Following a home game, it doesn’t take long for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ locker room at Mellon Arena to resemble a ghost town.
Win or lose, the players leave the ice, strip off their gear and quickly scatter.
They’re not running for the showers or hiding from the media. Instead, they’re headed to the weight room for a postgame workout.
What? Wasn’t 60 minutes of intense action enough?
Obviously not. The Penguins immediately hit the weights or jump on the bike or run on the treadmill following their home games.
And it’s not just limited to Pittsburgh — it’s a trend throughout the NHL and many other hockey leagues.
“You figure in a game, if you’re lucky, you get 20 minutes of ice time. So, that’s your 20-minute warm-up and then you go from there and get your strength workout in,” says Penguins defenseman and Wilmington, Del., native Mark Eaton.
“It’s a necessity, especially in this day and age when guys are so big and strong. Guys work so hard in the offseason that you can’t go an extended amount of time without working out because your muscles will atrophy and you’ll lose so much strength. It’s very important for players to maintain the muscle they worked so hard to build on during the offseason and not try to build during the season.”
The idea behind postgame workouts is not to punish the players. Rather, like Eaton says, it’s to help them maintain their fitness levels depending on how much — or how little — a player was on the ice during a game.
“I will look period-by-period to see who is getting the ice time and who is not. At the end of the game, I will put a program up on the board just based on ice times for bike rides,” says Mike Kadar, the Penguins’ strength and conditioning coach.
“So, any sort of bike program they’ll do after will be all based on their minutes [played during the game]. They’ll have to do sprint programs or heart rate programs on the bike or the treadmill — the same amount of sprints to equal the same amount of time of what we think a guy at 20 minutes would be.”
Kadar also splits the players into two groups, with half hitting the weight room while the other half hops on exercise bikes.
From a conditioning standpoint, getting in some postgame work is ideal. A full workout can be done at the team’s home rink, but the road workout must be scaled down due to time constraints and training equipment availability.
“Essentially, they are already warmed up. Their heart rates are up, they have the blood flowing, their tissues are kind of warmed up and where they need to be, so you don’t have to do anything in terms of a warm-up. So, they can get right on the bikes or go lift and get it in and out of the way,” Kadar says.
“If you do it the next day, you have to go through the whole warm-up again and then you have to go through the bike ride or the lift. A lot of guys stiffen up the next day because of the fatigue factor or physical component of playing hockey. So, it’s so much easier to do it after games.”
Players also appreciate the fact that it can cut down on extra trips to the rink when they could be spending time at home with their families.
From a medical standpoint, training after games helps players recover quickly.
“It helps players flush the lactic acid that builds up during a game. It allows your body to cool down in a sufficient manner and basically recover by doing a kind of flushing — whether it’s riding a bike or doing a workout,” says Chris Stewart, the Penguins’ head athletic trainer.
“To compete in today’s NHL, you have to take care of your body the best you can. This just gives your body the advantage of recovering and being able to perform at top level every day.”
It’s not just a traditional workout — the emphasis is placed on hockey-specific exercises, such as plyometrics, which first took their hockey roots in the former Soviet Union under legendary coach Anatoly Tarasov before becoming commonplace in North America.
“It’s progressed quite a bit. It’s more hockey-specific than it has ever been,” Kadar says. “I think there is an evolution. You always learn different things about how to activate certain muscle groups and how to work certain muscle groups so you can avoid certain injuries.”
No one knows exactly when the postgame workout trend began, but its emergence has become widespread in the past decade.
“Even when I first broke into the NHL [in 1999], the workouts after games were few and far between. It was more of just a five-minute bike ride,” Eaton recalls. “That was then. Now, times have definitely changed with new research. Guys know what is best for their body and do what works for them.”
Yet, it’s not exactly easy.
“A workout on top of a game is pretty tough,” adds Penguins winger and Pittsburgh native Ryan Malone.
“Usually you are pretty tired unless you really didn’t play a lot. You just push yourself that much harder, and it really benefits you come game-time the next time. Come February, that’s when those who were working hard get rewarded. All that stuff pays off at the end of the season.”