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Canucks exercise caution trying to get up to speed in fast start to season

New Vancouver Canucks' defenceman Nate Schmidt battles with Jesse Puljujarvi of the Edmonton Oilers during Thursday's NHL game in the Alberta capital.
New Vancouver Canucks' defenceman Nate Schmidt battles with Jesse Puljujarvi of the Edmonton Oilers during Thursday's NHL game in the Alberta capital.

Modern players are, for the most part, diligent in keeping themselves in good shape during hockey’s off-season.

Once upon a time, training camp really was about getting back into playing shape but now they’re mostly about getting back into the rhythms of the season.

But playing pre-season games still have a purpose and the fact there are no exhibition games this year, a concession to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, has the potential to put NHL players at heightened risk of injury.

There’s just no replacing the pre-season action to ease yourself into game demands, says Andrew Evans, a strength and conditioning coach with long experience in a variety of contact and collision sports.

Evans has worked with football, lacrosse and rugby players — including three years at Rugby Canada — and is currently working with the national BMX Olympic team, as well as running the rugby program at Trinity Western University.

“Stopping and starting is really hard on the tissues, especially in the groin area,” he said. “There’s a lot of high forces involved, so a lack of pre-season, building into that amount of volume and intensity too soon, that can put stresses on you.”

Games matter and while elite athletes can do all kinds of workouts to get ready for the season, the actual demands of their sport really should be eased into.

“W hen you’re at maximum velocity, those are the most risky movements, especially if players haven’t been able to build up the physical demands of actual games, even a good weight program can’t replicate that,” he said.

There’s the momentary risks of going right into full-speed play, but there’s also medium-term risks.

“I f you’re a high-minutes player, playing back-to-back nights, you’re at risk. Y ou haven’t had a chance to stimulate your muscles,” he said.

Ideally an athlete will have 48 hours to recover from a game.

“With less that 48 hours recovery time, the muscle tissues get stretched. You can hold off for a while but maybe four weeks in you’re going to start running into issues,” he said.

There’s no changing the NHL schedule, so in practical terms, coaches would be wise to spread out the ice time as much as possible, he advised.

The lack of structured play in the early going this season could add further stresses, too — and with so many new defencemen in the lineup, that could take a few games yet.

Nate Schmidt is one of three new defencemen in the Canucks’ lineup this season, along with Olli Juolevi and Travis Hamonic.

The Canucks and Oilers combined for 86 shots on goal Thursday, a statement of how open the game was. And logic suggests that was also because it was the second game in two nights and defending being, at least anecdotally, more draining than attacking.

“I actually leaned over to Braden Holtby (on the bench) at the end of the game and said ‘I can’t remember seeing this many shots in a game in any recent memory of mine,'” Schmidt said after Thursday’s game, a 5-2 win for the Oilers.

“There’s some turnover here, guys still getting to know each other, we’re learning on the fly,” he added. “Y ou can scrimmage, you can do those types of things but real games aren’t mimicked until you get out there and you have (Connor) McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl flying around and they’re deactivating and making plays.

“Those things aren’t mimicked in practice. … We’ve got to adapt to those things quickly otherwise we’re going to be looking up at other teams in the standings.”

Because of his pre-season timeline, Hamonic spent most of training camp in quarantine at home, only able to work out around his condo. He got two practices in before Wednesday’s season opener, so physically he’s been as challenged as anyone.

But even with that challenge, he felt OK in his first two games of the season.

“I feel pretty good, you try to get up to speed,” Hamonic said. “T hings are happening quick, you try to adjust as quick as you can. … Y ou start to get your reps in, it starts to get second nature.”

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