Hockey season is almost over. It can be a sad time for young hockey players. As much as it’s nice to see the days last a little longer and the temperature rise a little higher, the thought of months without hockey is never fun.
However, registering for spring hockey leagues and summer showcase events isn’t the best hockey-withdrawal remedy for serious 14U/16U hockey players advancing to higher levels of competition.
Mike Boyle, owner of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning, has worked with Boston University, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Bruins and the 1998 gold-medal winning U.S. Women’s Olympic Team. He believes the offseason should be time away from the ice, focused on becoming a better athlete as well as a better hockey player.
Even the world’s best players have an offseason, and they spend most of it honing their craft away from the rink.
“I think of it like taking a test. If you take an exam and do poorly, and then take it again, without studying, you’re not going to do any better,” said Boyle, who also served as a consultant in the creation of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. “The offseason is really the same. The way you train and prepare in the offseason will get you ready for that next season.
“The best players in the world, even at the NHL level, only have the puck for a minute or two every game,” he continued. “Just playing games isn’t going to make you a better hockey player. Practicing and training your body are where the difference is.”
When a young person and his or her family decide to get serious about hockey, Boyle believes there are three specific focus areas for proper offseason training: strength training, speed development and interval conditioning. These activities help young players become the type of athletes that make great hockey players.
A common misconception for young athletes is that lifting the most weight will build the type of strength necessary to advance as a hockey player. These young athletes must be reminded that the muscles visible in any mirror aren’t necessarily the ones hockey players use most during a game.
Hockey tests every element of a person. As such, every muscle needs some attention during the offseason. It’s not just about who can curl or bench-press the heaviest weight.
“We see kids doing work, and you’d think they were trying to become bodybuilders instead of hockey players,” Boyle says. “The ‘mirror muscles’ aren’t the muscles that make great hockey players. For every pushing exercise you do, there should be a pulling exercise as well.”
Going for a daily run isn’t a bad idea for people trying to get in shape. But hockey players aren’t just trying to get in shape. Offseason workouts should be about becoming a better athlete and a better hockey player, which means adjusting traditional forms of exercise to the sport’s demands. Speed is one of these demands and some laps around the local track won’t help as much as you’d think.
“Running as fast as you can for as long as you can develops speed,” Boyle says. “If you think about the average shift in a hockey game, it lasts about 45 seconds for a forward and one minute for a defenseman. Just running a couple miles isn’t going to make you a faster skater. Speed development isn’t the same as conditioning.”
Boyle believes intense sessions that focus on a series of short sprints mixed with infrequent rest periods help players improve their skating speed. Not every player relies on blazing speed as part of his or her game, but every young athlete should develop their speed as they grow. Everyone can get faster, even if it’s just a step, and often a single step can make all the difference in hockey. Working on speed development in the offseason is a crucial part of any training regimen.
Between the ages of 14 and 16, the decision to be more serious about hockey comes with new responsibilities. Taking care of your body is one of them. Conditioning helps players achieve the rest of their goals.
“Interval conditioning is about that 2:1 or 3:1 work-to-rest ratio,” Boyle says. “It can be as simple as running for a few minutes then walking for one minute and repeating that for a while.”
This doesn’t come with a hockey-specific element Boyle described in the other two parts of his training concepts, but it’s just as important.
Play Other Sports
Even when you’re ramping up training and getting more serious about hockey, it’s important to continue playing complementary sports. Incorporate at least one or two additional sports that include speed, explosiveness, strength, agility and hand-eye coordination. Lacrosse, soccer and tennis are some examples that will help you stay in game shape while avoiding hockey burnout.
Every Day is an Important Day
So even as the hockey season ends, and young players skip a few months of the on-ice game action they received starting in October, there is still just as much work to do and even more potential to improve.
Those who put in the work – the right kind of work – will reap the greatest rewards.
Keith Kaval took his warmup lap on the ice and the only thing he could think about before officiating one of the biggest games of his career was the illness that had sapped him of energy.
The longtime official skated around HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York, before the start of the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship gold-medal game and thought to himself, “This is not good.” Kaval was about to referee the championship game between Canada and Russia.
“I kind of composed myself and I ended up working the game,” Kaval recalled recently. “The game was amazing. We called what we had to call. We weren’t a direct affect in the game and the Russians came back in the third period to beat Canada, which was a crazy, amazing game. Being able to do that game here on our own soil was pretty amazing. That’s something I’ll probably never forget.”
Having the opportunity to officiate the game, and fight through his illness, is one just one of the experiences Kaval is drawing on as he has transitioned from on-ice official to the director of officiating for the North American Hockey League and North American Tier III Hockey League.
Kaval wants to use his nearly 30 years as an on-ice official to develop the next wave of officials and hopefully provide them the same opportunities he had in a career which spanned nearly every rung of the hockey ladder, including the American Hockey League, the Kontinental Hockey League and the NCAA.
“It’s a continuous thing where we’re trying to move guys up and move them on, and give them the experience that they need,” Kaval said of his new position. “They serve our league, obviously, but the end game is to get them prepared for the next level of hockey. It’s no different than our member clubs, a lot of good opportunities for our guys to earn scholarship with the various NCAA teams and no different with us. We’re trying to move our guys up and on as well. It’s pretty much, we co-exist with the teams trying to do the same thing.”
Kaval worked his last game in the AHL on Oct. 13, finally hanging up the skates after a long on-ice career. He hopes to impart some of his knowledge and experience on newer officials who are starting their careers.
While the highlight of his career might have been Canada-Russia in 2011, Kaval worked three straight IIHF World Championships. He also became the first North American official to work in Russia’s professional KHL.
“Every day was a challenge,” Kaval said. “It was a pretty cool experience and there’s another thing that I can share with our guys about being uncomfortable in different situations where pretty much the only normalcy was hockey.”
Having moved full-time into his new role, Kaval is enjoying the new experiences he faces after starting a career at age 13 while just trying to earn some money and extra ice time.
“The biggest thing for me is just learning about each individual official and what makes them tick, and then seeing what they do because they all bring different skill sets,” Kaval said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter system where this is our method or this is what’s going to work for you. Every official’s different and I’d just rather give them some perspective on what may have worked for me and they can take some of that.”
In the early-going, Kaval was traveling constantly to have face-to-face interaction with officials and teams. He’s working through the challenge of increasing numbers of total officials. He wants to train the officials on technique and help deliver tips. He also preaches accountability and communication.
“There are certain things we can control as officials; That’s being professional, that’s being good communicators and being honest and trying to work the best game we can,” Kaval said. “We’re never going to be perfect, but I think the teams are starting to realize in our league that we’re here and we’re a partner to, not only the league, but all of them in that we’re just trying to make the game better and trying to do what’s right to keep the game fair and safe.”