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Training for hockey: With speed and strength comes risk
Sports physiotherapists agree players more vulnerable now to abdominal injuries

Jim Jamieson
The Province

Sunday, October 28, 2007

So what's causing the increase in abdominal injuries in the NHL?

It's become the league's 64-million-dollar question, as more highly paid players are forced to sit on the sidelines.

We spoke with several exercise and training professionals to get a fix on this complex problem and to look at possible solutions.

To begin with, the professionals say, there are a range of contributing factors -- some of them outside the control of teams and players and others that can be modified with changes in training.

The "fact of life" circumstances include:

- The up-tempo style of play in the new NHL, that puts much more emphasis on skating.

- This makes the poor, soft ice conditions at many NHL rinks even more of a detriment, because it forces players to exert more effort to skate, ramping up the potential for injury.

- With the greater physical drain, the NHL's busy schedule and demanding travel, especially for Western Conference teams, have become even more of an irritant, with players not getting enough quality recovery time.

- Players are stronger and fitter than ever, with dryland workouts viewed as crucial to getting a competitive edge for when it's time to go on the ice.

- Skate technology has improved, allowing players to put more power -- and stress potential -- into a stride.

"The players now are bigger, stronger, faster, the skates are stiffer so you're getting a transfer of force up to that area where you weren't before," says Vancouver Canucks strength and conditioning coach Roger Takahashi.

"The style of play is a huge factor. Now, if a player is playing for 20 minutes, he's skating all that time, whereas before there was a lot of clutching and grabbing."

But once you get to the changeable factors, the controversy begins.

There is a consensus that the ramp-up in abdominal injuries is related to training, but once you get down to specifics, opinion varies widely.

Dusan Benicky, who specializes in hockey training with his Hockey Performance Centre, believes that the NHL's habit of riding stationary bikes after games and for general cardio-vascular fitness is the root cause.

"How many times do you see Lance Armstrong preparing for the Tour de France by skating at GM Place," says Benicky, who's worked with numerous NHL players, including Bret Hedican, Peter Bondra, Tomas Vokoun, Andrew Ladd, Zdeno Chara and Claude Lemieux.

"Why do we assume that for hockey, cycling is such a huge benefit? It's this: the brain is receiving the wrong programming. It's like trying to use Windows software on a Mac. It actually overrides the skating program by inputting wrong information. Cycling is on a vertical plane and skating is on a horizontal plane. Your muscles are confusing your brain and that's directly linked into the groin injury problem."

Benicky's solution: Train the proper skating position, alignment and balance and make sure the program is hockey-specific.

(While it is generally agreed that cycling can shorten and tighten the hip flexors -- key muscles in skating -- Benicky's assertion isn't embraced by sports physiotherapist Rick Celebrini, athletic trainer Peter Twist or Takahashi, all of whom were interviewed for this article. All contend that cycling has a place in a hockey conditioning program as long as it is accompanied and offset by other forms of exercise.)

Celebrini, the chief therapist for the 2010 Olympics and who has worked with many NHL players, says he believes the evolution of training practices has created muscle imbalances in the abdominal area, leading to injuries.

"In the old days, athletes would play themselves into shape, on the ice," says Celebrini. "Today, an athlete has to maximize all the different components, which means working in the gym. Initially, guys were getting into Olympic lifting but there was a neglect of core control, the ability for the middle of the body to deal with the increased force produced in the (arms and legs). Maybe four or five years ago there was a realization that we've got to address this and start incorporating some core training into our programs."

The problem, says Celebrini, is that by not paying attention to the most effective positioning and movement through the core, increasing training through that area can actually ramp up the risk of injury.

Celebrini's solution: The team should screen individually each athlete and provide him with a personalized training program.

Twist, who had an amazing run of three seasons without a player suffering a groin injury when he was the conditioning coach for the Canucks from 1993 to 2002, has his own explanation for the spike in abdominal problems for NHL players.

He concurs that players and equipment are now tuned to an unprecedented level, but disagrees with the notion that muscle imbalances are to blame.

"I find that core training is an over-used buzz-word," says Twist, who's trained hundreds of NHL players as well as elite athletes in other sports. "More coaches, players, trainers are on board so there's a lot of good things being done. But a player may have the strongest core but it doesn't transfer to the ice.

"Doing core exercises doesn't necessarily mean it's going to prepare them for the unpredictable, multi-directional, explosive velocity of hockey."

Twist also says the athlete must be managed carefully in training.

"The human body has dominant musculature to move forwards and backwards in a straight line," he says. "The muscles for sideways movement [for hockey] are smaller. Everyone needs to be aware that the human body isn't made to skate."

Consequently, and because highly competitive elite athletes tend to push their own boundaries, some groin injuries are inevitable, adds Twist. His solution: Make sure the dryland training has elements of combatives, reaction skills and unpredictability. In training camp, acknowledge that the players are fit and they've been skating at a high pace, but on-ice workouts need to start at a reasonable intensity and step up each day.

Takahashi says the Canucks' rash of groin problems in preseason were more soreness than pulls and feels the club is going in the right direction in the treatment of the problem. He says the Canucks have kept Twist's model and also incorporated some input from Celebrini.

"I do think it's going to be a collaborative effort between the researcher and the clinician," says Celebrini. "There's got to be a realization from management and coaches that traditional ways of approaching training has to evolve. ACL (knee) injury prevention is a couple steps ahead of addressing these groin problems but I see the same evolution happening."

© The Vancouver Province 2007

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