NHL players keep getting faster, stronger, and more skilled — how far can hockey evolution go?

Players of the future will be mean, lean fighting machines, but don’t bet the farm on them being that much bigger…unless genetic manipulation ever becomes legal.

Citius, Altius, Fortius. It’s a term that belongs to the Olympics – the International Olympic Committee has wisely had its motto trademarked – but it could just as easily describe hockey. It would be impossible to look at today’s NHL player and argue he’s not faster, higher, stronger, not to mention more skilled, better coached, better equipped, better nourished and better prepared than ever. The good old days might harken to a time when players were less complex and more like the common man, but they weren’t nearly as good.


In today’s game, we have freaks of nature like Zdeno Chara, who can shoot the puck in excess of 100 miles per hour. We have cyborgs such as Duncan Keith, who can log enormous minutes playing in every situation and never seem to get tired. We have kids such as Sarnia Sting defenseman Jakob Chychrun, a candidate to go first overall in the 2016 draft, who could have walked into an NHL dressing room at 15 and not looked out of place from a body-type standpoint.

It makes you wonder what the future has in store for the game. If the average NHL player has grown two inches and gained 20 pounds over the past 50 years, does that mean he’ll be 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds in the 2065-66 season? If the top players can shoot the puck more than 108 miles per hour now, does that mean they’ll be blasting it 120 miles per hour before long? If players are more than a second faster blueline to blueline than they were 20 years ago, does that mean some day they’ll be skating fast enough to get a speeding ticket in a residential zone? “I don’t want to say the possibilities are endless or anything like that, because that would be kind of silly,” said Matt Nichol, one of the most respected strength and conditioning coaches in hockey and a founder of BioSteel Supplements. “There was a time when they said it was humanly impossible to beat the four-minute mile and to run the 100-meter in under 10 seconds. And now people are doing it all the time. You’re going to continually see guys get bigger and stronger.” But hockey will always remain a skill-based sport, and that is no truer than it is in today’s game. Despite the low-scoring contests, players are better than ever. Many will argue the small gap between the best and worst players in the NHL is so small now it’s created a game in which it’s more difficult to create offense. The league has almost organically eliminated one-dimensional players who are big and strong but can only fight. And we might have maxed out in terms of the size of NHL players. In 1997-98, the average NHL player was 73.2 inches tall and weighed 204.9 pounds. Last season, it was 73.1 inches tall and 201.2 pounds. The height of players hasn’t deviated from 6-foot-1 – give or take a tenth of an inch – since 1996-97.
StuntedGrowth That’s an awfully long time. But players are indeed getting stronger, and that only makes sense. Most elite players at any level of the game employ a personal trainer such as Nichol or former NHLer Gary Roberts. They’re far more tuned to nutrition and are making far better life choices. The training they’re doing is sport specific, and there’s more emphasis on core strength than ever. Nichol is seeing it in his gym every day in the summer. “I have junior and NCAA guys in here, and these guys are throwing up NHL numbers and are among the strongest guys I have in my gym,” Nichol said. “They’re 10 years younger than the NHL guys, and they’re highly skilled guys. Their games are just going to keep going in that direction.” So perhaps the key in the future will not be getting bigger and stronger but in having the skill level keep pace with the growth. After all, players are only four inches taller than they were 100 years ago, and the height of them hasn’t changed demonstrably in a generation. But the weight has fluctuated greatly. When the league expanded to 12 teams in 1966-67, almost 50 years ago, the average weight of a player was 184 pounds. That same player is more than 17 pounds heavier today. But in 2005-06, when the NHL came back from the 2004-05 lockout with a new look and rules that promoted offense, players were an average of 206.3 pounds. That has gone down by more than five pounds in subsequent years. Unlike in the past when size and strength were often enough to get a player into the NHL, players have realized there’s at least a modicum of skill that’s required, regardless of the size of the player. When Eric Lindros came along in the early 1990s, people marvelled at how a man child so big and so strong could have that kind of skating speed, skill level and soft touch around the net. Lindros would leave scouts agog as to how he was as rambunctious as a bull in a china shop on his way to the net and then as delicate as a surgeon once he got there. That kind of player is far more prevalent now than ever before, and much of it is because of the training these players do in the off-season. They’re on the ice and in the gym and their skill levels are keeping pace with their increase in bulk. “If you could have the size of Zdeno Chara or Dustin Byfuglien and the skill set of Patrick Kane, why wouldn’t you?” Nichol said. “There’s no downside to it. As long as you’re not sacrificing conditioning or speed for the increase in size, why would you not do that?” Players are indeed bigger, faster and stronger than ever, but experts in genetics are wary of indicating that it has anything to do with human evolution. What’s more likely is that advances in nutrition, training and equipment have more to do with it. For example, David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance notes sports that require more agility have actually seen their athletes get smaller. In women’s gymnastics, for instance, the competitors are smaller and lighter now than they’ve ever been. In the past 30 years, female gymnasts have gone from an average of 5-foot-3 to 4-foot-9, all the better for the power to weight ratio they need to spin in the air. Epstein also points out that at the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens ran the 100-meter in 10.2 seconds, while Usain Bolt ran the same race at the 2013 world championship in 9.77 seconds. That would have put him 14 feet ahead of Owens. But Bolt was using starting blocks and running on a surface that was designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible. Owens, on the other hand, was running on a track made of cinders and used a gardening trowel to dig out his starting blocks in the ground. Epstein goes on to say that a biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owen’s joints indicates that if he had starting blocks and had been running on the same track, he would have finished the race one stride behind the world’s fastest man almost 80 years later. Will players get faster? Maybe. But consider that at this year’s All-Star Game, Jonathan Drouin was the fastest skater. He skated from the blueline to the end zone, then did an outward turn, raced down the ice, did an inward turn and skated to the red line. And he did all that in a remarkable 13.103 seconds. But almost 20 years ago, Mike Gartner posted a time of 13.386 seconds, although on a different course. At the All-Star Games and individual team skills competitions, there hasn’t been that much of a deviation over the years. Yet we see the game now, and it seems like it’s going faster than it ever has before. Players with little or no foot speed are weeded out of the game rather quickly, but again that’s due more to the game changing than the players. One area where we will likely see the most change is in shooting. Even though players don’t seem to be getting any bigger, their shots are getting harder. It’s no surprise stick technology has made enormous strides and continues to get better with every passing year. At last year’s all-star weekend, Shea Weber won the hardest shot competition with a blast of 108.5 miles per hour. Unlike some of the other areas, this is one where there has been a marked uptick in results. In 1990, Al Iafrate won the hardest shot competition with a reading of 96 miles per hour and, discounting two anomalous years where Iafrate registered shots of 105.2 and 102.7, there has been a fairly steady progression.
BombsAway Alan Moses, an associate professor at the University of Toronto in the department of cell and systems biology, ecological and evolutionary biology and computer science, ran the numbers and reckons there will be 120 mile-per-hour shots within 20 years. In terms of skill level, a growing number of young players are opting to get 1-on-1 skills training during the off-season, play spring hockey and use personal trainers. The upside of that is players are more highly skilled at younger ages. The downside is that not using any other muscle groups and not taking breaks are causing more injuries. Nichol said one area where everyone in the game has begun to be more proactive is in area of rest and recovery and sleep patterns. When Nichol worked for the Toronto Maple Leafs at the turn of the 21st century, hockey people would scoff at things such as measuring readiness to train and sleep quality, but they have begun to embrace it more. As the players learn more, they’ll be able to exploit their talents more fully. And that’s where hockey still might have work to do. “As fit and strong as guys are, there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” Nichol said. “If you look at most NHL teams, I would hazard a guess that a third of their roster isn’t even scratching the surface of their potential. I have football player clients who are journeymen or never make it, who are bigger, stronger, faster than any of my NHL guys.” That brings us to the gene pool, which unearths a whole host of other factors along with it. The first is attraction and retention of players. How far hockey advances depends on what kinds of athletes it has playing the game. In Canada, that’s usually the best athletes but not always. The influx of European talent that began in the late 1970s has given the NHL more athletes to choose from and a greater pool of players.
Chychrun The United States has been progressively producing more players and more from far-flung places. Chychrun, for example, played all of his minor hockey in Florida, and Auston Matthews, the projected No. 1 overall pick in 2016, grew up in Phoenix. The late Bob Johnson always maintained if you could get a hockey stick in the hands of the next John Elway or Joe Montana early enough, you would make better hockey players. Which takes us to another interesting aspect of the future. Some athletes have certain genetic advantages. You probably can see where we’re going here. And if you don’t think there are parents out there who might try to engineer genetic advantages to give their offspring the best chance at an NHL career, well, consider that people are willing to move to other countries, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and make all sorts of personal sacrifices just to get a ticket for the lottery. Moses of the University of Toronto compares genetic engineering to combining two decks of cards. The mother is handing half of her deck and the father half of his deck to their children. You could imagine, instead of randomly handing over the cards, you could look in the father’s deck and the mother’s deck and choose the best cards. “We can’t actually choose how the shuffling is done right now,” Moses said. “But we’re at the stage where you can shuffle the deck a lot of times by combining sperm and eggs. Then you could measure which cards those sperm and eggs have, and then basically throw away the embryos that don’t have the cards you want. Then you can choose the one that does have the cards you want and put that one into the mother and you basically have a designer baby.” Nobody’s saying this could happen within the next 10 years – after all, we’re still as a society debating the ethics of using stem cells to help cure diseases. So we’re not about to start messing with nature to build better athletes. But what about the long-term future? Moses said even now it would be possible to take hockey players, sequence their genomes, identify the differences they have and isolate those. “We already have the technology to do custom genome editing,” Moses said. “Technically, these things are possible, but they’re absolutely not allowed. In principle, if you gave the sports world its way, perhaps it would take us to a place where these things are happening, but that’s not the world we’re in now. We’re still at the stage where it’s really scary to take someone’s cells and do genetic manipulation and put them back in their bodies.” Until then, we’ll just have to continue on with players training harder, eating healthier, devoting themselves more to their craft and being better coached. Those aspects of the game are improving with every passing season. And we didn’t even touch on goaltending, the position in the game that has outpaced the ability of skaters to produce offense. More pure athletes are gravitating to the crease than ever, and they’re being better coached. Many of them have discovered the advantages of tracking the puck wherever it goes, using a “head trajectory” technique that allows them to keep a step ahead of the play in front of them. Players will continue to get better, and it will be more and more difficult to play in the best league in the world, even with expansion on the horizon. The few who are chosen will be those who continue to get higher, faster, stronger.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.