Size doesn’t mat­ter in to­day’s speedy NHL

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - Dave Feschuk

Lit­tle Mitch Marner has been hear­ing the re­frain for years. Never mind the mag­nif­i­cence con­tained within his 61-point rookie sea­son. Every arm­chair hockey ex­pert has been telling the Maple Leafs winger to add some mus­cle to a frame that, to cer­tain eyes, seems far too spindly for the NHL grind.

“Ev­ery­body keeps say­ing, ‘He’s got to get big­ger. He’s got to get big­ger,’ ” said Daniel No­ble, the 20-year-old Marner’s Vaughan-based off-sea­son trainer.

But it says some­thing about the cur­rent NHL trend that Marner, while he spent con­sid­er­able time in a gym this sum­mer, didn’t spend it pump­ing iron for the pur­poses of pump­ing up. Af­ter spend­ing last sea­son play­ing at ap­prox­i­mately 170 pounds, the six-foot Marner ar­rived at the Maple Leafs’ Ni­a­gara Falls­based train­ing camp this week­end weigh­ing . . . ap­prox­i­mately 170 pounds.

“(Stay­ing around 170) is about keep­ing him the fastest per­son on the ice,” No­ble said.

It wasn’t long ago, of course, that NHL play­ers rip­pling with mus­cle hap­pily an­nounced the con­sid­er­able gains in body weight pro­duced by their sum­mer­time gym ses­sions. But only a few years af­ter the big­bod­ied L.A. Kings won a cou­ple of Stan­ley Cups that had many copy­cat GMs han­ker­ing to play a “heav­ier” style, the sum­mer of 2017 brought a 180-de­gree shift in phi­los­o­phy. Maybe it’s the back-to-back Stan­ley Cups reeled off by the high-paced Pitts­burgh Pen­guins. Maybe it’s the top-of-the-league an­nual av­er­age salary of $12.5 mil­lion re­cently com­manded by Con­nor McDavid, the Edmonton Oil­ers prodigy syn­ony­mous with blind­ing speed. What­ever it is, “lighter” has be­come the new “heav­ier.” That’s be­cause get­ting faster has be­come a non-ne­go­tiable pur­suit in a league that won’t stop ac­cel­er­at­ing.

“I think you saw an aw­ful lot of guys try­ing to do that this sum­mer — get leaner, lighter, faster,” said Con­nor Carrick, the Maple Leafs de­fence­man. “That’s just the trend in the league. Guys are fly­ing now. You’ve got to keep up or get left be­hind.”

Matt Ni­chol, the for­mer Leafs strength and con­di­tion­ing coach who in­vented the Bios­teel sports drink and now trains NHLers pri­vately in mid­town Toronto, said off-sea­son goal-set­ting con­ver­sa­tions have changed dras­ti­cally of late.

“It used to be guys would come into the gym and say they wanted to do a mixed bag of, ‘Get stronger,’ ‘Get stronger on the puck, ’ ‘Get tougher in the cor­ners.’ This, that and the other. Now all you hear all day long is ‘Speed.’ ‘Speed, I want to im­prove my speed.’ It’s changed,” Ni­chol said. “Even de­fence­men, they used to want to have a lit­tle more ar­mour for bat­tling, a lit­tle more mus­cle. Now it’s just, ‘I’ve got to find a way to keep up with Con­nor McDavid fly­ing down the wing. I don’t have to worry about bat­tling him, I can’t even catch the guy.’ ”

The re­sults of the new think­ing are ob­vi­ous to any­one who’s been hang­ing around Leafs camp. Aus­ton Matthews, the reign­ing rookie of the year who cel­e­brates his 20th birth­day on Sun­day, looks vis­i­bly thin­ner in the face and torso. Ditto Nazem Kadri and Mor­gan Rielly and Carrick and, well, a list of Leafs too long to enu­mer­ate.

The trend has even made its way to the Maple Leafs crease, where Fred­erik An­der­sen said he spent the sum­mer “get­ting leaner.”

“Just try­ing to be quicker,” said An­der­sen, who said he is also hop­ing for eas­ier re­cov­ery be­tween games thanks to the di­min­ished bod­ily load.

“Skin­nier” and “faster” aren’t syn­onyms, of course. And there are wide-rang­ing opin­ions about how to best be­come a speed­ier skater. Some ex­perts in­sist im­prov­ing tech­nique is the only an­swer. No­ble said a sim­ple im­prove­ment in a skater’s pos­ture can lead to big gains in pace. So it makes sense that Matthews, in ad­di­tion to get­ting more svelte, spent time do­ing Pi­lates, Matthews said, to help him skate “more up­right.”

“If he gets more up­right, he’s sud­denly able to ex­tend his hip longer and get more pow­er­ful and faster,” No­ble said. “Imag­ine a guy the size of Matthews get­ting faster and faster — he’s just go­ing to be able to con­trol the game more and more.”

Carrick said he took his cue on off-sea­son work­out strat­egy from his home­town Chicago Black­hawks. Af­ter the Black­hawks were elim- inated in a first-round sweep by the Nashville Preda­tors, Carrick said he heard more than one mem­ber of the ros­ter speak of the need for im­proved speed. Even Jonathan Toews, the uber-fit cap­tain, ac­knowl­edged he’d veered off track in his ap­proach.

“Just the way the speed of the game has re­ally changed these last cou­ple of years, I’ve al­ways been that type of player who likes to play heavy and pro­tect the puck down low in the cor­ners,” said Toews, 29, who vowed to use his sum­mer to re­dis­cover “the speed in my game that I used to have in my younger years.”

Chicago wasn’t alone. Af­ter the dou­ble Pres­i­dents’ Tro­phy-win­ning Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals were ousted in the sec­ond round, Wash­ing­ton GM Brian MacLel­lan sug­gested cap­tain Alex Ovechkin re­assess his pri­or­i­ties.

“The game’s get­ting faster. He’s go­ing to have to train in a dif­fer­ent way — a more speed way in­stead of a more power way,” MacLel­lan said.

Whether or not that mes­sage was de­liv­ered, this week Ovechkin ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton look­ing like a leaner ver­sion of his for­mer self. Same goes for Vladimir Tarasenko, the tank-like St. Louis Blues sniper, who re­cently told re­porters he’d dropped off-sea­son poundage, too.

That’s not to say old-fash­ioned weight lift­ing has sud­denly gone out of vogue.

“Leg strength is huge for speed,” said Clance Lay­lor, the Toron­to­based per­for­mance coach who has trained P.K. Sub­ban and Joel Ward.

“The min­i­mum stan­dard in our gym is to get to a dou­ble-body­weight back squat. That trans­fers to faster feet. That trans­fers to ac­celer- ation, power and speed.”

But Lay­lor says it’s a wide­spread mis­con­cep­tion that get­ting stronger means get­ting bulkier.

“You don’t need to be bulky and jacked to be strong and fast,” Lay­lor said.

In­deed, in some NHL cir­cles bulging bi­ceps are be­ing mocked as un­nec­es­sary ac­ces­sories, like a lug­gage rack on a For­mula One car.

“I al­ways tell guys who brag about how big they are in their up­per body, ‘As soon as you start skat­ing on your hands, that’s go­ing to be­come a good idea,’ ” said Ben Pren­tiss, a Con­necti­cut-based trainer who works with Mon­treal cap­tain Max Pa­cioretty.

Said Lay­lor: “I call it all show and no go. You have a lot of guys, they look good — they have all kinds of mus­cle — but there’s no speed. Wasted mus­cle.”

By get­ting stronger with­out putting on un­wanted mus­cle, Ni­chol said ath­letes can in­crease their strength and power rel­a­tive to their body weight, which can trans­late to im­proved speed.

Ditto ath­letes who im­prove or main­tain strength while shed­ding ex­cess body fat.

“I see that in my gym with the guys — they’re more con­cerned with weight and body-fat per­cent­age than they have been. But the un­der­ly­ing mo­ti­va­tion for that is speed,” said Ni­chol.

Rielly, for one, said he made con­sid­er­able sac­ri­fices to ar­rive at camp as lean as he’s ever looked as an NHLer.

“I didn’t snack at all,” said Rielly. “And if I did, it was just quinoa sal­ads and stuff.”

That’s quinoa, pro­nounced KEENwah, the pro­tein-rich grain also known to some palates as an in- stru­ment of flavour-less di­etary tor­ture.

“Nah,” said Rielly, de­fend­ing his go-to kib­ble. “You can thrown a lit­tle chicken in there af­ter a work­out. It’s al­right.”

Lay­lor said that, done shod­dily, train­ing for speed can be a recipe for torn ham­strings and as­sorted hurt. And even done mostly cor­rectly — given that many pro­to­cols call for max­i­mum ef­fort with heavy bar­bells and weighted sleds — it can come with a chance of in­jury.

“I’d rather be fast and ex­plo­sive than slow and healthy,” Carrick said. “I didn’t want to be fast and hurt, but I was will­ing to take that risk a lit­tle bit.”

So was Marner who, de­spite his school­boy looks, more than holds his own in the gym. No­ble said Marner ended his sum­mer­time ses­sions back-squat­ting 385 pounds — more than dou­ble his body­weight — for three or four rep­e­ti­tions. That’s not fastest-man-in-the-world strong. (Char­lie Fran­cis, the late sci­ence-of-speed guru who men­tored Lay­lor, some­times spoke of the great Ben John­son back-squat­ting 600 pounds for sets of six rep­e­ti­tions). Still, it’s clearly strong enough for Marner to be one of the fleetest young play­mak­ers on the planet.

“Peo­ple are try­ing to fig­ure out — why is Mitch Marner so suc­cess­ful? He’s got an in­cred­i­ble body-weight-to-strength ra­tio, in­cred­i­ble,” said Ni­chol.

“Now, are there guys who are stronger than him? Yeah, lots of them. But they prob­a­bly also weigh a lot more.”

Which is why lit­tle Mitch Marner isn’t plan­ning on get­ting big­ger any­time soon.

DAN HAMIL­TON/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

The Leafs’ Mitch Marner has had to deal with ‘too small to play in the NHL’ la­bel all his ca­reer. His 61-point rookie sea­son si­lenced his crit­ics.

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