By Mike Valente  

In the Nature of Things documentary Champions vs. Legends, Montreal Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber tries to break Bobby Hull’s slapshot record from the 1960s — reputed to be a blistering 118 miles an hour — using a wooden stick.

FROM THE FILM: Defenceman Shea Weber tries to break Bobby Hull's slapshot record.

It’s clear that advancements made over the years to equipment, training, technology, and coaching now make hockey a different experience for the players on the ice — and that's giving fans a faster, more challenging game.

Hockey gear has improved

At the turn of the twentieth century, hockey players had minimal safety gear. There was little protection from potential injury, or worse, and back then their equipment would fall under the category of “bare bones” — almost literally:

Body protection: Players used materials such as leather, felt, bamboo and animal hair to create makeshift body protection. It wasn’t exactly top of the line product.

Goalie pads were big and leather during Johnny Bower’s era and stayed that way until the early 1980s. “They were heavy and filled with organic material that absorbed a lot of water. They would gain so much in sweat and melted ice water that the pads would weigh more at the end of the game than they did at the beginning,” recalls hockey historian, Eric Zweig. 

Nowadays, goaltenders are equipped with pads that are bigger in physical size but weigh much less. Lighter pads made up of dense foams and plastics on the inside keeps goalies dry and allow them to focus solely on their performance. Goalies — and other players — are much less likely to get hurt.

Skates: In the beginning, hockey skates were winter boots with thin blades attached to the bottom of them. Innovation would come, but for a good 30+ years between the 1940s and 1970s, the modifications were still minor. Hockey skates and sticks were wooden. You would hardly be able to tell the difference between the skates Gordie Howe wore as a rookie in  1951 and the skates Wayne Gretzky wore as a rookie in 1979.

new hockey gear

A mask is an essential part of a modern goalie's gear.

Goalie masks: After decades with no face protection, goalies finally started wearing plastic face masks to prevent head injuries and getting cuts to their face. For years, however, netminders who chose to don one during games received their fair share of criticism from their fellow hockey elite.

There was a famous incident in 1970 when Boston was playing St. Louis for the Stanley Cup. The Blues had the legendary Jacques Plante in net, who would become known as the first goaltender to consistently wear a mask. In the midst of the Stanley Cup Final, “Plante got hit in the face with a puck and was knocked unconscious. He was badly hurt”, says author and hockey historian, Eric Zweig. Someone said to him “Guess your mask didn’t help ya there, did it?” and Plante responded, “Without the mask, I would have been killed.” And that was precisely it — you could still get hurt wearing those masks, you just wouldn’t get killed or badly cut or lose an eye.

Overall, because the equipment has improved by leaps and bounds, there is a better product on the ice. Players have more accuracy and comfort because their tools are custom designed and fitted for optimal performance.

Year-round training and conditioning

In 2018, NHL players are bigger, stronger and faster than any time in history — and it’s because there is no off-switch to their training. It’s constant. Players have regimented schedules every single day that feature gruelling workouts, both physical and mental.

Training camp: In the 1960s and early 1970s, the lack of physical training and exercise among players was partly due to money. A lot of players had to work another job in the off-season to make a living for themselves and their families. Players also knew that their hockey playing careers could end at any moment, so having a job off the ice was wise. Most players only started working out at training camp and would play themselves into shape. “Leading up to the 1972 Summit Series, the Russians worked out 11 months a year, Canadian hockey players didn’t. It just wasn’t done in North America. And after that, it began to change. Nowadays, no one would even think about showing up to training camp, not in shape”, notes Eric Zweig. 

ad featuring a hockey player smokingAttitides have changed about smoking and sports since this 1040s ad.

Health/diet: Since Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin entered the NHL in 2005, the focus on strength and conditioning has increased immensely. A player won’t make any starting lineup if he is not in peak physical condition. Back in the ‘70s, Guy Lafleur was a chain smoker during the prime of his career, and the majority of players around the league drank a lot of beer. Sometimes even during the intermissions. It was a way of life for hockey players. Today? Players rarely drink. It would be too much of a setback from their painstaking workout in the gym earlier in the day.

Technology for players

There are already apps where athletes and their trainers can create individual profiles to track progression in areas like nutrition, hydration and muscle memory — all of which can be monitored and studied instantly with wearable technology. 

VR, Smart Clothing And Brain Games: New Tech Is Helping Athletes Smash Records
Watch: Champions vs Legends

Coaches who are trained to coach

Technology is now a massive part of the game for coaches as well. As the ones in charge, they are responsible for recognizing and implementing different technology that will best set up players for success on the ice. “Most coaches now played the game as younger men but have been studying to be coaches. They have university degrees in all sorts of areas. It’s not so much how they spot talent, it’s how they use the talent,” says Eric Zweig.

In the old days, a coach was almost always an ex-player who just wanted to stay in the game. In other words, a player who got old. They didn’t have to have a lot of theories. They didn’t have training in the psychology of sport. Their job was to impart wisdom and keep the players in order.

Now, a coaching staff comprises well-educated personnel, each of them with an iPad or tablet. They seem to have tablets on the bench during the game, at practice, in the dressing room, on the plane — everywhere.

Watching video as a teaching tool has become much more important because it allows for frame-by-frame analysis of a specific play. Poor execution by a player can now be seen from multiple video angles with all sorts of statistical data accompanying it, and this helps coaches point out a player’s mistakes and allows a player to curb their bad habits much more quickly.


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The Nature of Thingies