As Justin Williams went through his summer training, he carved out one day a week for a special workout. Like the skating and weightlifting he did for much of the summer, this involved a lot of sweating, but he had to go to a studio and was surrounded mostly by women.
“I do hot yoga,” he said. “It’s like a feeling of accomplishment when you get through a whole session. It just shows you don’t have to be 250 pounds and pure muscle to do this stuff. You see 130-pound girls doing stuff that’s, quite frankly, pretty amazing. It just goes to show you there’s different types of strength. It’s not all visual.”
Like a growing number of hockey players, Williams has added yoga to his offseason regimen, adapting to an NHL that he has seen shift away from strictly muscle. He admitted that he never thought he’d find himself in a yoga studio when he entered the NHL 16 years ago, but it has become more commonplace around hockey, with teams such as the Washington Capitals and their American Hockey League affiliate even having sessions during the season.
“It was usually, ‘How much can you bench press? How much can you squat?’ ” Williams said. “Those were your tests. And if you weren’t as strong as the other guys, you’d be like, ‘Get stronger. Get bigger.’ It’s just different. It’s just the way the game’s played now. Used to be able to bear-hug guys in the corner, used to be able to hold on to guys a little bit more, and you can’t do that anymore. It’s all legs, core, strength and speed.”
Said Capitals Coach Barry Trotz: “I think what you’re finding is the modern athlete is really, really tuned into their body. They recognize that things that were the ‘old school’ of massage and yoga and stuff like that maybe didn’t fly 20 years ago, but as we’ve gotten smarter at understanding our bodies and how everything flows so well — everything from your sleep habits to your ability to heal and all that — players are looking at those as really good options, the flexibility aspect, the strength aspect. I think players understand it more and it’s very accepting now, and it’s the right thing.”
As defenseman prospect Madison Bowey identified weaknesses in his game to work on over the summer, he put flexibility near the top of the list. The Hershey Bears had a yoga session about once a week last year, and the coaching and training staffs suggested Bowey incorporate it into his offseason. He did hot yoga, a vigorous form that is performed in a heated room, at a Winnipeg studio with most other attendees unaware that he was a professional hockey player.
The first class?
“Tough,” Bowey said. “I think I lost probably three to five pounds and got a good sweat on. Definitely a good workout for sure.”
Defenseman Nate Schmidt described his first experience in a yoga class this summer a little differently.
“It was horrendous,” he said with a laugh. “I’m just sitting there, I’m guessing 20 minutes in, just leaking. I’m sitting there, like, shaking. I’m looking over, and these girls are just feathery, just kind of going through the motions and just getting warmed up. And I’m sitting there just drenched already.”
After veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik missed half of last season because of a cracked femur, he was looking for a low-impact workout to stay off his knee. He said he was forced to not start skating until early September, significantly later than he typically would.
A big baseball fan, he heard that Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta was a proponent of Pilates, a series of controlled movements to improve strength and flexibility throughout the body. After a recommendation, Orpik decided to try it because he figured the risk of aggravating an old injury was low. Admitting that in the past he thought of it as something that probably wasn’t for him, Orpik realized it could be beneficial.
“A lot of it is just stabilization stuff when you’re doing bilateral stuff, so any weaknesses you have on like one side of your body, try to focus on that,” he said. “A lot of times when you’re doing full-body stuff or two-legged stuff, it’s easy to compensate and make up for weaknesses on one side of your body.”
He had a one-on-one session with an instructor two to three times a week, and the routine was different each time, which made it more interesting, but also more challenging. The difficulty initially took him by surprise.
“Probably 10 minutes into the first class, it was pretty humbling doing some of the stuff that I couldn’t do,” Orpik said. “I had a girl that was teaching it to me, a little ballet dancer, but she could pump out the reps. My whole body was shaking doing it. It was good. It was a lot of fun, something that I’ll definitely keep doing.”
Note: In the preseason debut for several Capitals who played at the World Cup of Hockey, including captain Alex Ovechkin, Washington beat St. Louis, 2-1, in a shootout Monday night at Verizon Center. After the Blues had a 1-0 lead through two periods, a Paul Carey goal tied the game less than two minutes into the third. Shootout goals by T.J. Oshie and Andre Burakovsky delivered the win. The Capitals had 41 shots on goal.