A Look At The NHL Winter Classic and Preventing Hockey Injuries

by JRSBlogWriterDecember 16, 2013
NHL Winter Classic and Preventing Hockey Injuries

Over labor day weekend this past year, Mike Fisher of the Nashville Predators suffered an injury to his hand when a chipmunk, that had entered his house uninvited, bit him.

Dustin Penner of the Los Angeles Kings and Brent Sopel of the Vancouver Canucks both suffered from back injuries while eating. Penner’s foe was a stack of pancakes, and Sopel’s was a cracker.

Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs warming up before a gameThere is no question that being a professional athlete brings not only fame and notoriety, but also the chance of suffering injury.

With the Winter Classic soon upon us we were curious about more typical hockey injuries, what might lead to them, and how players treat them.

We turned to Dr. Mike Bracko Ed.D, CSCS, FACSM, Sports Physiologist/Skating Coach based in Calgary and asked him to share his expertise.

In case you don’t know. The Winter Classic is a regular season NHL game that is played outdoors. The Winter Classic is not just any game. It’s more of a four-week long extravaganza that starts on December 14th this year with the HBO special 24/7 which chronicles the lives of the teams leading up to the big match. In the days leading up to the match, there are public skates, junior matches and a big alumni game all taking place on the temporary outdoor arena.

The key word being outdoor. We asked Dr. Bracko if there were special risks that come with playing outdoors in frigid weather. He should know frigid when he feels it. He attended the Heritage Classic, the Canadian version of the Winter Classic, in Edmonton in 2003. The temperatures during that game were about 22 degrees below zero with the wind chill.

Surprisingly, he told us there is not much risk of frostbite. The players boxes are equipped with strong heaters. The NHL players will often wear special undergarments, gloves and even hats under their helmets and goalie masks.

Because it’s colder outside than in an indoor rink, Bracko says there are specific changes that are needed in terms of warming up. “Players have to stay loose and active when they come off the ice. That would be one way to prevent injuries--if they can keep moving instead of sitting down on the bench.”

Drinking plenty of water is also important when playing outside. Perhaps more important than when indoors or in warmer weather, due to the fact that dry cold air takes more moisture from your body when your breathing.

Whitehall Manufacturing whirlpool tubInevitably, no matter how many precautions athletes take, injuries do occur. Bracko says that a trainer will almost always use ice on the initial injury until the swelling and the pain go down. After that, the trainer will put heat on it. The best treatment is ice, then heat, then ice, then heat and so on for two to three days.

Athletes will often use cold baths as part of their treatment. Many players believe an ice bath or cold bath helps to clear waste products out of their muscle faster. They also use them to reduce pain associated with high intensity exercise. Their pain is decreased and they are left feeling invigorated. While some research questions the validity of these claims, Bracko says, “if an athlete thinks something helps him or her perform, it will.”

In terms of injuries, Bracko says a hot bath will loosen up the muscles and help with circulation, especially in terms of a person’s back. If a hockey player is feeling stiff and sore a hot bath can help with some of the stiffness. Bracko suggests that a hot bath on the morning before a tournament can loosen a player up getting them ready to play.

Finally, Dr. Bracko left us with five tips for preventing injury for parents and coaches of young athletes.

  1. Young child playing ice hockey. Photo by Karpati GaborProper conditioning - Make sure the shoulders, knees groin and back are good and strong so they are less susceptible to injury and to failing.
  2. Warm up before playing - It’s best to warm up will full body movement 15-20 minutes before you play.
  3. Beware of your position on the ice - Parents should reinforce this idea on the way to the rink. Coaches should remind players before and throughout the course of the game.
  4. Get enough sleep – Sleep is the athlete’s natural steroid so make sure players get 9-11 hours of sleep every night.
  5. Good nutrition - In terms of sports medicine the most important meal is the meal after the game and should be eaten within 30-60 minutes. Bracko recommends what he calls a mixed plate with plenty of carbs, protein and vegetables.

So while we have no good advice for avoiding injury caused by chipmunks, crackers and pancakes, we do think the above advice is beneficial not only to parents of young athletes, but to athletes of any age and ability.