Note: These videos are examples of young hockey players performing the Hang Clean exercise which some may think of as a “football lift." I am showing these because it shows that strength training can be done safely with young players under the right coaching and direction.
Video 1- This is a then 16-year old Jack Eichel who now plays for the Buffalo Sabres. Jack is not only one of the best players in the game, he is one of the best skaters and he was one of the top performers at the 2015 NHL scouting combine.
Video 2-This is a then 12-year old Michaela Boyle who learned to lift at young age and eventually went on to earn a scholarship and play Division-1 college hockey.
Video 3- This is the author's son who is 12-years old. He has been strength training consistently for year now.
It amazes me that in the year 2019, I still hear phrases such as “Wayne Gretzky never lifted a weight” or “I’ve never seen a pull-up score a goal.” Usually, I hear that from misinformed people at the rink during casual conversations. There is a reason that every professional hockey team and most college hockey programs employ Strength and Conditioning Coaches whose job it is to help players improve performance and reduce injuries.
Every player at the collegiate and professional level trains off the ice year round. Most high school programs in Minnesota have an off-season program where strength and conditioning is a priority.
There are several myths about strength training for hockey players. These include:
To me, these are perceptions that have been misguided through the media as well as hockey being a sport that can be resistant to change. For example, it is not uncommon to see videos on social media of massive football players performing exercises such as power cleans or back squats with large amounts of weight on the bar. Watching human terminators can be intimidating from a young hockey player’s perspective because the athletes may have a body weight of 275 pounds or more, and probably have been strength training for years.
As far as strength training making players slower - there is zero truth to that. In terms of getting injured while strength training, well that CAN occur. However, it is essential for a young hockey player to get with a qualified strength and conditioning coach that knows what he/she is doing. Coaches and personal trainers who know what they are doing will ensure that proper technique is adhered to during each repetition of every exercise.
Increase lean body mass
Strength training can increase the size and strength of muscles.
Increase speed on the ice
Strength training will assist slower players to become faster by helping them create more force to push into the ice during each stride. Hockey speed isn’t about quick feet or moving your feet more quickly. It is more about how much force is driven into the ice to help go in the other direction.
Increasing lean body mass will help players absorb checks and be able to play physically in the corners and in front of the net. Strength training also helps prevent soft tissue injuries such as strains in the groin and hip flexor regions.
A stronger player will be able to play at a higher level and not be afraid to take chances, try new moves, or beat a defensive player one on one. They will also know it when they are stronger than their opponent.
When you combine proper strength training with plyometrics (jump exercises), sprinting, medicine ball throws, and conditioning; you are also becoming a better athlete. I look at participating in a strength and conditioning program the same way I would look at playing another sport. The different muscle stimulus will engage and teach the young player many things off the ice to help them improve on the ice.
I generally recommend that strength training can begin at the age of 12. At that age, there is nothing wrong with young players learning techniques in the weight room to increase the neuromuscular coordination of the exercises.
Learning these techniques can be done with lighter weights to ensure proper form. By gradually increasing load as time goes on, the athlete will get stronger. Combined with showing up consistently and working hard, before you know it, results will happen - especially while transitioning into puberty.
Although I am biased because this is my profession, strength training will help any player increase their performance on the ice and reduce their chances of sustaining an injury while increasing their confidence on the ice. There is nothing wrong with getting a head start before they are involved in team-based strength training at the high school level.
Personally, I have seen strength and conditioning help many players throughout my career. I have seen draft picks whom hockey experts thought would never play in professional hockey go on to do amazing things such as win Stanley Cups and individual trophies such as the Hart and Conn Smythe.
I genuinely believe that if strength and conditioning can help a good hockey player become great, then it can also help an average player become above-average, and a below-average player become average.
How does this apply to the youth level? I think that strength and conditioning can help a player maybe make the team that they are trying out for or perhaps play on the first line instead of the second.
Strength and Conditioning Coach- Minnesota Wild
Author of Total Hockey Training