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If you don't test well, you don't play for Avalanche coach Jared Bednar

Adrian Dater Avatar
September 16, 2018

In a world where everything is better quantified, woe to the hockey player who thinks training camp is to get into good shape. The days of taking the summers off from near daily training, of pounding down beer after beer and stuffing the face with Tim Horton’s donuts. Those days are over.

OK, maybe one can still have a cold one and snarf down a few Timbits over the course of a long summer. But if you’re a hockey player, in today’s NHL, who doesn’t come into camp looking like greek marble? Fuhhgeddaboutit. You ain’t playin’, at least not for Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.

It’s not just an eye test anymore, to tell whether a guy is in shape or not. There are any number of new ways to test the human body, and Bednar likes to look at the numbers in those tests. Likes to look at them a lot, in fact. The body fat is at, say, 12 percent when Bednar wanted to see it at 11 coming into camp? Duly noted. The lung capacity in a VO2 test came in a little lower than expected? Duly noted.

Bednar is playing close attention to the data, and if he has to decide between two guys who have been similarly competitive on the ice but one fitness-tested better than the other before camp started? The third-year bench boss of the Avs says he goes with the guy who tested better in making the final call.

“I’ll tell you what you don’t want to be:” Bednar told BSN Denver, “you don’t want to be an outlier on the wrong side of (the testing). If I’m watching guys practice and it’s between player A, B and C, and C is an outlier on the bad side of the testing? Then, he may not get the opportunity that player A and B get. That’s just the reality of it.”

And, in Bednar’s mind, it’s only fair.

“If A and B have done the work in the summertime, and they’re showing a progression, and the other guy is going the other way? You know, it’s a competitive, competitive league and we are getting to the point as a team where, if we want to get better, it’s going to get highly competitive,” he said. “Some guys might get their feelings hurt, but at the end of the day we’re trying to put the best team on the ice that we can.”

This philosophy, this dictate if you will, seems to have been fully registered in the minds of Avs players by now. Exact numbers on the various fitness tests aren’t available to the media, but Bednar said his players have consistently tested better in this, his third training camp with the team. It definitely shows when the bulky hockey gear is stripped off. The Avs definitely are a buffed-out bunch of guys right now. Just about everyone looks sinewy, with chiseled frames and jawlines. There are no double chins in this bunch.

Take Matt Nieto, for example. This summer, the Avs depth winger got a tip from a friend that there was a health nutritionist he might want to consult. Nieto has had a nice little career so far in the NHL, and signed a new two-year contract with the Avs after a 15-goal season. But Nieto felt sluggish at times, and wondered if that might have had something to do with his diet, which consisted of the four basic good groups but, as he admits, featured plenty of red meat.

Turns out Nieto tested positive for some minor allergens associated with red meat intake. They may have been minor for the guy on the street, but for an NHL player of today, it might have slowed Nieto down enough to where it made the difference on more nights than he probably now wants to know.

“I got some blood drawn, and was able to find out some deficiencies that I have and what sensitivities I have to what foods. I kind of changed my diet up and have felt like a million bucks,” Nieto told BSN Denver.

The twain that shall never meet again, as long as Nieto is playing hockey professionally, are his taste buds and a big, juicy steak, the kind of which he always had before games or on off nights. The only meats he eats now are chicken and fish. Also out of the picture are all dairy products. Growing up in Southern California, in Long Beach, Nieto admits a big In’N’Out cheeseburger was a frequent staple of his diet. No more.

Nieto looks anything like a skinny vegan. He packed on more muscle with his new diet, especially to the upper body. So far in training camp, he has looked not only quicker, but stronger on the puck.

So does Nikita Zadorov. The 6-foot-6 Russian defenseman learned the hard way last fall how much of a premium Bednar places on players coming into camp in top condition. After signing a new two-year contract on the first day of training camp, Zadorov reported a couple of days later, and Bednar wasn’t impressed once the fitness-testing numbers came in. Zadorov was a healthy scratch on opening night at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers, and it took a while for him to earn Bednar’s trust that he bought in fully to a commitment to fitness.

This year? There have been no complaints about his condition. Zadorov, who is still only 23, came into the league with Buffalo at 18, convinced he could eat anything and not worry about it. Even at the tender age he remains, he said a change in diet, to only “good foods”, has made a big difference.

Zadorov seems to now believe that he came closer than he realized to being relegated to a “Guy Who Doesn’t Care Enough” status by Bednar, and the ramifications it could have had on his career. When Zadorov got the memo that he needed to work harder than ever on diet and cardio fitness, he took it seriously.

“All the coaches are different, but I think it’s a good thing to have something over the summer to prepare for,” Zadorov said. “I think this year I felt like, for the first time, I had a real plan for the summer. And I feel like this year, for the first time, I really came to camp ready. (Bednar) wants us to be stronger than anyone else, faster than anyone else, smarter and more physical than anyone else.”

A coach can overdo it sometimes on that stuff, though.

Ken Hitchcock was one of the most brilliant coaches in league history, whose 823 regular-season victories ranks third on the all-time NHL list. Hitchcock’s teams achieved at least one point in 60.3 percent of the games he coached in the regular season. In the playoffs, though, the winning percentage was .512. He won a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999, but never did again and there are plenty of stories from players of his of how Hitchcock overworked them in practices and in the gym with a belief that training all the time was the key to winning championships.

Bednar doesn’t harp on players the way Hitchcock did, though. In Hitch’s salad days, players flew commercial at times still and spent nights after games on the road at the local watering hole, believing they’d “sweat it out” the next day at practice. Scotty Bowman used to test how late players were out by handing a stick to the local hotel doorman and asking them to sign it when they entered the doors after a certain hour. When he saw the signatures on the stick the next morning, he knew who’d been out past curfew and made ice-time decisions sometimes based on that.

Today? In pro sports, the balance of financial power is so heavily tilted toward players, and with the current generation tagged as the “Like” Generation, that coaches have to be liked more to be also fully respected. A hectoring coach in a player’s ear might have worked more in the past, but today coaches will tell you that they have to adjust to the younger generation’s sensitivity levels.

Still, Bednar has the final say on roster decisions, so it’s to anyone’s peril who thinks he can cheat his system. Bednar just lays out the expectations off the ice, and it’s up to the player to decide whether he’s willing to follow them.

If not, he’ll make changes, on the ice.

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