The cliché in bad TV sitcoms or comedy movies (50 percent of which seem to involve Adam Sandler) goes something like this: a bunch of middle-age guys attempt to play a pickup game of fill-in-the-blank sport, and one of them immediately pulls a hamstring or throws out his back.
These scenes are the byproduct of unimaginative writers … but they also have a basis in reality. Every cliché, after all, has a measure of truth.
For adult league hockey players, injuries can be common – and a common fear. But they also can be avoided, says Sean Cromarty, a former NCAA Division I player at Colorado College and currently the owner of Competitive Advantage Training – which has a specific program designed for training hockey players and helping them avoid injuries.
Cromarty outlines the five most common hockey injuries and offered tips on how to avoid them, starting with the head and working down the body:
Concussion: This is an all-too-common hockey injury, and one that leads not only to time away from the sport but also everyday cognitive problems. As such, the more players can do to reduce concussion risk, the better.
“Playing with your head up, being aware of where you are on the ice are important,” Cromarty says. “Some things about brain injuries you can’t control, but you can do a lot of work to make sure your neck is strong and you won’t have the whiplash effect.”
Separated shoulder: This is another very common hockey injury, and whether it’s from giving a hit, taking a hit in the corner, incidental contact, or shooting and then falling down awkwardly, a separated shoulder is painful – but avoidable.
Cromarty recommends basic strength exercises like military presses and holding a pushup position to build key areas of shoulder strength.
“It’s all about the stability of the joint,” he says.
Lower back strain: This is a naturally susceptible injury area as we age because many of us gain weight as the years go by. Those pounds – which many skaters are trying to work off as a side benefit of playing hockey – don’t just slow us down. They can hurt us.
“As you gain more weight and have posture issues, you put yourself at a disadvantage where you might strain your back more,” Cromarty says.
Cromarty hurt his back playing at Colorado College, so it can even happen to the youngest and fittest among us. He recommends lifting dumbbells and kettlebells to build back strength.
“You’re staying away from loading the spine,” he says. “Load the body, but don’t load the spine.”
Hip strain/groin pull: Cromarty groups these into the same area because dead lifts, squats and plank exercises – in addition to proper stretching – can make a big difference in helping avoid injuries in both areas.
“You’re rushing in and on the ice for a late game. You might not stretch and do all the stuff they should to get ready,” Cromarty says. “You’ll see more guys that have those types of soft tissue injuries – pulls, strains.”
Hamstring pull: And yes, hockey players are not immune to this movie cliché injury as well. Cromarty again recommends proper stretching and the right warmup to keep players away from this nagging injury.
“Hockey is a contact-impact sport with a lot of changes in direction,” he says.
If you’ve already injured one of those areas in the past, it’s important to both rehab properly and understand ways to avoid further injury, Cromarty says.
“Before you really get back into training, playing or lifting again, you need some corrective exercise,” he says. “You see a lot of people exercising incorrectly. Those faulty patterns are going to cause you to re-injure yourself. You want to have the greatest range of motion possible.”
And if you have been lucky enough to avoid serious injuries up to this point, it’s still important to take care of your body.
“You have to remember when you’re lifting and working out on your own, are you doing it to look good at the beach or to be a better men’s league player?” Cromarty says. “Train for your sport. Be sport specific, even if you’re an adult.”
If you think you’re in pretty good shape – or even if you know you’re not – it’s possible to step into, say, a touch football game or a casual softball game without completely embarrassing yourself or winding up on the couch for a week with myriad pulled muscles.
But if you want an honest assessment of your current fitness level, try jumping into a hockey game. You will get a splash of cold water – or better yet, ice shavings – on your face.
While it’s true that many adult hockey league players are perhaps primarily motivated by the camaraderie and enjoyment of the sport, the fitness benefit cannot be overlooked, says Kevin Universal, a member of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Council and the president of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association.
Once you start, you don’t want to stop. But once you stop, you’ll feel it once you start again.
The beauty of hockey
A shift in hockey combines the controlled dash of a 400-meter race with the urgency of an even shorter race.
“There are perishable skills – the combination of having the short, sprinter-type lung capacity, then getting back for a quick rest and sprint up the ice over and over,” Universal said. “That’s challenging for a lot of people."
That’s why it’s important to keep playing, even if it’s just once a week. If you fall out of that routine, you will feel it.
“I think we have at least a handful of guys on my team who travel a lot and don’t have time to work out except for hockey,” Universal said. “That’s their one or two days of exercise a week, and it’s so beneficial. Aside from just hanging out and having fun, joking around with the guys, they’ll use that as a primary means of exercise.”
Other workouts don’t measure up
Unless you like to race the person next to you on the treadmill or try to beat yesterday’s distance on the bike or elliptical, there isn’t much true competition in gym exercises. That doesn’t mean you aren’t working, but you aren’t working the same way you are when you truly compete.
“Being a part of the game and having something on the line, it makes you dig a little deeper and makes you get into it more and get more benefit,” Universal said. “When you’re not doing that and just out recreationally exercising and trying to burn calories, you don’t get the benefit. I have friends that run or lift weights, but if they aren’t getting that type of hockey workout consistently, they feel it after games and you see it in their play.”
Universal notes a recent example to emphasize his point: a guy who had played on one of his teams a decade ago before moving away has just returned and started back in hockey a few weeks ago.
“He had regularly exercised at the gym, but he was so gassed the first four or five games,” Universal added. “He’s finally getting his legs back. It’s funny. He regularly works out, lifts weights competitively. It’s not the same when you have to go out and sprint.”
Never too late to start
That said, don’t let the conditioning learning curve associated with hockey be a deterrent. If you used to play and are trying to get back into it, it’s never too late. Same goes for adults who have never played before.
Universal falls into that latter category. He says he grew up playing street hockey, but he never played in an organized league on the ice until he was 34. He picked it up after his kids took up the sport and he “got the itch” when some other newbies convinced him to try a beginners camp.
“I regularly run into people as adults and I encourage them to pick up the game,” Universal said. “You don’t have to have grown up with it. You just have to have the desire, and you can have some fun out there and get fit.”
Now 48, Universal can’t imagine life without the sport in so many ways – with fitness being primary among them.
“I feel the difference. I feel the lung capacity and I’m able to work harder in other areas,” Universal said. “This past weekend I did a hike with a 1,700-foot elevation drop over 1.3 miles. That’s like doing 170 flights of stairs. My legs aren’t sore, and I attribute that so much to skating. I’ve tried lacrosse, football, track, swimming, baseball, and this is definitely by far the most beneficial workout.”