While the sport of hockey has advanced greatly in the last 20 years with new equipment technologies, training procedures, coaching, recovery methods and attention to small details I find it fascinating that out of our rich traditions we still choose to keep some parts of hockey the same…when it really should change.
Take for example the hockey warm-up. Comparatively to other sports we are in the dark ages. While other sports are applying science and common sense to preparing for a physical event we in the hockey community laugh in their faces, skate around willy-nilly, sit and listen to a coaches lecture and then stand around like statues before the game is played. If this strategy of physical preparation was used in other sports like sprinting, bobsled or skiing (to name a few sports) a great many athletes would end up with injuries. Perhaps it’s time that hockey learned from others and adopted a better system.
The Current System
Let me first dissect a typical hockey warm-up so that later I can share my views on the flaws of the current system.
1. Generally if the team has any person on the staff with a shred of physical education training then a dryland warm-up will be the first order of business. Now this is not always the case. I have witnessed high end hockey teams compete on a regular basis without a dryland warm-up. Usually teams send the athletes for a short run or put the players on a stationary bike followed by some static stretching. For argument sakes lets assume this takes 30 minutes (although most teams spend 10 to 15 minutes on the warm-up and call that good enough).
2. In some cases coaches want to spend 10 minutes or so talking about a basic plan for the upcoming game. Perhaps the white-board will be broken out and they will talk about breakouts, penalty kill, the fore-check for that evening, or other basic strategies. Some coaches do not do this at this time so this may depend on your team.
3. The next order of business is to put on your equipment (30 minutes is usually allotted).
4. At this time players get out onto the ice for the traditional 15 minute warm-up. The first 5 minutes is spent skating around in circles (usually counterclockwise), followed by 5 to 8 minutes of 2 on 1, 3 on 2 drills to get players feet moving and develop a feel for the puck. The last 2 to 5 minutes is spent taking shots on the goaltender, stretching on the ice, some short sprints from one side of the ice to the other.
5. Following the on-ice warm-up players go back to the dressing room (for 15 minutes while the ice is flooded) and sit down while the coach presents the pre-game speech and strategy session.
6. After the flood, players come back onto the ice and stand for the national anthem (or anthems) are played. Right after this players return to the bench and the game begins shortly after.
Flaws of the Current System
1. The first flaw in the system is that coaches tend to talk strategy and systems too late in the warm-up when the athletes are supposed to be warmed up. Having the team sit down to listen to a 15 minute speech right before the game is ridiculous. This should be the first order of business when the athletes arrive at the rink. Spend as long as you want going over this…but do it at the start, not the end when athletes should be focusing on getting warmed up for the game!
2. The next area for concern is the off-ice warm-up. To begin with not every team does an off-ice warm-up and those that do usually get it wrong. A short run or stationary bike WILL NOT prepare you adequately to play hockey. The hip musculature, core and shoulder girdle needs to be actively warmed up to stimulate blood flow and help prevent injuries. This is accomplished with a dynamic warm-up (with movements such as fire-hydrants, wide mountain climbers, roll-overs to v-stretches, backwards stretching lunges, scorpions, and other movements to increase core temperature and stimulate blood flow to the muscles. Following this dynamic warm-up the team should move to light conditioning movements (like burpees, lateral lunges, windmills, swings and push-ups) to break a sweat and get the body used to physical activity. Finally you have to get the feet moving, as hockey is a quick moving, agility based sport. Using light plyometrics, ladder drills, and for goaltenders the hacky-sack will do wonders for warming up for hockey. At the end of the dryland warm-up some light range of motion stretching should be done just to keep everything loose. The entire warm-up should take 20 minutes provided you don’t fool around and get down to business.
3. After the dryland warm-up players should put on their equipment but this should not take 30 minutes. In that amount of time athletes will get cold and tighten up so essentially the dryland warm-up was for nothing. Coaches should limit the dressing time to 20 minutes and make sure that players come to the rink early enough to sharpen skates, inspect equipment, tape sticks, and do all the other necessary preparations long before they put on their equipment. When I consult with teams and see the coach (or assistant) sharpening skates right before the warm-up that is my first sign of a poorly run team.
4. After players have put on their gear it sure wouldn’t hurt to get everyone moving again with some push-ups, squats, kettlebell swings (if possible), or similar bodyweight exercises. Make sure players have on skate guards to keep the blades sharp but why shouldn’t players do a little pre-ice warm-up with their equipment on?
4. When players go out onto the ice I believe that the national anthems should be played at that time. My reasoning for this is that after the warm-up you have an additional 2 minutes of singing (2 more if you play another countries anthem), plus all the time it takes to get lined up, and then back to the benches before the game. This can easily amount to 8 to 10 minutes for a professional game. If a player has been sitting in the dressing room prior to the game (17 minutes), then gets out on the ice to hear the anthems (another 8-10 minutes) it could be 25 to 30 minutes before they ever start moving. Let’s hear the anthem before the warm-up so players can focus on playing hockey right after the warm-up.
5. During the on-ice warm-up this is not the time to skate around willy-nilly like an idiot. Skate 5 laps around your end of the ice to loosen up a little bit and then get started on movements drills that focus on moving the feet. From this point coaches can execute 2 on 1, or 3 on 2 drills for 5 minutes. As this is happening the goaltenders should have a set routine with one or two players taking shots or helping them warm-up (players can rotate in and out of this so that they also get in a good warm-up). At the very end of the 15 minutes players should do movement drills (like inside edges, outside edges, turns, back to fronts, etc.) along with some light stick battle or shadow drills to get the feet moving. Please note that I have not mentioned stretching during the on-ice warm-up as many players seem to do…this is because it’s a waste of time at this point (you should already be loose), and the ice really isn’t the best place to stretch muscles to warm them up!
6. Right after the warm-up is over I think that the game should start. You see this in midget hockey during tournaments where the rink is trying to make the most of the time they are allowed. I don’t see the need for a flood after the warm-up as the ice is not torn up very much and it gets players right into the game when they are warm. Leagues would see a drastic reduction in first period injuries if they adopted this method of play and fans would get to see players able to compete right from the start of the game without the slow first period blues that affects many games.
Now I have no reason to suspect that the current system of warming up for hockey that has been around for decades will ever change as hockey has a rich culture and many folks in the industry are resistant to change. Personally I’m waiting for the day of change…but I’m not holding my breath.