Jan 29, 2015More With Peter Friesen
When we interviewed Peter Friesen, Head Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Carolina Hurricanes, in the March issue of the magazine, we came away with enough material to fill two Q&As–literally. In this installment, Friesen talks about working with NHL players of all ages and nationalities, and shares his thoughts on off-season conditioning and keeping players in shape over the Olympic break.
T&C: What is the biggest challenge of working in the NHL?
Friesen:We play 82 regular season games a year, typically three to four games a week throughout Canada and the U.S., so the travel can be grueling. Plus there’s a lot of violent contact. NHL players are skating around at 25 mph, so when they get hit from behind, it’s like being blindsided by a car. And the ice conditions are different at each arena, which forces players to make fine adjustments to their playing style all the time.
When you combine all those elements, it’s the most demanding sport in the world, and that means we’re dealing with an endless variety of potential injuries. In addition to all the physical preparation, you have to help them stay mentally prepared for that type of action.
What was the biggest change you experienced when you came to the NHL from junior hockey?
Having a much bigger budget and access to elite doctors. Now, I can get on the phone and talk to the best orthopedic surgeons in the world–in junior hockey, there were some doctors who wouldn’t even return my calls. Being in professional sports opens up so many doors. The opportunity to learn from the best doctors and athletic trainers is much more available.
How many people are on your staff?
I have an assistant athletic trainer who is very capable. I also have an assistant massage therapist who works home games, and I do the massage work on the road.
How do you balance your athletic training duties with running the team’s strength training programs?
In the summer, I’m mostly a strength and conditioning coach, and that lasts into September. Once we get into the season, injuries dictate how much time I spend in the athletic training room versus the weightroom.
How is working with professional athletes different than working with amateur or collegiate athletes?
With pro athletes, you have work to get your message across before you can get results. We have guaranteed contracts, and if we have a guy who is difficult to work with, we can’t just give up and move on to the next–we have to find a way to make them understand our message. We’re going to keep paying them no matter what, so we want to make sure they can perform.
I also really try to make rehab activities fun, so the athletes don’t get bored. I go out of my way to tell the athletes how much fun they’re having. They might not actually be having fun, but I’m telling them they are and it helps brighten their mood. Being a good professional athletic trainer isn’t necessarily about how much you know–it’s more about how well you can get along with people and get your message across.
Working with players from all over the world, do you ever face a language barrier?
All the time. It’s amazing how you rely on a person’s feelings and how they express themselves when you’re diagnosing and treating them.
How is it different working as an athletic trainer in Canada vs. in the United States?
In Canada, you have more people who do both athletic training and strength and conditioning. But in Canada, strength and conditioning is in more of an embryonic stage than it is in the U.S. Also, in the U.S., the major universities have unbelievable facilities, while Canadian schools aren’t usually as lucky.
Because of those facilities, the strength and conditioning coaches in the U.S. have more extensive backgrounds and more access to information. On the other hand, the strength coaches in Canada usually have to wear multiple hats and work on the athletic training side a little more–so they might know a little more about how the human body works from a medical standpoint.
Since this was an Olympic year, most of your players had a nearly three-week break in February. How did you address their conditioning?
It’s tough, because at that point in the season, everyone was tired and wanted to go somewhere nice. I knew it would be easy for them to relax and put on a few pounds. When that happens, players come back expecting to compete at a certain level, but they can’t–I’ve seen serious performance drop-offs after a layoff that long.
I warned the players about it and gave them workout plans for the weeks off. I also weighed them before they left, and told them they should be at that same weight when they returned. Weight is a huge factor for hockey players. If you put on five or 10 pounds, you won’t be first into the corner to reach that loose puck.
Your off-season conditioning program pushes players pretty hard right before training camp starts. Why?
These guys have to be mentally tough and conditioned for the grind of a long NHL season that includes grueling travel and long stretches without a day off from games or practice. A lot of the players say camp is easier than our summer workouts and that’s how it should be.
When in the off-season, should players resume on-ice training?
We have this great athlete on our team named Rod Brind’Amour, and his great work ethic is known throughout the league. I once asked him what his key to staying so fit was, and he said, “The key is that I never get off the ice.” He’s on the ice two to three times a week minimum, all year round.
What is your favorite in-season fitness test?
We do a five-mile bicycle time on a stationary bike that usually takes our athletes under 13 minutes to complete. It gives a pretty good indication of an athlete’s cardiovascular status. If their five-mile time is pretty good, I can tell the coach, “I’m not sure if they’re stop/starts are any good, but I do know that they have a good anaerobic base.”
What’s your approach to movement analysis and corrective exercise?
I had the privilege of working with Gray Cook when I first moved down here because he lives close by. He helped me implement a movement screening protocol. And with my background in physical therapy, I also feel comfortable watching guys in the weightroom and being able to spot movement limitations. We also work preseason evaluations that include common injury histories. I look at all of my athletes and address their injury histories on an individual basis.
The NFL recently implemented new league-wide concussion rules to govern return-to-play protocol. Do you think the NHL needs league-wide legislation, too?
I think the NHL is already a worldwide leader in concussion evaluation and management. I think we’re ahead of the other professional leagues in making sure our athletes return from concussions in the safest possible fashion.
How do you address the issue?
I first try to make sure they have a good helmet for concussion resistance. Unfortunately, the NHL doesn’t allow us to force athletes to wear a certain piece of equipment, but we do have certain helmets that we prefer over others. I also have them wear a mouthguard. And we encourage training of the neck muscles. A lot of strength coaches ignore or overlook strengthening neck muscles, but a stronger neck can lessen the impact of a blow to the head.
Do you consult any outside resources when you suspect a player has suffered a concussion?
A lot of times the athlete experiences visual impairment, so we have an opthamologist evaluate their vision. The visual muscles are really tricky and can be distorted by a concussion. We’re also lucky to have Kevin Guskiewicz, a researcher from the University of North Carolina, nearby. He is one of the foremost concussion experts in the world and helps evaluate our athletes for return-to-play.
How do you get players to change when they’re accustomed to doing things a certain way?
The biggest thing is to have empathy for each individual. You have to understand where he’s coming from. Sometimes, for example, a player received substandard medical care and bad training advice when he was younger, so he’s skeptical of what I’m trying to do. You have to step into an athlete’s shoes and understand why they’ve developed the beliefs they have. Once you’ve done that, you’re in a position to show them that you understand where they’re coming from and you care about making them better. Then, hopefully you can find a compromise.
Do you approach working with veterans differently than younger, more inexperienced players?
I take special considerations for every player. For example, we have a 20 year-old who weighs about 170 pounds, so he doesn’t do much aerobic training–we want him to keep all his weight on. He spends more time on strength training.
Meanwhile, someone like Rod Brind’Amour, who has been in the NHL forever and has had plenty of nagging and serious injuries and several orthopedic surgeries, isn’t too keen on doing track work or dry-land running, and I also make sure his cardio program focuses on non-weight bearing activities.
What common threads do you observe when training athletes in different sports?
For any type of athlete, it’s essential to be able to control and master your own body weight before getting into extensive weight training programs. Much of the work I’ve done with various sports is similar, because the biomechanics have a lot in common. For example, hockey players need vertical leaping ability just like football and basketball players. You have to develop power in the legs and have a strong base, whether you’re in cleats or on skates.
Any ideas about what you would do with the Stanley Cup if your team wins it again?
I would try to get it for two days–one day for our run and the other so that I could take it back to my hometown in northern Saskatchewan and share it with my family and friends who supported me when things weren’t so spectacular for me–when I was driving the bus, sharpening skates, and doing laundry for the Prince Albert Raiders.
Click here for a sneak peek at the interview with Friesen appearing in the March 2010 issue of T&C.
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