How athlete fitness in hockey compares to other sports

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Malcolm Sutherland

Malcolm Sutherland is a coach, physical educator, sport pedagogist, and SME in sports development, sports safety and injury prevention. As an athlete and player safety expert Malcolm has developed prevention tools and a program to control serious injury in sport.

He is a Chartered Professional Coach holding designation with Coaches of Canada. In hockey specifically, Malcolm is now active as a sought after development coach working internationally and nationally. Malcolm has coached at every level from professional minor leagues, varsity as well as junior and AAA levels of minor hockey.

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We've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go.

Scouts, coaches and general managers have taken notice.

They now seek players with four solid skillsets when building high-performance teams. This “whole package” player is not just the player who has above standard puck skills. but rather it is the player who can catch, carry, pass, and shoot seemingly without effort.

It is also the player that has exceptional skating skills — the unreal linear McDavid-like acceleration, the great skating Eichel-like pace, or the Crosby-like ability to change speed and direction on a dime. No longer is the player of notice a one-dimensional grinder who uses their stick well, or is always in the right position to make a solid hit now sought. Instead, scouts, coaches and GMs want complete players with competence in all the above wrapped in the fourth skill: exemplary physical fitness.

I would suggest that fitness capacity at the highest level is the vital currency for players. This is because it provides the individual with the capacity for all technical and tactical skills. It is the capacity or foundation to work, to get better and then to recover, so players can compete again. Also consider that fitness is the single most important factor late in a shift, period, or game. And, because of this, any prospect who demonstrates unconventional abilities in the fourth skillset will rise quickly when compared to others; at every position.

Scouts and coaches also recognize that physical capacity confirms the intangibles; a player’s dedication, determination, and discipline. A player who is “in shape” is communicating to his team without saying a word that they are committed to being better and that they are ready to perform. These traits are needed on all high performing teams.

Thinking back to a decade or so ago this wasn’t always the case. Teams were just starting to understand the benefits of optimal conditioning and players themselves rarely had the fourth skill figured out. Many believed they could show up at training camp and “play themselves into shape” or if they were working out they were remarkably confused experimenting with weights, running or a training program borrowed from another sport. It was unusual to see hockey players diligently doing the right stuff. And it was even rarer to see players with well-organized (periodized) yearly plans. For most, the attempt to report fit to camp was to cram in some intensive training right pre-camp and hope for the best.

Fortunately, hockey players have begun training better. Functional training and conditioning with matched specificity to the players to build strength and address deficits are now the norm. Many enlist professional trainers and credentialed experts to guide and monitor the fourth skill. This in itself has benefitted hockey, producing stronger, faster, and more resilient players.

But, I would suggest that we have only started to scratch the surface with the fourth factor. A quick comparison to elite athletes in sports like football, basketball, soccer, and boxing/MMA confirms that even the fittest hockey players of today fail to compare to the physical capacities of other high-performance athletes. It is personally disappointing for me to point out that if a hockey player showed up at another sport’s combine, they would not even qualify, let alone place near the top.

We've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go . . .



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1 comment

  • Great opinion but no links to examples or proofs back by additional information. Ironically, Ive seen another article that states the combines are a waste of time and that jump height is the only indication of whether or not a player can make it in the NHL. Was it Patterson that couldn’t do a single pull up?