I worked with a nice man from Texas recently. Being from Texas, he had not attended many hockey games and didn't know much about the sport. I'd like to say that I was able to teach him all he had to know when we attended a local game together, but I know that there is a lot he could still learn. One thing I did learn from my friend was an incredible way to describe the game that hadn't occurred to me before. When asked how he enjoyed hockey, he said he loved it. He loved that it was always changing, that it was a very organic sport.
Organic, that sounded very poetic and very accurate. Hockey is not football, as you very clearly know. Players can go into each faceoff with two plays in mind, but they have to make split second decisions and respond to changes in front of them faster than they can inhale. Changes of course, don't just stop on the ice.
Let's look back 40 years for a moment. 40 years ago, 1971, players smoked, fans smoked and coaches smoked. In fact, there are many rumours of players sneaking cigarettes in the penalty box and between periods, whenever they could. Players looked at training camp as the time to get into game shape, they came to camp over weight after a summer of partying and working summer jobs to make ends meet in some cases.
All of that has of course changed. Players train throughout the summer and come to training camp, in most cases, in peak shape, ready to compete for a position in their line-up. Players work with nutritionists, personal trainers, power skating trainers and often sports psychologists. Most will try anything to make the most of what they can for the short time they know they have been given.
Hockey is a sport for the young, the fit, the few. In the blink of an eye, a NHL career can be played and finished. There is always another 18 year old newly drafted kid who is ready to compete for and possibly win a spot on the roster. The prospects are starting to train for the NHL at younger and younger ages. Parents dream of their children playing in the NHL and where and when they can seem to spare no expense.
Young players are playing in more leagues and teams than ever before. It used to be that many kids played on their neighbourhood rinks with the neighbour kids. Now, they attend practises, games and tournaments on a schedule. The amount of time they actually play hockey seems to be decreasing, but the structure of it is increasing. The players are playing for more than just bragging rights sooner and with more frequency than stars of the game such as Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and even Wayne Gretzky.
This has been a gradual change, but a change none the less. Many hockey players have written books on their playing careers, and their lives in the game. The one that struck me especially hard was reading Bob Probert's "Tough Guy". In it, Probert talked about putting on and losing weight during his summers and seasons, smoking whatever he wanted all of the time and staying out all night before game nights drinking and partying. I don't doubt that there are still some players that do some to all of these things at one point or another, but when we look back at the concept that there is always a line-up of players ready to take your place, there is a fundamental shift in thinking for most NHLers since the Probert days.
Because of the shift in attitude and the evolution of the NHL athlete into what is now a peak athlete, it is easy to look back and see where the changes have come from. Going forward will be something entirely different. At this point, it's hard to say or predict how much more elite a player can be. The NHL combine should attest to that. Perhaps the next evolution of NHL fitness will come not only in youth, but through adulthood. Perhaps the next evolution will see players master their fitness levels and sustain them closer to, and maybe even into their forties. One thing is certain, it would take some quick human evolution to bring about many major changes.
At this point NHLers are muscular from weight training and agile from hockey specific drills. There have also been a large number of players taking to yoga, hot or not, to help with their flexibility. At some point, there is only so much the human body can do, and can be expected. Skills will continue to evolve, the expectation for skating skills alone will continue to increase, accuracy and shoot out moves (if he NHL continues to require such conclusions to games).
There may not be many players who will admit to smoking in the NHL these days, but thanks to social media and the accessibility of cameras, fans can find out if their favourite players smokes. What is slightly more secret and private, for now, is which players have chewing tobacco, drinking or other illegal substance use or habits.
It is very likely that in order to remain competitive longer, it will take more than good genetics, intense training but also impeccable discipline that lasts the entire year. It is not the nicotine in cigarettes that is the concern, but rather the other chemicals. Players who smoke now may still have a great career, but that will likely be the next thing to disappear from the NHL. There will be changes to the game, the players and the expectations of the players moving forward. Like the players, the game is after all, organic.