Kunlun Red Star’s Steve Nightingale found himself filming offseason workout videos in his Beijing apartment, armed with little beyond a TRX and a set of kettlebells. With gyms closed across the capital, he improvises with similar parameters to many of his players in North America. Nightingale’s inaugural season in the KHL was one to remember—ending with a return to China, his year-round home, in the midst of a global health crisis.
Whether you are a league newcomer or seasoned veteran such as Avangard’s Brandon Bovee, there is little to temper the uncertainty of this unorthodox offseason. Strength coaches have had to work with varying degrees of quarantine conditions and preparedness—from fitness nuts with full gyms in their garages, to youngsters with little equipment available beyond their own bodyweight. The KHL is known for some of the most Herculean preseason camps in the hockey world, and preparing players to endure them has required new heights of creativity from their coaches. I asked three of the KHL’s strength gurus to share how they are dealing with these unprecedented times—from the injuries they are most concerned about when training camp arrives, to the increased use of puppies as workout equipment on Instagram.
GK: How closely are you working with your players right now, and how has the quarantine situation impacted your levels of communication?
Brandon Bovee, Avangard Omsk: Not very much. We’ve got guys spread out all over Russia, and our import guys are back in Canada. I haven’t had too much contact. I use an application to run my offseason plan. I already had my program done, so when all of this happened and they started shutting gyms down, I sent out an at-home program too that they can do with bodyweight. Obviously it’s not ideal, but considering the circumstances, guys have two programs. One they can do at home, and one if there is a gym available.
Hassan Saeed, Spartak Moscow: To be honest, because I’m “stuck” [in Moscow] at the moment, I’m on the same timezone with most of our guys. Usually I am home writing programs and then have to wait for feedback on how the workouts are going. Here, I am getting feedback in real time—that has been unique, and nice actually. In terms of how I do my programming, it didn’t take a big swing. I try to keep as close to tailor-made or individualized as I can, and make sure that I am communicating.
Steve Nightingale, Kunlun Red Star: We give the players offseason training programs that are split into the blocks that we need to work on. I will draw up the plans and send them out to the group chat. I suppose I am talking to them more because everyone’s situation is so different. Some of the guys I speak with have incredible gyms set up in their garages, and other guys are working with one dumbbell. I’ll write a fairly generic program, and speak with the players if they can’t do something at home.
GK: How have you restructured the post-season workouts to adapt to limited resources?
Brandon Bovee: Usually they’re doing stuff for time: maybe 30 seconds of squats, switch to pushups, then a core exercise. I always begin the workout with a warmup and then end with a metabolic circuit—doing squat-jumps, lunge-jumps for time. There are not too many variables you can change at home with just your bodyweight, so time is the biggest thing you can manipulate.
Hassan Saeed: The challenge is that you have guys who have been able to build a pretty decent setup in their homes, whereas some younger guys are stuck with very limited equipment. I try to make sure that guys are going through mobility and de-loading or recovery this time of year. We will ramp it up in June to make sure guys are working energy systems where they go through low-intensity cardio and a lot of mobility. We also do some pre-rehabilitation work to get them away from aches or pains that they experience through the year.
Steve Nightingale: I am in the same boat in Beijing—all of our gyms are closed. I am working out in my apartment with rudimentary equipment. The first set of workouts I sent out, I filmed them in my apartment with a TRX, two kettlebells and some exercise bands. If the players had those or could get them shipped, that was basically four weeks’ worth of exercises. The exercises are probably the same, but the way we do them is different. I’ve been doing more circuit-style training. There is a program that is fairly common in offseason or early preseason designed around low weights and high repetitions. We’ve been doing that for the first four weeks, which is perfect because we don’t have access to very heavy weights.
GK: What is the one thing you would like to see guys focusing on at home?
Brandon Bovee: Consistency—do something everyday.
Hassan Saeed: Anyone who has played for the legendary Oleg Znarok will probably, at some point, mention his training camps. For a lot of our young guys, Energy System Development is really big. When we hit the ground hopefully in July, it’s not running—it’s a sprint. Really intense. I want to make sure that those guys can keep up in terms of capacity. For strength training, we can adjust—but the intensity and their ability to recover, to come off of those high-intensity bouts, that is really important. I want them to go through training camp without any injury, and to show that they are ready to play. Spartak is trying to build a contending team.
Steve Nightingale: I am quite focused around their joint health and doing a lot of work with resistance bands. It helps with ligament and tendon health as well as developing a limited amount of strength. The season is so long and their bodies get beat up so much—a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing is laying good foundations for shoulder health and groin health.
GK: How will your teams’ training camps change in light of the unorthodox offseason?
Brandon Bovee: Training camp is so long here anyway, you just have to modify depending on the situation. Usually you have two practices per day to start training camp, but maybe start with one practice per day for a couple of weeks and let them get a feel for it. We may have to do different drills—not so much stop and start the first week or so. It will all depend on when training camp starts, but it’s still up in the air.
Hassan Saeed: It’s my responsibility to be in touch with guys and make them understand that we will get going right away. We will try to get them ready as best as possible, and we don’t want to deviate from the plan that we’ve had. Like I said, Oleg Valerievich is notorious for his training camps, and that is a big part of his way to begin to build a team. I worked with him last year for the first time and learned a lot. I understood more about where he was coming from, so I am looking forward to continuing that.
Steve Nightingale: I laid out a suggestion to the team that whenever we plan the return date for preseason camp, we bring players in two weeks prior for a pre-preseason camp. They wouldn’t be on the ice very much, it would be more focused on strength and conditioning. I explained to our coaches that when we look at our fitness testing coming into this season, there have to be realistic expectations. If you have a guy who only has an eighty-pound dumbbell in his garage, can you really expect him to come in and lift 350 pounds in a fitness test?
It’s my job to bring everybody in and identify those guys who have not been able to train as optimally as possible. There is a sticky wicket, I suppose, because there are rules regarding when players can come back. My understanding is that they put those in place because of teams that have particularly difficult preseason camps! But I think that the league probably needs to have a look and understand that this is an incredibly different situation, and player health will be at the forefront.
You only need to look at the German [Bundesliga]—there were eight injuries in the first day of their return to play. That’s unheard of. Our suggestion is to come in two weeks before and do a gradual camp that identifies the inevitable weak areas.
GK: How much are your head coaches involved in conversations right now?
Brandon Bovee: I haven’t had too much communication with Bob [Hartley]. Once it gets closer to training camp time, we can sit down and design a game plan together. There are so many unknowns right now relating to when camp will actually start.
Hassan Saeed: We talk almost every other day. [Znarok] has been really involved compared to any other head coach that I’ve worked with during my time here in Russia. He’s really interested and I actually work with him as well—we’re trying to get him going in the gym! The strength and conditioning side is my responsibility, but he doesn’t shy away from giving his opinion—and that’s welcome.
Steve Nightingale: Curt Fraser and I speak regularly—in the last month or so, we have spoken once or twice per week on the phone. I know that the core coaching group, the GM, Curt and Steve Kasper, speak daily.
GK: What types of injuries are you most concerned about if players have not had access to ice time or proper gyms?
Brandon Bovee: Groin injuries. That would be my biggest concern. It’s an overuse problem, and usually in the offseason, I like guys doing slide board two times per week. If they’re not on the ice, I like them to do that just to keep the groin in condition. If they’re doing at-home workouts, I would probably say most guys don’t have a slide board at home. Or they’re not doing change-of-direction drills like getting out on a field where you are stopping, starting and turning. Running shuttles, doing stuff like that —you’re not getting the slowing down and stopping, turning and reaccelerating. That would be my biggest concern, but that’s my biggest concern every training camp.
Hassan Saeed: Groin, obviously, and back. Those are the prominent injuries that you will come to see if you have not conditioned those areas well enough. Knees, joints and shoulders you see all throughout the hockey season, but I would say the groin area and lower back would be the primary injury risks.
Steve Nightingale: Yeah, groins. We worry about them all of the time. Everyone’s training camps are not the same, but they are the same in that from the first day you arrive, you are on the ice and going hard. To go from zero to one hundred is going to be very challenging, and we are going to see groin problems and the associated hip and low-back issues. Unless that is carefully managed, they are going to see some problems.
GK: What are your thoughts on the Marsblades craze, or rollerblading in general?
Brandon Bovee: Max Ivanov came in during our National Team breaks this year and did some power skating with the guys. I saw on his Instagram that he’s been doing some stuff with Marsblades. I like slide boards and change of direction. I am not a big proponent of roller-blading—I like guys to do shuttle runs and that type of stuff closer to training camp.
Hassan Saeed: I don’t have anything bad or good to say to be honest, because I have not tried [Marsblades]. If guys like to get in them and go for a rip, all good. No reason to say anything. I wish I had my rollerblades here!
Steve Nightingale: Rollerblading is pretty good. The issue that you’ve got physiologically is that you can do as much biking or running as you like—and that’s great for a general level of fitness—but it does not translate to the skating movement. Different muscles are working. Rollerblading is a way to condition the muscles that they need to use. I was listening to Connor McDavid talk the other day, and he was saying that to try and match as much as possible, they’ve taken his actual hockey skates and put on rollerblade chassis so that he is still using his same boot.
GK: We are seeing a spike in the use of wives, children and puppies as workout equipment on social media. Thoughts?
Brandon Bovee: I guess if you want to mix it up and have some fun, why not? I think I saw a video of Kovalchuk doing squats with his wife on his back or something! Wrestlers are notorious for training with just their bodyweight and doing lots of calisthenic-type stuff, and they’re strong as bulls.
Hassan Saeed: Any type of fitness or positivity at this time is welcomed by me! It’s nice to see. The general population can tell that professional athletes are in a similar situation to them. Not everybody has a nice, huge gym. If you look on Instagram, I think Shaq has a whole basketball court at his place, but Kovalchuk is doing family workouts. I think that’s pretty cool and it’s a healthy thing that they are promoting.
Steve Nightingale: I think the fact that it’s on social media probably speaks volumes! It’s fun and obviously doing workouts in your own home can get boring. It’s mentally draining when you have such limited stuff. From a fun point of view, it’s something to change up. But yeah, it’s pretty much for social media hits more than anything else.
GK: Could there be positive gains from these circumstances? Are players focusing on things that would normally fall by the wayside?
Brandon Bovee: No one has ever been through something like this, and I am sure there is something positive that is going to come out of it. Maybe guys will be working more on the mental side of things—meditation or analyzing their game, doing more video since they’re home so much.
Hassan Saeed: The big thing I’ve tried to instill with our younger guys—since they’re at home, and many don’t have much experience in the kitchen—is cooking and nutrition. I will say, first and foremost, that I’ve learned how to cook borscht and things I would have wanted to do earlier, but you don’t have the time during the season! Nutrition is huge right now, especially with immunity and maintaining good health.
That’s one thing they should be better for coming out of this—spending a little more time with their babushka and letting her explain how to do things! I’ve even had a couple of conversations with players’ babushkas and they didn’t believe that the coach wanted to speak with them. That was an interesting few conversations for me, but I really liked it. I think they took a liking to it as well because I was trying to get them to be more strict [with their grandsons]. At the end of the day, the kids will be better off for learning those skills.
GK: Hassan, an aside, did you tell the babushkas to stop making syrniki for breakfast?
Hassan Saeed: No, that’s a death wish. A sniper would be at my window if I said stuff like that. I just tell them, don’t mind if their grandsons are in the kitchen.
Steve Nightingale: For those people who say that they don’t have time to do something, I think a lot of the time, they just don’t like to do it. Or it’s hard. With this extended offseason, there is a chance for a lot of gains. Mobility is one—and like I said earlier, this idea of joint health and the recuperation that you will need. The season finished for [Kunlun] and for everybody earlier than they would have liked, but it is generally a pretty short offseason for guys to recover. If it’s planned effectively, then there are definitely some benefits to this.
GK: What do your personal fitness regiments look like right now?
Brandon Bovee: I do a lot of mobility stuff from Functional Range Conditioning, and after my knee operation, I’ve just started running again. Today, I rode the bike. Nothing too serious.
Hassan Saeed: I was fortunate to make contact with a cycle studio around here, and I was able to rent a bike for my living room. I turn on something on TV, usually it’s Netflix, and try to go through a few sessions myself. Just like anyone else, you have a few days where you’re a bit frustrated mentally. I am fortunate to be where I am, and Moscow is a pretty easy place to go for a few runs and walks along the набережная (embankment). I’d rather be golfing, to be honest with you!
Steve Nightingale: I’ve had a pretty solid routine of forty-five minutes of work in my house with a TRX and kettlebells, and then getting out for a run. It has been pretty easy [in Beijing] to get outside and go for a walk or a jog.