Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Bobsled’s loss was hockey’s gain.

Dr. Craig Slaunwhite contemplated a unique career prior to his emergence in the field of peak athletic performance—competitive bobsledding, a seamless fit for the former college decathlete. His fast track to Cool Runnings came to a halt when a coaching offer from the Florida Panthers arrived. It is now the tease of a path not taken—one that crosses the NHL and NBA performance guru’s mind from time to time.

“I chose the opportunity to go to Florida and I don't regret it,” Slaunwhite shared with me in Kazan, where SKA Saint Petersburg is participating in the TANECO Champions Cup. “But I often think about what might've happened if I had pursued bobsled a little bit more seriously or for a longer period of time.”

A Doctor of Chiropractic who has worked with some of the world’s best athletes, his chosen career path appears to have been the right one. After five years with the Panthers, Dr. Slaunwhite joined the Winnipeg Jets as Director of High Performance in 2014. He spent five years with the organization, briefly departing hockey for a two-year stint as the Head Performance Coach of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. He joins SKA Saint Petersburg this season as the KHL’s traditional powerhouse attempts to restore its place at the top of the Western Conference. He will train a mix of the league’s seasoned veterans, and SKA’s deep stable of up-and-comers.

From the elements of training that go overlooked to the variables he plans to measure with KHL players this season, Dr. Slaunwhite shared early impressions of his adventures in Russia.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): How did you find yourself with SKA Saint Petersburg? 

Craig Slaunwhite (CS): In 2018, I was working with the Winnipeg Jets and we had the Global Series in Helsinki. We were there for about a week to play a couple of games. We had a day off during the course of that time, and Dmitry Kulikov, one of the players in Winnipeg at that time, had family in Saint Petersburg. I knew Daniel Bochner only a little bit at that point, but had heard a lot about the SKA team and their history and pedigree. Kulikov and I decided to go to Saint Petersburg on the day off. I went to see Daniel and the facility, to see if I could pick up anything and bring it back to the Jets.

I came over for half a day, and Daniel showed me around a little bit. I got to meet Roman Rotenberg. That was three years ago. I loosely stayed in touch to see how everyone was doing. Then, in February of last year, things started to reengage.

I spent ten years in the NHL, and then I went to the NBA with the Sacramento Kings. I wanted to advance my career and advance my understanding with the goal of eventually bringing that back to hockey again. That's how this opportunity presented itself, and here I am.

GK: You’ve worked in some of the most sophisticated leagues and facilities around the world. What are your first impressions of SKA and the KHL?

CS: I think SKA does a great job of providing the best facilities for the players and in nutrition as well. It's a very comprehensive program. I've been really, really impressed by the training facilities that are in Saint Petersburg. I was only there for a couple of hours, but it's quite a facility. Everything is at your disposal that you need to help to make the players better. I've been to a lot of world-class organizations and have seen a lot of places, so I feel pretty fortunate to be in this environment and have access to these facilities and the support from this club.

GK: Big picture, what do you want to implement with the team? 

CS: Big picture—I just want to bring a more scientific and objective approach. I want to measure more variables so we can make more objective decisions, and to be able to manage our players and player load a little bit more efficiently, effectively and acutely. I’d like to implement some nutritional education for the players. For me, I feel like player education is an untapped area in professional sports. There are so many knowledgeable people in so many different areas, but a lot of times that information doesn't get disseminated down to the players. That's our responsibility as the custodians of this information.

GK: The KHL and NHL are converging in many aspects such as ice size, but there are some stylistic differences. Will this change your approach with the players? 

CS: I will to take into context the style of play, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really change things that much compared to the NHL. There are way more similarities than differences.

GK: While preparing to speak with you, I had a look at some of the latest research in hockey sports science. There are so many new studies and reports being conducted around the world—from McGill to Vierumäki. Has any body of research come out in recent memory that intrigued you?

CS: I think research is starting to catch up with the physical demands of the game. A baseline understanding of the exact physiological demands of the game is so important. I don't think that had been really well detailed before, but now more research is starting to come out to get a more objective, scientific view on the physical qualities required to perform this game. That helps us to have a better understanding so then we can implement more focused training.

GK: You mentioned wanting to observe more variables with SKA. Could you talk about one of them? 

CS: The big one for me is going to be recovery, sleep in particular. I'm planning to dive a little bit deeper into that area.

GK: How do you measure that? 

CS: There are a couple of different ways you can do it. You can do it subjectively through questionnaires, but there are also some technologies that do a pretty good job of objectifying a sleep pattern. Hopefully looking to implement that at some point.

GK: A KHL road trip can span as many as seven time zones. Does this complicate how you think about rest and sleep? 

CS: You have the same thing in North America, it’s just less of an extreme. You'd basically take the same principles and apply them here, but it's of greater magnitude.

GK: In your experience, what is an ingredient that many hockey players lack in their training regiment? 

CS: If you want to get really technical—for me, the biggest area that is lacking is training the recovery phase of a stride. If you think about a skating stride, you extend from a propulsive phase, propelling your body forward. Everyone loves training that, right? Everyone loves squatting and deadlifting, lunging, anything that's going to create hip extension and external rotation. This is obviously very important for the game, because that generates speed. The other half of the equation is that leg recovering back to the starting position. If you look at hockey, so many of the injuries occur during that recovery phase. It's very disproportionately trained.

I think there needs to be more attention paid to that for two reasons. First, it actually contributes to speed—because the faster you can get back to those pushing positions, the sooner you can push again. From an injury prevention perspective, a large portion of injuries come during that phase. It's not surprising because guys continue to get bigger and faster in the muscles that push them and drive them, but their training is imbalanced on the other side for the recovery phase. They're developing these bigger, faster legs, but then the muscles required to bring those big, fast legs back into position again often aren't trained. 

GK: You spent some time in the NBA. What did your experience of basketball players teach you about hockey players, if anything?

CS: Teaching basketball players showed me that there are more similarities than differences across sports. They’re both intermittent sprinting sports. I may have approached them differently overall, but a lot of the fundamental concepts are very similar.

GK: Hindsight is 20/20, so what's one thing you wish you knew about performance science when you were an athlete that you could have implemented? 

CS: That’s a good question. Just having more access to technology and being able to experiment with different variables. For me personally, for example, when I was on the National Team for the decathlon, I was pretty heavy and I would've liked to have the ability to manipulate my weight a little bit and see how that affected my performance subjectively. There are so many technologies out there now that we can do it easily. I think that would have helped me as an athlete.

GK: What were you most excited to experience in Russia before you came over, and have you experienced it yet? 

CS: The banya. I was looking forward to doing that in Sochi. It was a lot of fun, actually—the traditional beat down with the leaves and everything!

GK: If there was one sport that you wished you could have played at a professional level, what would you would have chosen? 

CS: I love the Olympics, so I literally would play any Olympic sport out there. I wish I would have had the opportunity to play American football. There wasn't really a grassroots program where I grew up. Actually, I had a tryout with the Toronto Argonauts one time for the CFL. That didn't go too far, but I wish I would have had a little bit more exposure to that sport. It appeals to me.

I had a short stint training for bobsled. The year 2008 was my last as a decathlete, and then the following year, I trained for shot put, discus and bobsled. I went to Calgary and trained at the national team training facility there. I was going to try to pursue bobsled, but then the Florida Panthers job came up. I was at a life crossroads—am I a bobsledder or am I a coach? I chose the opportunity to go to Florida and I don't regret it, but I often think about what might've happened if I had pursued bobsled a little bit more seriously or for a longer period of time.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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