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The NHL returns: U of T experts weigh in

Varsity Blues coaches weigh in on the condensed NHL season

Olympian Vicky Sunohara is the first full-time head coach of the Varsity Blues women's hockey team. (Pursuit photo)

The National Hockey League (NHL) season is set to return Jan. 19 after 113 days of lockout—but many of its best players may well be on the bench.

“I can’t see them getting away from injuries easily,” said Vicky Sunohara, three-time Olympic medallist and head coach of the Varsity Blues women’s hockey team. “Trying to get into game shape with such a quick turnaround will be the toughest thing.”

Training camps opened last Sunday and already injuries are being reported for key players such as Jarome Iginla and David Booth. And with little more than a five-day training camp to prepare for the condensed season ahead—48 games over 99 days— it will be an ongoing risk, more so than with a normal season.

“The players have all been training in some way,” said Sunohara, “but to be thrown into a full game situation without easing their way into the season and having exhibition games, I’d expect common injuries would be groin pulls and hip flexor injuries and things like that.”

Darren Lowe, head coach of the Varsity Blues men’s hockey team, said the diversity of players’ training experiences during the lockout makes it challenging to plan for team fitness and health.Varsity Blues men's hockey in action.

“Some players have been playing— whether they’ve been playing in the American Hockey League or in Europe—and then some players haven’t been playing at all, just training,” he said. “You’re going to have people in all kinds of different places as far as how ready they are.”
 
While it’s easy to understand why under-trained players might be at higher risk of injuries, Lowe says it’s just another example of what makes the condensed season such a wild card.
 
“The people who’ve not played at all will be quite rested, they may be less subject to injury,” he said. “Whereas if you have someone who played 40 games in Europe and now they’ve travelled across the pond to come back and play, maybe they’re worn down a little bit.
 
“But I think that as professionals, and the amount of money they make, they should just be ready to play. So as a coach you’re not going to be wary of working them too hard, you just do the stuff you’d normally do at training camp and just hope for the best.”
 
Sunohara said that from a coaching point of view, the important thing is to make sure physiotherapists and strength and conditioning coaches are as involved as possible, and that coaches plan for “anything they can do so they’re not just jumping right into a practice session but making sure [the team is] warmed up and prepared.”
 
Most NHL teams this season will likely resemble line-ups from the previous year, meaning many players will be reunited with teammates they’re accustomed to working with on the ice. Sunohara says this could be a positive or a negative when it comes to team cohesiveness.
 
“It could be a positive thing because sometimes when teams are together for so long, which they are in the NHL season, they might get tired of being with each other day in and day out,” she said, suggesting the shorter season might result in more energized team interactions. “On the other hand, with all that time playing together through a full season, you get to know strengths and weaknesses of the players you’re playing with.
 
“I know the NHL often goes golfing and things like that during their training camps,” she said, “but in this case I don’t think there will be time.”
 
Sunohara says off-ice activities like playing in basketball tournaments, attending Blue Jays games, and going out for team dinners are part of season preparation for the Varsity Blues because “the team gels best when they’re away from the rink.”
 
Both Varsity Blues teams continue to fight for top spots in the second half of their season, with the women’s team recently winning in an impressive shoot-out in a 3-2 win against the Waterloo Warriors (video below) from Jan. 13.