CALGARY — The puck drop for Canada’s first three games at the world junior hockey championship in Russia is 4:30 a.m. ET.
Host city Ufa is 10 to 14 hours ahead of the Canadian players’ body clocks, depending on what part of the country they’re from. A Canadian junior team hasn’t travelled this far, or crossed this many times zones, since the 2001 tournament in Moscow. Ufa is another 1,160 kilometres and two time zones to the southeast.
Jet lag and travel fatigue will be major challenges, barriers as significant on the road to gold as the Russians, Swedes and Americans.
Hockey Canada enlisted the expertise of Calgary sleep specialist Dr. Charles Samuels to draw up a plan to combat jet lag and sleep deprivation.
“I’ve met with sleep doctors, sports psychologists, neuropsychologists,” Canadian head coach Steve Spott said. “I’ve met with just about every doctor possible.”
Anyone who flies across time zones has experienced the sleep disturbances, fatigue, impaired concentration and digestive problems that occur until the body adapts to the new environment.
The accepted rule is it takes a day for every hour of time difference to adapt. Samuels aims to accelerate the adjustment by a few days.
Travel fatigue gets less attention than jet lag, he says, but for athletes who travel to far-flung places a lot, it can be damaging to performance. The cumulative effects of extensive travel fatigue the body and mind. Even though the Canadian team is travelling to Ufa once, the sheer distance and time spent on planes can catch up with them later.
Samuels drew up Canada’s plan from a template he created for the Vancouver Canucks in their 2011 Stanley Cup final against the Boston Bruins.
“That’s an extreme example because you’re coast to coast, Boston to Vancouver,” Samuels said. “We take that experience and translate it to this, which is even more extreme.
“It’s basically a survival situation if you look at the frequency of games, the time of the games and then the fact there’s virtually no time to recover before the finals.”
The Canadian team is currently in pre-competition training in Finland, which is a four-hour time difference from Ufa. The players were on a strict schedule from the moment the wheels went up on their flight from Calgary on Saturday.
One of the worst things a team can do, says Samuels, is get on the plane exhausted. But it was inevitable the players would feel some fatigue after a stressful selection camp.
“We really talked about on the flight, eye shades, ear plugs, noise cancellation headphones, all the pillows and comfort you need and the plane is for rest. No screwing around,” Samuels said. “You’re not watching movies, you’re not playing cards, you’re not doing anything. You’re either sleeping or your eyes are closed and you are resting.”
Taking synthetic melatonin supplements, scheduled exposure to light and dark, and shifting meal times towards the destination are all elements of the Canadian team’s plan.
If it’s time for light exposure and there isn’t any, the team has hand-held lights called Litebooks with them.
The company’s website cites NASA research that shows scheduled exposure to a specific type of light, as well as timed avoidance of light, can speed the shifting of the body clock.
“We’re using these Litebooks because there’s limited light in Ufa and in Helsinki,” explained Scott Salmond, senior director of hockey operations. “We’re planning on one Litebook per three players and players have to spend a set amount of time around that light.”
“When it is light outside, we plan on getting outside and we’re going to go for walk. Our schedule in Finland is based very much on what our schedule will be like in Ufa and we’re trying to change our clocks, even though we’re in Helsinki and we’re four hours different,” Salmond continued.
“We’ve got a day-by-day plan on how we deal with jet lag and that includes what kind of activities we’re doing and what times of the day we’re going to meet and what time we’re actually scheduling rest for players.”
Canada plays the host Finns in an exhibition game Thursday and another against Sweden on Saturday before travelling to Ufa the following day. Their first game is Dec. 26 versus Germany.
Canada’s opening three games are at 3:30 p.m., local time, which means no pre-game skate in the morning. Samuels is pleased about that because he sees those skates as simply draining players of precious energy they’ll need later in the tournament.
“I’m respectful of the coaches,” he said. “But I tell them ’Don’t be pushing these guys because there’s no upside.’ There are very fit athletes and the most important thing is not draining them. Overtraining them is way worse than undertraining them.”
Compact tournaments like the world juniors are an emotional roller-coaster as a country’s fortunes can change on one goal. The players’ brains will be in overdrive during games and they’ll feel wired and unable to sleep when they return to the hotel.
“The bottom line is every effort goes into reducing cumulative sleep debt,” Samuels said. “By the time they get to the finals, they’ve accumulated a lot of sleep debt.”
Thirteen players on Canada’s team travelled to Yaroslavl, which is 250 kilometres northeast of Moscow, for a pair of games against the Russians in August.
“It’s definitely tough,” forward Mark Scheifele said. “It’s a big transition with the time change and being in a different country, there’s definitely a little bit of culture shock.
“I found the biggest thing was the sleep patterns. You’re changing 10 or 11 hours. It’s a big time change, but the trainers and the doctors are helping out as much as possible. By the end of our time in Russia, I was sleeping great.”