After years of use in overseas soccer and rugby pro leagues, genetics testing has made it into hockey. Are NHL teams using it with their players? They aren’t talking. But off-season strength and conditioning coaches are doing genetics testing on their clients, albeit with caution.
Gary Roberts had a surprise for his players when they started training with him again this past summer. It wasn’t a sleek new machine, a powerful new superfood or a funky new core exercise. It was far more scientific. As his NHL clients returned to his gym in Toronto – Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid and James Neal among them – Roberts had each player’s DNA tested. An ex-NHLer himself, he understands players’ mindset when it comes to training and knows they prefer to be shown, not told, what to do. “What I like is that a player is going to see his own DNA,” Roberts said. “You can tell them something, and they won’t clue in, but if they actually see their results, they say, ‘S—, my DNA doesn’t lie.’ ”
Among the biggest benefits Roberts sees with genetics testing is that it can reveal susceptibilities to certain kinds of injuries, which allow strength and conditioning coaches to tailor players’ programs more precisely. Say, for example, a player is predisposed to hip, knee or ankle injuries. Roberts might take back squats out of his program and replace them with single-leg exercises to lessen the load on those joints. “What we’re trying to convince these young guys of is, ‘These are your DNA results, this is what you’re going to be more susceptible to and this is how we’re going to avoid it,’ ” Roberts said. “They’re not going to avoid all injuries, because no one does, but they’re going to avoid some injuries.” Tests are usually done using DNA from a simple saliva swab, and they can tell a lot about a player. On the fitness side, they can show a player’s VO2 max potential, injury risk and recovery speed. On the nutrition side, they can catch sensitivities to carbohydrates and saturated fat, as well as any lactose intolerance. And that’s just a sampling of the possibilities. Still, DNA testing is only in its infancy in the hockey world. It’s been in use for many years overseas in soccer, rugby and tennis, but even there it’s only regarded as one factor among many. The models in pro circuits like the English Premier League are far more sophisticated and aren’t limited to a single source of information said Andy O’Brien, director of sport science and performance for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He estimates they’re looking at as many as 50 different data streams – daily – taken from saliva, blood and urine. They’re measuring a mountain of other data, including muscle output, nervous system fatigue and sleep, as well as genetics. “Interpretation of the testing is the main thing that people really struggle with,” O’Brien said. “Ultimately, what you’re doing is you’re using this just like many other tests as one factor in a holistic analysis that’s going to tell you whether an athlete is predisposed to injury. You can’t hang your hat on one test.” Where O’Brien sees DNA testing being applied best is in the kitchen, as does fellow trainer Ben Prentiss, whose clients include Chris Kreider, Brad Richards and Eric, Marc and Jordan Staal. Tests can tell how well a player digests proteins, carbohydrates and fats, helping trainers adjust a client’s nutrition program. Take carbohydrates, for example. There are copies of certain enzymes in human saliva that help break carbs down. If a player has more copies of those enzymes, then he’ll handle carbohydrates more easily than someone who doesn’t. “In exercise, there really isn’t anything new – it’s just guys coming up with new interpretations from old methodologies,” Prentiss said. “In terms of the food, I absolutely believe it’s a huge component. And you want to talk about DNA and genetics, to me it’s all about how you’re supposed to eat for your genetic makeup.” It’s unclear whether NHL teams are doing DNA testing on their players or to what extent if they are. Requests for interviews were sent to all 30 NHL teams, but every one of them said they didn’t do such testing, denied the request or didn’t respond. As with the beginning of the analytics movement, when many teams were largely denying using advanced statistics while setting up departments dedicated to them, the temptation is to equate silence with secrecy and conclude teams are actually testing players and just aren’t admitting to it. But BioSteel’s Matt Nichol, who trains the likes of Tyler Seguin, Wayne Simmonds and Mike Cammalleri, doesn’t think DNA testing is widespread among the NHL’s 30 teams for two reasons: they just aren’t aware of it or they fear the potential consequences from the results. “It’s Pandora’s Box,” Nichol said. “A lot of teams know that, for example, ‘If I do this test, and it determines that a player needs to rest for 24 hours immediately following your game, what does that mean? No intensive training? Do we have to cancel practice? What if that means he needs a completely different style of training than what is currently being suggested by the team?’…This is just my opinion, but I think maybe as a team you have got to be careful in doing all of this expensive testing, because then they will get scared that they are obligated to act. If you do not have the information, you can plead ignorance. If you have that information at your disposal and you choose to ignore it, you are held liable.” What we do know is that off-season strength and conditioning coaches are using DNA testing as part of their programs. Roberts uses Bespoke Diet and Fitness in Ancaster, Ont., Nichol tests his clients through Younique Genomics in Toronto and Prentiss uses Cyrex Labs in Phoenix, Ariz. Even NHL players are looking into it. Brad Marchand and James Sheppard are both clients of Nova Scotia-based Athletigen. For his part, Roberts is already a big believer in the potential of DNA testing. But he also expects it to have the added benefit of raising the level of commitment from his players. In the summer, he can stay on top of them, because he sees his guys regularly, many of them daily. During the season, however, they’re left to their own devices, with all of the distractions the road can bring. “Your DNA can’t lie, so maybe that will educate them to buy into it more when they’re not working with me,” Roberts said. “It’s when they’re away from me that I have my worries, when they’re playing hockey for eight or nine months and I’m not getting any phone calls. Some guys check in, some guys don’t check in. The guys that don’t check in, there’s a good chance those guys aren’t staying on the program.”