Strength Performance Network

Integrating NHL and AHL Strength and Conditioning

Sean Skahan
Strength Coach Anaheim Ducks

(This was written 4+ years ago)

As the strength and conditioning coach of an NHL organization, one of my responsibilities is to implement our program with our minor league team in the American Hockey League (AHL). Each NHL organization has a minor league team affiliated with them in the AHL. While some teams in the AHL employ strength and conditioning coaches, some organizations will send their NHL strength and conditioning coach to work with them during the season. With most NHL teams being far away from their AHL team, getting there frequently can be a challenging task. As a result, throughout the course of the season, most NHL strength and conditioning coaches will make scheduled visits to their AHL team throughout the course of the season. In our situation, I try to get to our AHL team as frequently as possible. I will make 4-5 1-week trips to our affiliate in conjunction with our NHL team (Anaheim Ducks) being on long road trips.

The AHL is a league where the development of the player into an NHL player is the priority. When an NHL draft pick decides to turn professional, he will generally start his career with the AHL team. Depending on the skill and development of the player, the time spent in the minors varies on an individual basis. There are situations where a player may be called up to the NHL because of an injury or a trade. Therefore it is important to ensure that the player is on board with the training regimen and will know what is expected of him on and off the ice when he gets called up to the NHL. With this emphasis on development, the strength and conditioning program is big part of the process.

Unlike the NHL, the AHL has a schedule that is similar to NCAA hockey where most of the games are played on the weekend. A typical AHL schedule will have games on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with the possibility of playing on Wednesdays. Since the NHL plays more games during the week and never plays 3 games in consecutive nights, program design is different at the separate levels within the organization. Although there are 82 regular season games like the NHL, it is my opinion that the AHL schedule is beneficial for the development of the player. More time can be devoted to working on skill development at practice as well as off-ice strength and conditioning.

There are a few bumps in the road when it comes to program design in the AHL. Some obstacles are:

1- Lack of coaching- Unfortunately, the strength and conditioning coach for the NHL organization can't be with the AHL team most of the season.

2- Facility logistics-The NHL weight rooms are usually superior to the AHL weight rooms in terms of space and available equipment.

3- New players- During the course of the entire season, new players will join the AHL team via trades, free agency, and being called up from other teams. This can become a problem, especially when a new player with a different training background joins the AHL team in between visits of the strength and conditioning coach.

When designing the AHL program, it is important to make sure that the program can be done in a facility as efficiently as possible. In our situation, our AHL weight room is 800 square feet which when compared to our Anaheim weight room, is much smaller. Usually when I am with our AHL team for a week, on Monday or Tuesday, we will designate that day to off-ice training only. This ensures that strength and conditioning is the priority for that day. In this situation, I will divide the group into 2 groups of 12-14 players and designate 2 different start times. Here we can cover all aspects of our program including foam rolling, warm-up, strength, conditioning, and flexiblity. On other days, we may have all the players in at one time before or after practice. In this situation, we will divide the team into 2 groups where 1 group is conditioning on the stationary bikes, while the other group lifts. We will then switch when everyone has completed their portion of the workout.

When designing our in-season lifting program, we stick to a basic template. We lift 2 days per week on both Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Wednesday, depending on if Monday is a total day off for the players. The program is pretty consistent all season long where we will change the exercises through a different rep scheme, plane, or speed throughout the season but keep the same movement and format. On day 1 we will do an Olympic Lift variation paired with a stretching exercise. Next Front Squats will be tri setted with an Incline press variation and a stretch,. Last, a Vertical pull variation will be used in a tri-set with a Bent Leg Hamstring Variation, and a stretch. On our second day we will do a Single Leg push variation tri setted with Bench Press, and a stretching exercise. The second tri-set will consist of a Straight-leg Hamstring variation , an Inverted Row and a stretch, The third set will be prehab for the Shoulders and prehab for the hips. On the days that we are not actually lifting, we will spend time on torso activation/strengthening and other injury preventive exercises.

Since I have been working with our AHL team, I've found that basic program design principles, proper space utilization, and extra coaching with new players when I am present, has made it the best situation possible for us. With the coach's, athletic trainer's, and the player's support, I feel more comfortable knowing that our program is getting done when I may be in Anaheim. 

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