What happens in the National Hockey League’s off-season can mean the difference between a lucrative NHL contract or a ticket back to the minors.
Pittsburgh Penguin Brandon Sutter doesn’t have to worry about making the team or finding a place to live in Scranton, where the Pen’s American Hockey League affiliate is based.
However, the kin to hockey royalty does have to show up at September’s training camp in peak condition.
Sutter, along with a handful of other Central Alberta professional hockey players like Paul Postma (Winnipeg Jets) and Matt Fraser (Boston Bruins) spend two hours a day, five days a week, improving their game and their fitness at the Can-Pro Athletic Training Centre in Red Deer.
Al Parada, the Red Deer Rebels’ strength and conditioning coach who runs the sports-specific training centre in Riverside Light Industrial Park, said the days of showing up at camp out of shape are long gone. He said the expectations are higher and the competition is steeper.
“For myself it’s definitely strength training –– trying to gain weight and gain mass. Whereas some other guys are in different situations,” said Sutter, 24, the son of former New York Islander great Brent Sutter, who is now owner/coach/general manager of the Red Deer Rebels. The Sutters are from Sylvan Lake and Brandon played his minor hockey in Sylvan and Red Deer.
“I do lot of weight lifting with a little cardio mixed in.”
Sutter has played 334 regular NHL games, earning 126 points over five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Pens. He played under his father on the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League.
At six-foot-three and 195 pounds, Sutter likes to put on about five pounds a year.
“It’s pretty challenging for me but other guys are trying to lose a few pounds or maintain,” said Sutter. “I think the key is to keep the body fat off and gain muscle.”
Another challenge sticking to the training regime is the diet. In the summer, there’s no team nutritionist, coach or doctor keeping an eye on what the player puts into his body. Sutter says he’s pretty much on his own.
He’s been keeping track of calories and attempting to eat about 3,300 calories a day.
Staying disciplined in the heat of the summer can be challenging, said Sutter.
“Weekends we still have our fun,” he said. “We will do what we want, whether it’s going for a beer or whatever. During the week, it’s a little more disciplined for sure.
The hardest part is once you do your workout, you ensure you are eating right all week long.”
Besides, no one wants to be that guy who fails the fitness test on the first day of training camp.
And for Postma, who is poised to have a breakout year, the work he puts in is more crucial than ever this summer. Postma’s first full NHL season was put into the history books in 2012-2013. The lanky six-foot-three and 200-pound defenceman from Red Deer netted four goals and five assists and racked up six penalty minutes in 34 games. He played his WHL days with the Swift Current Broncos and the Calgary Hitmen after a minor hockey career in Red Deer.
The Jets failed to make the 2012-2013 playoffs, so Postma’s summer holidays began earlier than Sutter’s. Postma said every training camp is extremely competitive and the off-season signings always add a new face or competition to the mix.
Postma is banking on 2013-2014 to be his breakthrough season.
“You have to give yourself the best possible chance to make the team and to play good minutes,” he said. “In order for that to happen, I have to be at the absolute top of my game. Summer is where I make all of my strides and gains. This is a big one for me.”
Fraser, a former member of the Dallas Stars organization, has a lot riding on his off-season training, too. The 23-year-old, also from Red Deer, was part of the early-July seven-player blockbuster deal between the Stars and Bruins that sent Loui Eriksson to Boston and Tyler Seguin to Dallas.
Obviously Fraser wants to leave a lasting first impression on his new club.
“You want go in there being ready to play and ready to work,” said Fraser. “You want to make sure they know that you’re not afraid to work. You only get one chance to make an impression. It has to be a good one.”
When Fraser left Dallas, the trainers advised him to work on his overall core strength. Fraser said staying focused in the summer can be challenging but he looks at the bigger picture of living a healthy lifestyle. He is of the mindset that you’re only going to get what you put into it.
“Nutrition is such a big part of the game now,” said Fraser, a former Rebel and Kootenay Ice winger who played his minor hockey in Red Deer. “It’s not just going to the gym and showing up to camp and getting into shape. They are so critical when you get to camp strong enough to do this. You just have to be prepared.”
Fraser said he has been fortunate that he has not embarrassed himself at training camp.
“I have that work ethic and desire to play and be successful to be one of the best guys there,” he said. “That’s my goal. I don’t play hockey to be there. I like to do the best I can and challenge myself. Summer training is a huge part of that. Often the guys who take that the most seriously are the ones who succeed.”
Sutter added a lot of the training over the summer is designed to pass the fitness test.
“You want to score as good as you can but as players everyone feels fitness testing is pretty overrated,” said Sutter.
“How much you can lift in the gym doesn’t have anything to do with how you play on the ice. I guess it’s a big part of it but I also think it is an advantage to be as strong as you can.”