in a losing effort, the team did play very well. Stingers forward Olivier Hinse finished the night with two goals and assist, giving him 9 points in four games. At the time, he was the overall points leader for the entire Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) men’s hockey league.
In the end, this experience showed me a lot. One thing that stuck out to me was that sports teams are a family, and everyone is treated in a way that makes them feel valued and important. Whenever there is a problem, everyone jumps up to help. Throughout the day, head coach Kevin, assistant coach Peter and equipment manager Stewart kept making sure I was good and taken care of. I mentioned many times, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.” I always received the same answer. “We’re a family; we take care of each other.”
Another thing I learnt is that being a Student-Athlete is incredible demanding. On the way to and from the game, many of the players were reading textbooks, going over class notes, quizzing each other for upcoming midterms, and so on. A lot of the practices are during school hours, and many of the games require two days of travel. A couple of weeks before, the team was gone from Wednesday to Sunday on a three-game road trip. Coach Figsby informed me that he had spent the week writing to teachers to get rescheduled dates for midterms. The team got home at 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and many students had exams at 2:00 that afternoon, eight hours later. I have trouble staying focused and prepared for midterms as a regular student. I cannot imagine having to keep a high GPA while focusing a lot of my energy and time to hockey practices, road trips, and missed classes. I have gained a lot of respect and admiration for these students, because what they do is not in any way easy.
I feel very lucky to have had a chance to see a regular game-day through the eyes of the players. The Stingers are a great group of young men, and they are very gifted at what they do. Although many of them will probably not call hockey their profession in the future, they are still getting the most out of hockey while they can. They are very skilled individuals, and I wish them luck with the rest of the season.
If you are a university student, go support your school’s sports teams. Support your fellow students as they represent your school, something that they do for no financial or academic gains. Whatever sport you enjoy to watch, go show some school spirit and cheer on your school. As for this university student, I will leave you with this. “Go Stingers Go!”
I’ve added a small gallery of pictures from the road trip. I apologize for the quality for some of the photos, it wasn’t my camera and I was fidgeting with all of the settings throughout the entire game.