Take for example the 225 pound max. rep. Bench Press test that you see at the NFL combine. When I see a 300+ pound lineman get underneath that bar and put it up 30-40 times am I impressed? You're damn right I am! At the same time, you have to ask yourself, “what is that test measuring?” The only quality that fits here is muscular endurance. Something that isn't exactly high on the list of important fitness parameters for an NFL lineman.
We also have to realize that many of these athletes are going to dedicate a significant amount of their training time practicing for these tests. That in and of itself should force those in charge of these combines to choose the tests very carefully. More specifically, they need to choose tests that evaluate the most important fitness qualities of the sport in question and in some cases the fitness qualities that are most important to certain positions within the sport.
When I look at the NHL fitness testing combine I think they have made some good changes in the last few years, so that the tests they have in place better reflect hockey specific fitness, compared to past years.
One notable change that has happened recently is with the Wingate test, which is in place to assess the athlete's anaerobic fitness. This brutal test (you will agree if you have ever subjected yourself to one) has been around since the ‘70s and the classic protocol for this measure is to perform a 30 second maximal effort sprint on a cycle ergometer with 7.5% of your body weight as resistance (Kach, Weltman, Martin & Gray, 1977).
This is definitely a valid and reliable measure of anaerobic fitness, but can it be changed to be more specific to an intermittent effort type of sport like hockey? The answer is yes.
The new protocol being used at the NHL combine involves a 10 second, all out sprint, followed by rest; then 5 second sprints, also interspersed with rest. I can't seem to find the actual protocol with the specific length of rest intervals, or whether the relative resistance is different than the 30 second long test; regardless, this protocol is more specific to the demands of the game and will also allow the player to produce better power numbers than the original version. The version of the test we use here at the University of Alberta has the athlete complete four, five second long sprints, interspersed with 10 seconds of rest between each bout.
The test was actually developed by researchers here at the U of A and is published as a valid and reliable option for anaerobic fitness assessment (Wilson, Snydmiller, Game, Quinney & Bell, 2010). We have used it for many years while fitness testing our hockey players and have found it to be a much better option, compared to the original version of the test, for the same reasons mentioned above.
They have also made a great change with the Bench Press test, so that it is safer than the 1 rep max or multi rep max assessments. The new protocol has the athlete use 50% of their bodyweight on the bar, where they push the load as fast as possible for three reps. Through the use of a linear position transducer, the speed of the bar is measured, so that you can get each athlete's watts per kilogram of bodyweight. This allows you to see how each player's strength/power is relative to their bodyweight, which is arguably more valuable then putting a fixed load on the bar and seeing who can do the most repetitions. In my opinion, something like this would be more fitting for the NFL combine as well.
Even though I feel the off-ice measures in place at the combine are solid, the one thing I can't wrap my head around is the lack of on-ice testing. There have been numerous research studies that have looked at the ability of off-ice measures to predict on-ice ability and there are mixed findings; with the majority offering little support for testing off the ice (Burr et al., 2008; Haukali & Tjelta, 2015; Nightingale, Miller & Turner, 2013; Peterson et al., 2016).
With that in mind, why not test them within the environment the game is played? Often times, when you read the coaching report for a potential recruit, it might knock them as a poor skater. Well… get the player on the ice and see how long it takes them to get from A to B in comparison to the rest of the top recruits! If his/her times are better than expected, it is probably a case where he/she isn't the nicest looking skater, and it may be as easy as a few simple tweaks with a skating coach to make their stride more efficient. If the times are well below average, it is possible that you would have more work ahead of you to make a meaningful change in that players skating, if you were to take them on.
You can also get some valuable information through comparison of off-ice measures to on-ice measures. For example, if a player's on ice speed is well below average, but they show above average numbers on lower body power measures (such as the force plate and standing long jump), that could be a good indication that they need to work on skating technique. If it is the other way around and the numbers for their on-ice speed are above average and lower body power measures are below average, it could mean that some improvements in their strength/power might push them into that elite skater category.
Boston Bruins strength and conditioning coach Kevin Neeld has done something similar; where he compares a players on ice sprint times to off ice sprint times of equal distance and has found great value in the assessments (Neeld, 2018). Regardless, I think that the argument to start including on-ice testing at the NHL combine is a strong one.
Another issue I see with the current NHL fitness testing combine is the communication of the results.
When you read and listen to the different media outlets that cover the event, it becomes abundantly clear that their knowledge of what many of the tests are measuring is minimal. Keeping in mind that the majority of their audience does not need, or want, to know full scientific explanation of what the VO2 max test measures, but at least try to meet exercise science/strength and conditioning folk in the middle! A good example of this is when they report the total time each athlete stays on the stationary bike during the VO2 test.
I still can't figure out why they are reporting this. Most of the time it ends up being the bigger, heavier players at the combine that stay on the bike for the longest, but does that matter? Rarely if ever are any of the top 10 athletes in test duration in the top 10 of VO2 relative max. I have heard guys on sports radio put more emphasis on the VO2 time than the actual relative VO2 max score! Really!
Another thing that you will notice if you read any article on the event is that they will report the top 10 names in a certain number of tests, but you never really get a sense for who the all-around fittest players were. If there is a name that continually shows up in the top 10 on the majority of the tests, chances are he was one of the fittest all around players there, but that doesn't always happen. I do; however, have a solution to this and it is through the use of z-scores. What this statistical measure will allow you to do is weight each test differently and come up with a total score that is reflective of the players overall fitness.
I do this with our hockey teams every year at the University of Alberta after our Fall fitness testing and I find it valuable as does the coaching staff. As to how you weight each test, it depends on how many you have in place and how important you consider each measure to be to a player's overall level of fitness. How each fitness parameter and individual assessment is weighted could be another entire article in itself, but for the purpose of this article I came up with the weighting you see in the table below. It is definitely open for debate, but I feel that it accurately reflects a “hockey player's” fitness.
All of the individual assessments are divided up into the sub-categories of body composition, aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, agility and lower body power, upper body strength and power, and functional movement, and contribute a given percentage of an overall score. When you run the analysis of the 2018-2019 NHL combine the following players can be considered the fittest overall:
When broken down into position the top 10 forwards, top 10 defensemen and top 3 goaltenders are as follows:
As you can see from this z-score analysis the Swedish defenseman Mattias Norlinder (ranked #50 - #119 depending where you look) can be considered the fittest overall player at the draft followed by Pyotr Kochetkov (Russian prospect ranked #1 among draft eligible European goalies) and Vladislav Kolyachonok (Belarussian defenseman ranked #30 - #82 depending on where you look).
If you look at the article on Sportsnet.ca covering the combine results, they provide the top 10 players for the following: VO2 test duration, VO2 relative max, pro-agility (left & right), Wingate (relative peak, relative mean & fatigue index), bench press, force plate jumps (vertical jump, squat jump, no arm jump), grip strength, pull-ups and standing long jump. Out of all of those measures, Norlinder only shows up in the top 10 twice (relative peak power output and relative mean power output in the wingate) and Kochetkov and Kolyachonok don't show up at all! This tells me that those looking at performance of individual tests could possibly be mislead; whether that is a casual sports enthusiast or a scout employed by an NHL team; I'm not sure. What I am confident in is that an analysis using z-scores can provide more information to all parties involved.
Another question that might come up is, what about the different positions? Should their fitness parameters be weighted differently? There are definitely significant differences between the forward and defense positions, but if you were to weight anything differently in the z-scores I think it would be very subtle and up for debate as to what fitness categories should be weighted differently between the two positions. On the other hand, there is no question that goaltenders face different demands than a skater during competition. Below is what I feel is a more goaltender specific way to weight the tests. You will see the Goaltender weighting in the far right column next to the weighting for skaters for comparative purposes.
This is very interesting, because Spencer Knight (committed to Boston College for the 2019-2020 season and ranked #1 among draft eligible North American goaltenders) and Hugo Alnefelt (Swedish prospect ranked #1 among draft eligible European goalies) stay in the top 3, but Pyotr Kochetkov who was second among all players at the combine, moves down to 6thout of 10 total goaltenders! Although impressive that Kochetkov was able to perform better than all but one skater at the combine, is it necessarily a good thing? Maybe a deeper dive here would indicate that he needs to focus more on functional movement in order to be more fit for his position? There are probably 100's of questions that could arise out of a brief look at this data, but the fact that it is alluring is undeniable.
I should note; by no means do I feel that this type of analysis should have a significant impact on a players draft status. It all comes down to what type of player they are and if there is a good chance that they can become a serviceable NHL player in the future. However, every little bit of information helps guide these decisions. Can this further analysis of data that is already being collected offer valuable information to coaches, scouts, media and hockey fans interested in the draft? I think so.
Burr, J.F., Jamnik, R.K., Baker, J., MacPherson, A., Gledhill, N., & McGuire, E.J. (2008). Relationship of physical fitness test results and hockey playing potential in elite-level ice hockey players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(5), 1535-1543.
Haukali, E., & Tjelta, L.I. (2015). Correlation between “off-ice” variables and skating performance among young male ice hockey players. International Journal of Applied Sports Sciences, 27(1), 26-32.
Katch, V., Weltman, A., Martin, R., & Gray, L. (1977). Optimal test characteristics for maximal anaerobic work on the bicycle ergometer.The Research Quarterly, 48(2), 319-327. DOI: 10.1080/10671315.1977.10615428
Neeld, K. (2018). Using data to drive program design. Presentation at the Hockey Strength & Conditioning Clinic of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Colorado Springs, CO.
Nightengale, S.C., Miller, S., & Turner, A. (2013). The usefulness and reliability of fitness testing protocols for ice hockey players: A literature review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(6), 1742-1748.
Peterson, B.J., Fitzgerald, J.S., Dietz, C.C., Ziegler, K.S., Baker, S.E., & Snyder, E.M. (2016). Off-ice anaerobic power does not predict on-ice repeated shift performance in hockey. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(9), 2375-2381.
Wilson, K., Snydmiller, G., Game, A., Quinney, A., & Bell, G. (2010). The development and reliability of a repeated anaerobic cycling test in female ice hockey players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(2), 580-584.
2019 NHL combine results: Top 10 at each drill. (2019, June 2). Retrieved from https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/2019-nhl-combine-results-top-10-drill/