This past summer, Mitchell Binnie spent five days a week at a Toronto-area gym, doing bench presses, dead lifts, sledgehammer swings and tire flips. The 16-year-old hockey forward has been exercising for three years and says the workouts improve his play. He can breathe better, so he won't tire before the end of a game; his feet are quicker, helping him get to the puck faster.
Such conditioning is commonplace among his peers.
"If you don't, it's kind of hard to play at the higher level, because you won't have what everybody else has. You won't have the wind strength to keep yourself going," says Binnie, who was drafted by the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. "If you're in shape and you have that conditioning, it just makes the game that much easier."
Compare this experience with that of his father, retired pro Troy. Growing up in Ottawa the 1970s and 1980s, he honed his skills in games of road hockey or skating on an outdoor rink. In the summers, he played baseball and soccer. "We didn't train like these kids do," he says.
The difference between two generations of the Binnie family is emblematic of a major shift in hockey's culture of athlete development. Where children once learned the game playing shinny on frozen ponds or backyard rinks, today they put themselves through rigorous conditioning programs, with everything from plyometrics to complicated diets to sports psychology sessions.
The rise of such regimens could lead to an even greater shift in the game. Traditionally, a disproportionate number of Canada's professional players have come from small towns where, far from the distractions of the city, youngsters have more opportunities to practise. But conditioning gives an advantage to kids from affluent families in urban areas.
Take, for example, the best-known of these programs, run by retired NHLer Gary Roberts. Off-season conditioning at his High Performance Centre in Toronto costs $4,500 for minor players and $10,000 for pros. Besides fitness training, it includes a hefty nutritional component, with foods such as lentils, yogurts and organic meat.
Roberts is one of conditioning's pioneers, famously using his training and diet to come back from career-threatening neck pain in the 1990s, after which he played another 11 seasons. He cites a few reasons for the popularity of these programs: teens entering junior-level hockey must compete with men a few years older. The game has also become quicker.
Players are better-educated and realize that, if they want to get serious, they need to start early.
"There's so much more information," he says. "At 14, that's kind of the age where you decide maybe I can make a career out of hockey or get my education paid for. That's the age you need to start doing things like nutrition and training in order to be ready to take on that challenge if it comes your way."
Some start even younger. Daniel Bochner's hockey school, for instance, works with children as young as 6. He says the skill-development program is appropriate to each age level; the youngest kids work only on skating and do very little with the puck.
"Do we push the kids out of their comfort zone? Yes. But we never put them in a situation where they're going to lose confidence," he says.
Programs like his, he contends, fill a void in this country's hockey culture. In Europe, minor players grow up playing for a single team, giving coaches time to work on their individual skills; but in Canada, kids often move teams and learn via drills.
The incentives for getting such training are clear. Bob Boughner, coach of the the OHL's Windsor Spitfires, says conditioning shows among minor prospects at scouting combines.
"You really notice the kids that are doing the extra work. It is related to the on-ice product," he says. "It's an unwritten rule that you have to do that in the off-season if you want to maintain or move forward."
And some experts fear the increased competition is causing some families to push children too hard. Gordon Bloom, a sports psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, says kids risk overtraining – developing muscles before they're ready – or burning out.
"It's really gone a bit too far. We've bought into this 12-month obsession with hockey," he says. "We have to look at the long-term implications. How much training do these kids have? What is the ideal amount?"
Roberts agrees. He says younger children should take time away from hockey in the off-season – a practice he follows with his own seven-year-old – to keep from losing interest.
Regardless of such concerns, the prevalence of these programs may already be causing demographic shifts in the game.
"I used to love having the farm kids from Saskatchewan, because you'd know there's probably some good work ethic there and they're probably pretty tough," says Dean Clark, head coach of the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League and one of the most experienced bench bosses in major junior hockey. "But there are not nearly as many of them now."
Some anecdotal evidence buttresses Clark's observations. On the first WHL team he coached, the 1996-97 Calgary Hitmen, two-thirds players listed their hometowns as communities of less than 100,000 people. That total is down to less than a third on the current roster.
And some coaches in smaller communities, wary of seeing locals squeezed out of contention by big city kids, are starting hockey schools of their own.
In Sarnia, Ont., a city of about 80,000 some 280 kilometres west of Toronto, Jeff Perry runs a two-week camp every summer before tryouts, mixing conditioning skates with training in plyometrics and core strength. He also has a 3-on-3 hockey league.
"Every little extra thing we can do that benefits us, makes us that much more competitive against top market teams," he says. "If you're going to spend the type of money we do, you certainly want to give your child all the opportunities that could possibly make them a better player."
Money, it seems, is the final factor driving the move toward conditioning.
When Troy Binnie was growing up, his father complained $30 hockey sticks were too expensive; today, Binnie pays about $2,000 every season on sticks alone for his three sons. Between fees, equipment and travel, he estimates, many families shell out from $10,000 to $15,000 every year to put a child on a Triple-A team. And this price is, in some ways, a cost to the game itself.
"I think there are a lot of players that probably could have been good hockey players," Binnie says, "but they got to the point where they just couldn't afford to spend the money to play on a team, so they play house league."