If you’re looking for a fast-paced, active way to get fit in winter, ice hockey might be just the ticket. Whoever came up with the concept of a sport where players zip around on a frigid ice sheet while balancing on thin metal blades probably didn’t know what a great combination of fitness and competition they were creating. With the average NHL player able to skate in excess of 20 miles per hour during a game, hockey truly is the world’s fastest team sport.
For those who haven't skated before, entering a learn-to-skate program is the ideal first step. "Skating is the most important part of hockey," says recently retired NHL right winger Scott Young, who played 17 seasons with the Whalers, Nordiques, Avalanche, Blues, Stars and Mighty Ducks. "It's different from any other sport, because you're on very thin blades. Obviously the better your balance and movement, the better you're going to play."
The basic rules of the game are simple: there are six players (including one goalie) per team. Each player is on skates and using L-shaped sticks to shoot a vulcanized rubber disk (or a “puck”) into their opponent’s goal net. There are, obviously, finer points about the game, which you can learn on the NHL’s website.
Though the Society for International Hockey Research identifies Nova Scotia, Canada as the true birthplace of modern hockey, around the 1850’s, the game's origins are as multinational as it gets—facets of the game as we know it today have been cherry-picked from Canada, Ireland, Great Britain and Eastern Europe.
If you think ice hockey isn’t for bigger guys, think again. Former Olympic gold medalist, coach and current skating teacher Alana Blahoski works with clients at all fitness stages. “Two years ago I had a guy come to me at 350 pounds,” she says. “He dropped 130 pounds through training and dieting and now he’s playing in a high-tempo ice hockey league.”
The sport of ice hockey wouldn’t even exist without ice skates, so that’s purchase number one. From a comfort standpoint, form fitting skates are priority. Keep in mind that your skate size will be different from your shoe size. “You want skates to feel snug,” says Blahoski, “so they’ll typically run anywhere from one to three sizes smaller then your shoe size.”
Since it’s nothing like trying on a pair of shoes, have the professionals at the store help you with getting your skates fitted. A good skate shop will literally heat skates in an oven so they’ll mold to the size and shape of your foot, and accommodate your arches.
“Don’t just buy skates in your size and then hit the ice—you’re asking for pain while you’re breaking them in,” says trainer Mike Boyle, who’s worked as a strength and conditioning coach with the Boston Bruins and the Boston University hockey team. “The better fitted your skates are, the better off you’re going to be.”
After the skates, the most important equipment is safety gear. “I don’t let my players go out on the ice without a helmet and elbow pads,” says Boyle. “I’m not worried if they fall on their rear end—they’ve got plenty of padding there, but there’s nothing but bone on the point of the elbow and the back of the head.”
Regarding whether or not you should wear a full face mask, an NCAA requirement, Young says it’s your own personal decision. “It’s up to you whether you want to go into work the next day with a black eye or missing a tooth.” We’re guessing he recommends the full mask.
Once comfortable on skates, an amateur player can be game - ready within as little as a month, unless they have pre-existing injuries. “It’s most important to work out your core for balance and your quads for skating strength,” says Blahoski. “With shooting and passing, so much of that power comes from your core.”
Young recommends an interval training regimen to match the flow of the game. “It’s all about sprinting and recovering,” he says. “It’s not an endurance sport like distance running. If you’re training on a stationary bike, try 45 seconds on, then 90 seconds off. That conditions your body for ‘all out’ and then rest.”
For the basic lower body muscle strength you’ll most likely need in-game, the most effective workout to employ is squats, both with and without weights—this move strengthens your quads and back.
Strength and conditioning expert, and founder of betterhockey.com Dr. Clint Steele also recommends single-leg squats and dead lifts as basic moves that will most closely mimic what your muscles do on the ice.
The In-Game Workout
During play, practically your entire body gets a workout. Your leg muscles are used thoroughly, but your upper body gets utilized as well—when you skate, you’re driving with your arms, chest and shoulders. “You’re even strengthening those little stabilizer muscles that we use for balance,” Blahoski adds, “like the ones in your ankles, which we constantly use to turn and stop.”
As with all forms of exercise, especially one as intense as hockey, properly warming up is a reliable safeguard against in-game injury. If it helps you break a sweat, try biking to the rink instead of driving. Young adds, “If you can stretch after the game, that’s ideal. Stretch out your back and legs—you’ll feel much better the next day.” Even a light cool-down jog will prevent post-exercise muscle cramps and leave you with less soreness the day after.
The surefire way to get better is playing among others who share your skill level. Most men’s leagues have an A, B, C and D division, which separates the competition levels. “Playing at the proper level allows players to have the most fun,” says Young, “as opposed to playing at a level where you’re over your head or where you’re totally dominating–neither of those are much fun.”
If you’ve got your eyes set on a specific recreational league, have one of their experts watch you play–they’ll be in the best position to tell you which of their divisions is the right fit for you.