That’s the outlook of Capitals’ strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish, who is preparing his team for another run at the hardest trophy to win in all of sports. Part of the difficulty is the physical endurance required; by the time a team reaches the first round of the playoffs, it’s already spent almost 5,000 minutes at game-level intensity on the ice, and that doesn’t include overtime or shootouts. Scoring becomes more physical as well; playoff goals are often scored by the net — hockey’s trenches — where the body faces a barrage of unfriendly fire: shoving for position, flying pucks, hockey sticks used as weapons.
For the athletes, it boils down to one thing: making life simpler.
“You dumb down your life,” said Capitals veteran forward Mike Knuble of how a player approaches the postseason. “You just keep it very simple: go to the rink, you come home, you eat, and you sleep, and that’s pretty much it.”
Knuble calls the physical aspect of the playoffs a “sprinting-marathon” — “It’s a sprint at times, but the whole thing’s a marathon,” he explained.
But good conditioning can make miracles happen (just ask the 1980 U.S. hockey team, which Herb Brooks built on the backbone of conditioning). There’s no question the Capitals have the talent to claim the Stanley Cup. But do they have the legs?
The Nuts and Bolts of Conditioning
There’s little room for vacation in an NHL player’s conditioning schedule. At the peak of offseason, for example, players who follow Nemish’s program may have upwards of nine workouts a week that are between 45 minutes to an hour each. These workouts are often done with a personal trainer, although a player may do a conditioning program other than Nemish’s.
“You should be in such great shape where the games aren’t that hard,” Nemish said. “The skating that we would do in August and the workouts that we would do on the track, it’s so difficult that they’ve got mentally and physically strong and so conditioned that the game is a piece of cake.”
Nemish himself will occasionally visit some players in the summer to see how they’re doing; Tyler Sloan, a defenseman for the Capitals, received such a visit this past summer, and Eric Fehr, Mike Green, and Jay Beagle received visits as well.
“A lot of Calgary guys in this organization, so he can hit one spot,” Sloan explained.
But for these grueling offseason workouts to really impact a player’s game come playoffs, Nemish says, maintenance during the regular season is essential. It’s hard to estimate overall how much time off-ice an NHL player spends on conditioning after a game, because the process is ultimately tailored to each athlete’s needs and preferences.
‘I have some players who are high-minute guys that like to do things after a game — in other words, if we have a team workout after the game, I’ll have a couple of those high-minute guys in there in the weight room doing a maintenance workout,” Nemish said. “For some of the other players that don’t like to work out after a game, we’ll do a workout the next day. And it’s individual. And that’s how you’ve got to kind of read your players and what works best for them.”
After a game for high-minute players, there could also be time in the cold tub, post-game shakes, and stretches.
By the time playoffs come around, the players’ off-ice routine becomes more about recovery rather than conditioning, though again that depends on the amount of minutes played. For low-minute guys, it’s essential that they keep their level of conditioning up, whether that be through weight room workouts or staying out longer on the ice outside of games.
“They’ll be called upon at some point if the series goes long, or if you get into multiple series, that their minutes possibly could be going up,” Nemish said.
Either way, working it out on the exercise bike after the game can play a role: some guys use it to cool down, while low-minute guys use it to get in more cardio.
When Nemish was asked about the Flyers’ special slushie machine concoction used to help players refuel during games, he said he can’t even mention how many times he’s been contacted by nutritional companies touting their products. He asks that these companies send, before talking with them again, scientific, peer-reviewed studies that have been done on the product that shows it does make a difference.
“Ninety nine point nine times out of a hundred, I never hear from them again,” Nemish said. “We do things after games and take whatever shakes that we have that are based upon science. And it’s not brain surgery.”
Conditioning as a Way of Life, and Those that Slip
Nemish puts less weight in the “pills and potions” than in how guys manage themselves away from the rink. NHL conditioning isn’t just for the rink or locker room; it’s a lifestyle choice.
“If someone is taking a product that is supposed to be the best thing in the world and they feel great afterwards but then they’re going to go out to the bar and not get home till 4 in the morning after having six beers, well, does it really matter what they’re taking right after [the game]?” Nemish said. “I’m not saying that that’s what we do or what we have a problem with, I’m just saying that all of those things can be counterbalanced — I mean, it’s all a whole picture of what’s the best way to manage your career and manage your life.”
He said overall, the guys on the Caps’ roster are pretty dedicated to conditioning, and complimented by name guys like Matt Bradley, Matt Hendricks, Karl Alzner.
When it comes to the opposite end of the spectrum — players who let their conditioning slide — Nemish said he’ll speak with the player (“It starts with me getting in their face”), hear their side of the story, and try to handle it between the two of them. If it becomes a serious issue, he said, head coach Bruce Boudreau is getting in on it.
But one of the most effective interventions, Nemish said, is the veteran leadership.
“If you’ve got some real, good, strong leadership core, that pull guys in — and, it’s something to hear it from me, but it’s another thing to hear it from a veteran player say look, “You’ve got to pick it up. We need you. Get your butt in there and start working,’” Nemish said. “That goes a long way.”
Conditioning the Rookies
Boudreau isn’t scared to give the rookies on his roster large minute counts. Thanks to defensive injuries throughout the season, including often top-minuteman Mike Green, as well as a healthy dose of confidence from their coach, rookie defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner are currently first and third on the team in ice time. In fact, Carlson is 24th overall among rookies and veterans in the NHL in time on ice. He will have played over 100 minutes more than any other rookie in the NHL.
What’s even more impressive is that Carlson rarely takes advantage of the “option” in certain team practices, often a respite for high-minute players. In fact, Carlson can’t remember missing a single practice over the entire season, although a Washington Post report from December mentions one practice missed with the flu.
Carlson, as usual, was anything less than flustered when asked how he was holding up in the last few weeks of the season.
“Good,” he said. “I think it’s been progressing over the days and month . . . but it’s all good for me to get the experience I need at the same time.”
What does phase him, however, is hearing Duncan Keith’s minute totals, which top off at over 2,000 and lead the NHL.
“That’s crazy . . . that’s unbelievable,” Carlson said. “That’s probably almost 30 minutes a night. He’s an unbelievable player, and if he can pull off something like that, but I don’t think I could be able to.”
Despite it being the first time the Capitals’ rookies enter the playoffs with a full NHL season behind them, there aren’t any particular conditioning rituals because of their first-year status. Nemish says that for the rookies, the tools and education on how to be properly conditioned should begin long before their time on an NHL roster– during camps with the team in the summer, when they learn the eating habits and weight room habits to be a successful NHL player.
Carlson said what’s helped him most this year conditioning-wise is just being aware — picking his battles and making sure he find what allows him to exploit his maximum potential on the ice each day.
A Longer Career
Conditioning may showcase its best work on the other side of the age pool. Nemish said he’s noticed several aging NHL players who have extended their playing career well beyond where they should because they understand conditioning is their friend, albeit a painful relationship to maintain.
“There are a number of players that have played well beyond their prime, so to speak, when they should not have been playing, but because they were in such phenomenal shape, they extended their careers,” Nemish said.
One example Nemish remembered was from his days in Nashville working with former Predators captain Tom Fitzgerald, of whom Nemish said, “Always, you know, in the weight room, always training, always keeping in shape, always doing the things he needed to do, because he knew that that just kept prolonging his career.”
Another example Nemish cites is Rod Brind Amour, who retired just before his 40th birthday and won a Stanley Cup as the Carolina Hurricanes’ captain just before turning 36.
“Maybe the best conditioned athlete in the entire NHL when he retired,” Nemish said. “Even though his skills may have been diminishing, his ability to keep in that type of shape prolonged his career.”
“When you think of conditioning, you think of players that, in the third period, seem to be faster than they are in the first,” Capitals forward Brooks Laich once observed.
And the teams Laich labels as being the most well-conditioned that the Caps play against have reaped the rewards. Laich gave the honor to Chicago last year — and it was a feature he noticed well before the Blackhawks claimed the Stanley Cup. This year, he says it’s the Vancouver Canucks, who also happened to lead the NHL in points this season and are a top Stanley Cup contender.
But Laich, at least when talking about conditioning last September, felt the Caps were equal to their opponents. Laich pointed out that, during the 2009-2010 season, the Capitals led the league in third period goals. This year, the Capitals still do most of their scoring in the third period — they’re ninth in the league in third period goals while third to last in the league in first period tallies.
“As far as teams, I think our team can skate with anybody,” he said then. “I think Bruce puts us through the paces at practice.”