Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Peter Friesen

Head Athletic Trainer/Strength and Conditioning Coach, Carolina Hurricanes

How’s this for elite company: When Peter Friesen visits the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Ontario, he can run his finger down the Stanley Cup and point to his own name etched into its silver surface, alongside legends like Howe, Gretzky, and Lemieux. Not bad for someone who’s never played an NHL game.

When Friesen started out as an athletic trainer and strength coach for the Prince Albert Raiders, a junior hockey team in Western Canada, he could hardly have imagined he’d end up immortalized on the sport’s holy grail. But after decades of climbing the professional ladder, he landed his current job as Head Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Carolina Hurricanes in 1999. He’s now living his dream of working with elite pro athletes, and was on board when the franchise captured its first NHL title in 2006.

Outside the pro ranks, Friesen has spent time at the university level in Canada and advised Canadian Olympic teams in ice hockey, field hockey, soccer, figure skating, softball, wrestling, gymnastics, and volleyball. In this interview, he talks about being at the top level of a sport he loves, overcoming language and cultural barriers with players, and the annual fun run that he created for charity.

T&C: How did starting your career at hockey’s lower levels prepare you for the NHL? Friesen: In the 1980s, I was a part-time school teacher and an athletic trainer and strength coach for the Prince Albert Raiders in Saskatchewan. I was also the team’s bus driver, equipment manager, and jack-of-all-trades.

I really enjoyed it, but doing a little bit of everything helped me realize that being an athletic trainer and strength coach was what I wanted most. It also taught me to appreciate the resources I have now. Today I have a much larger budget, but I still focus on getting the most out of every dollar because I remember the lower levels, where you’re always doing more with less.

What are the unique challenges of working with athletes from other countries? A lot of NHL players come from far away places, and they have their own training backgrounds. When they’re injured, I might have to talk them out of doing things they’ve done their whole lives in order to minimize the chance of reinjury.

Getting those players to change their training methods can be tough. Often, Europeans have a different understanding of what they can and can’t play through. Also, in North America, we push medication and medical care more than they do in Europe, so it’s important to explain that our doctors only prescribe things that are safe and beneficial to the healing process.

How do you overcome language barriers with foreign players? I’ve found that body language and tone can help fill the gap. Body language is easy to pick up on, especially with a medical background, because I can see players laboring in different movements and notice what they lack mechanically. Also, most elite athletes are visual learners who pick things up very quickly if you use hand gestures to communicate your message.

What is the toughest rehab you’ve ever encountered?

I worked with Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr during the latter part of his career, after he tore his ACL. He was the first goalie to really come back from that type of injury and play the position at a high level without a knee brace. He was a tremendous athlete but not necessarily known for a strong work ethic, so the trick was getting him to work hard enough to return to playing shape.

As with most of my rehabs, I used group workouts with five to seven people. In that setting, the athletes really motivate each other to go harder, stronger, and faster. Grant was working with some very fit people, so he had to push himself just to keep up.

In November, Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward’s leg was sliced by an opposing player’s skate, leaving a pool of blood on the ice. How do you handle an incident like that?

First of all, I just want to make sure the athlete doesn’t die. If they’ve struck a major artery, you literally have only seconds to stabilize them. With Cam, we were thankful the blade didn’t hit a large artery or his quadriceps tendon–it just went into his vastus medialis oblique.

Once you develop a treatment plan for a laceration injury like that, the next part is minimizing the threat of MRSA and other infections. MRSA can be very destructive and even fatal if ignored. So we made sure the wound was closed, gave him an antibiotic, and kept a close eye on the area while it healed.

What was his rehab like?

The wound was slightly above his knee, so for the first two weeks he wore a straight-leg brace and had only five or 10 degrees of movement. It was a pretty simple rehab overall, we just needed to make sure the tissue healed properly. Our biggest worry was the risk of secondary changes–that his period of limited mobility and inactivity would lead to stiffness in the knee joint and weakening of the muscles in his leg. As soon as he was physically able, we started progressive stretching and strengthening exercises.

What’s your approach to caring for athletes after a concussion?

I tell them to stay home until they’re symptom-free, and I don’t talk to them during that time–our team physicians do. That’s because when an athletic trainer talks to an athlete about an injury, there may be perceived pressure to get back in the lineup. To avoid even any semblance of that, we have our doctors handle the first steps of injury management for concussions.

Before we consider letting them work out again, they must return to pre-injury baseline levels in their ImPACT testing. Then we start them out doing lighter work on the ice before gradually reintroducing body contact.

Hockey players are notorious for playing through injuries, especially during the playoffs. What is it like helping them stay in the game when your gut tells you they should sit out?

I don’t always have much say in the matter come playoff time. Athletic trainers across the league are put in tough positions in the playoffs, just trying to keep players from making an injury worse and helping them get through it as best we can. I’m continually awestruck at the pain tolerance some guys have, playing with broken bones and torn ligaments that would sideline them in normal situations.

Winning the Stanley Cup is a dream come true for hockey players and they don’t get many shots at it, so we have to be sympathetic to that. We want to give them every chance to succeed, so you see a lot of innovation at playoff time, especially with techniques for strapping and wrapping various body parts.

What’s your typical training approach in the off-season? My first goal is to get rid of any orthopedic problems as quickly as possible. Early in the off-season, I mostly have guys do body weight exercises–things like push-ups, chin-ups, and squats. Those emphasize body control while not putting as much stress on the joints as heavy lifting.

Later, we get into basic weight training with a standard periodization cycle that addresses endurance, then strength, and then power. By August, when preseason is a month away, we start what I call “controlled chaos,” which incorporates a lot of different physical and mental elements.

What is controlled chaos?

We do various drills on the track, in the weightroom, in the pool, and on the ice, with a focus on presenting multiple challenges in rapid succession. For example, we’ll bring players to the track facility, and one right after another they’ll do a 400-meter run, walking over 10 hurdles, and a 20-yard bear crawl. Then they’ll immediately move to a running station and start patterns around cones, working on agility and acceleration. Next, they’ll sprint over to the high jump pit and perform depth jumps. After that they’ll run to an open space and do a sled drag, pulling 50 pounds for 20 yards, followed by some forearm work using a rope with weights attached to it.

From there, they progress to speed ladder drills, followed by farmer walks with a 45-pound weight in one hand and a 25-pound weight in the other. The different weights make the exercise more awkward and force the athletes to adapt using their stabilizers. Next, they put on a 25-pound weighted vest and do 10 burpees–which some people call up-and-downs and which I think is the best abdominal exercise–followed by some low duck walks. Then they do a 100-meter sprint and they’re finished.

Most players can perform the full circuit in about 11 minutes. In a typical workout, they’ll do it three times. They’re pretty knackered after that.

What are the most common strength deficiencies or imbalances you see? Pro hockey players have the strongest hip flexors of any athletes in the world. I’ve seen a lot of MRIs and CT scans that show the hip flexors taking up almost the entire pelvic outlet.

To withstand the forces generated by such strong hip flexors, most players’ lower abdominals and lower back need to be strengthened. Also, hockey players have tremendous quad strength, so we have to develop their hamstrings to prevent imbalances that can lead to injury. And they usually have great groin development, but their gluteus medius and adductors aren’t as strong, so we work on those muscles as well.

What prompted you to start the Friesen 5k Fun Run, your annual charity event? Everybody in the NHL dreams about what they’d do with the Stanley Cup if their team won it. I’ve always been a runner, so I wanted to do something that involved running on my day with the cup. I also wanted to share it with our great fans.

As I was thinking of how to do that, I realized I could generate some money for charity at the same time. So I decided to put on a fun run, and the team’s management and players were all behind me.

On my day with the cup, I had a breakfast with it, then took it over to our facility and took pictures of it in the weightroom, on a bike, and in my office. Then I took it to the run, and we raised over $25,000 for an organization that fights leukemia and lymphoma. We’ve been holding the run for four years now and have generated over $100,000.

Anything about the cup that surprised you when you saw it up close? My name being on it. I never, ever thought that would happen. I grew up following hockey and knew almost every one of the names engraved on the cup, and it brought back some really fond memories of watching hockey with my dad as a kid. It was a humbling experience to see my name next to all those legends.

What’s the best part of your job? Going into an NHL dressing room every day. This is my 13th year, and I still feel so lucky. I remember what it was like to ride buses through Western Canada for weeks at a time, stay at lousy hotels, and get by on a measly budget. So I’m whistling zip-a-dee-doo-dah every day because I’m in the National Hockey League, working with all these resources and some of the greatest athletes on the planet. If I can’t get fired up about that, I should get out of the profession.

Click here to read more from our interview with Peter Friesen.

Feedback

It was great to seen an article on Pete-I always wondered what became of him. In the mid-90’s at the Glen Sather Sports Clinic in Edmonton Alberta Canada Doc Friesen successfully treated my Peyronie’s Disease with ultrasound, splinting and “manual therapy”. He did a great job and I fully recovered. Good to see he’s done so well for himself.

– Mr. A. Ventura




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