By Craig Elsten
It was a Friday night, the San Diego Gulls had just finished off a 1-0 loss to the Ontario Reign and head coach Dallas Eakins was not happy.
This, in and of itself, is as common to the sport of hockey as sticks and skates. The losing coach, unhappy after a game, about to speak to the media. What followed was both uncommon and indicative of an organization looking to rewrite the book on how to prepare for success.
“Our shift length has to shorten,” said Eakins with fire behind his eyes. “You’re not going to get anything done with your heart rate that high. It goes hand in hand: high heart rate, can’t think, and then you start turning over pucks.”
Many coaches will talk about a team’s heart after a game. How many talk about heart rate?
It’s a different way of trying to dissect the fastest-moving sport on earth. The Anaheim Ducks and San Diego Gulls are on the tip of a new wave of biometrics, sports science and analytics in hockey, and the goal is as simple and long-standing as the game itself. Win more consistently and more efficiently than the competition.
“It’s no surprise that every year, the team that wins the Stanley Cup is one of the healthiest teams all year,” noted Justin Roethlingshoefer, head strength and conditioning coach of the Gulls, who teams with Colin Reddin, strength and conditioning coach, as the behind-the-scenes team working with players on their health, fitness and training regimens.
“It’s also no surprise that the teams performing best in those areas are the ones pushing out the best behind-the-scenes work.”
There is an arms race taking place in NHL and AHL training rooms and coaches’ offices. Some of the race is on skates and with weights, the other on laptops and through algorithms, all attempting to find where the next edge might be in performance, prevention and perfecting the art of preparation.
A sport steeped in tradition and a “way of doing things around here” has started to evolve into a modern pursuit of eliminating inefficiencies and seeking marginal gains.
“That’s the thing for me when it comes to strength and conditioning, and analytics. I’ve got old school values, but I’m not naïve enough to think that I know everything,” said Eakins on the advancement of data tracking.
“Give me information, explain it to me, and then let’s see if we can implement it in a way that makes sense. If it doesn’t, we’ll boot it out the door. The whole process is setting these players up for success before they even step on the ice.”
From the office of Ducks strength and conditioning coach Mark Fitzgerald, through Roethlingshoefer and Reddin, and instructed by the demands of Anaheim head coach Randy Carlyle and Eakins, a strength and wellness program is in place which has been meticulously designed and continues to be refined. The exact same principles and resources used for Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in the NHL are there for any player donning a Gulls sweater.
Information is the currency of any analytical operation, and for the Gulls biometrics are recorded 24 hours a day in some form or fashion. Players report to THE RINKS – Poway ICE, the Gulls practice facility, in the morning and fill out quick surveys on their sleep the night before, quality of sleep, their stress level and desire to train. In addition, body weight, mass and hydration analyses are conducted daily. The subjective and objective pre-practice info is tracked, placed through algorithms to create a readiness profile, and compared to the data collected via heart and GPS monitors embedded into each player’s equipment. Those monitors are worn both in practice and games.
“Every morning, the players are throwing on heart monitors, and we are looking at the variability between beats in their heart rate,” explained Roethlingshoefer, “This gives us a look into what areas of the nervous system are being stressed. Based upon that, we can further see their readiness to perform, even before they have [trained].”
New to the Ducks and Gulls organization after four years running the strength and conditioning program for the hockey team at Miami of Ohio, Roethlingshoefer is built like a rock but flexible as a gymnast, ready to do squats in between seats of the bus on road trips or try out for American Ninja Warrior. His boundless enthusiasm and verve in the training room is combined with a insatiable desire to capture every aspect of a player’s overall wellness in order to further analyze better outcomes.
“We need to be able to identify what is actually happening within the body, what the body is identifying as stress, and how stressful it is for each athlete,” he said when discussing how the data adds up from a practical purpose.
The pursuit of greater health is a frontier fresh with opportunity in a sport that allocates millions of dollars to its player and operations budget from a hockey standpoint in the NHL and AHL. Roethlingshoefer understands his mission in his day-to-day role.
“A first year guy, a rookie, is going to be much different from a 32, 33, 34-year-old veteran. You have to treat them that way, so the veteran can add maybe three-to-five years to his career, the rookie is continuing to develop and ultimately, preventing injuries in both of them.”
On ice, GPS monitors offer an entirely new avenue of analysis for hockey. Scouts in the stands can see a lot about a team, but having actual speed metrics in real time offers a different view.
“We’re looking at the speed of the game,” added Roethlingshoefer, “I’m giving reports to our coaches on a period-by-period basis. We can see, based upon the period, what our speed was for the period. Were we getting up to where we usually are? We create a rolling average to evaluate our pace of play. Are we recovering in between shifts the way we should?”
“There are a lot of different metrics we are taking a look at, and we use them to identify if we need to back off somewhere, or if we need to continue to push in certain areas.”
Thirty-one-year-old veteran defenseman Steve Oleksy, a Stanley Cup Champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins and a first-year Gull understands the commitment to building a healthier and better player through biometrics is both new and welcomed.
“I think one of the things that really stands out is how much pride they put into everything they do and how they treat us as athletes,” said Oleksy. “Monitoring our workloads, making sure we’re not overworked or underworked. Finding that balance is key, especially with the grind of a season. It’s important to maintain so that guys aren’t burned out towards the end or guys aren’t getting out of shape.”
On one particular day, Eakins skated up to Roethlingshoefer 45 minutes into practice who was stationed with his laptop just outside of the playing surface. He asked about the team’s training load. The Gulls were coming off a rough week, and the old school instinct would be to push harder and longer, to show resolve and crack down.
Roethlingshoefer said the training load numbers were right where they wanted them to be. Eakins blew his whistle. Practice was over.
“The biggest thing for me now is, how are we fueling ourselves, how are we going into days of practice and games, and what is our recovery rate,” added Eakins.
The coach outlined a classic scenario in the AHL where a team lost on Friday and Saturday, and was scheduled to have Sunday off, practice on Monday and play on Tuesday night.
“The old school, after playing back-to-back, the coach would bring the guys in on Sunday, kill them in practice, you’d kill them again on Monday, and then you go into Tuesday’s game and it’s like, ‘Geez, my guys are flat. What’s going on? The effort’s not there, they’ve got to try harder.’”
“Meanwhile, you’ve killed them. How can they perform? It goes back to that great saying of ‘The best way to get out of a hole is to stop digging.’ If your guys are tired and you’ve run them down and you’re going to keep kicking the heck out of them, you’re just digging, and your hole is going to get deeper and deeper. All this stuff we are collecting, it’s showing us if they’re recovered or not, or if we can push harder or not.”
The Gulls have adjusted their seasonal travel and practice plans for road trips with recovery and wellness first in mind. The team skates less on the road than almost any other team, takes time zone changes as seriously as shift changes, and schedules team yoga and pool recovery rather than bag skates and extra drills.
Oleksy can already see the difference in the organizational focus on rest, recovery and workload.
“It’s such an important part of the game now, the off-ice side of things, with the nutrition, the rest-to-work ratios, and things like that,” added Oleksy. It’s just as important as on the ice. Especially here in the Anaheim organization, they’ve really taken it the extra mile.”
Where does this arms race lead to for the Ducks and Gulls? The every-year hope, obviously, is a season concluding with a Stanley Cup and Calder Cups in Anaheim and San Diego respectively. The longer term vision is a greater level of understanding of what makes a player healthier and more efficient.
“The biggest thing we can get from information is, it allows us to ask better questions,” said Roethlingshoefer. “If we can ask better questions, we can then in turn take a more detailed approach and a more detailed look into each athlete, and give them a better prescription for enhancing their conditioning levels, recovery and ultimately performance in their careers.”
With that comes greater consistency, the ability to both prevent more preventable injuries (hamstring pulls, core muscle strains, etc.) and to help recover faster from games and travel.
For Roethlingshoefer, one word can boil down the entire pursuit: Intent.
“We want to have an intent, a purpose and a reason for what we are doing, and want to be able to give feedback to both our coaches and our players. Ultimately, we can create a healthier and more productive and efficient athlete.”