WASHINGTON -- Game time draws near and the hallways at Capital One Arena come to life.
The routine is the same all across the NHL. In the 30 minutes before warm-ups begin, when players take the ice in uniform, fire shots at the starting goalie and roll through their lines and defensive pairs for the night, there is the pre-warm up.
That’s the part fans don’t get to see. Unless, of course, you’re one of the lucky ones with tickets in the front row on the glass. In Washington that allows entry to the MGM National Harbor VIP Lounge near the Capitals’ locker room. Those ticket holders wander the corridor on the event level as reporters and broadcasters, public-relations staffers and off-ice officials check in for the media meal or scurry to handle their pre-game duties. In that long hallway, just a short walk from the visitors’ locker room, opposing players appear in the hour before the game with work to do.
As bemused ushers and security personnel check credentials and look over tickets, an NHL player runs sprints at near full speed. At the other end of the hallway, a teammate bounces three small balls off the wall at a rapid pace, a hand-eye coordination exercise that helps with focus before taking the ice. Another player does quick steps through a rope ladder. He ignores anyone walking past.
“I do pretty much the same thing every game day. I think a lot of guys do,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “There’s no surprises. You know what game days look like, you know where you’re going to be, what you’re going to be doing. At this point in your career you’ve found out what works for you.”
It’s all part of the game day routine for hockey players who are creatures of habit. Capitals players aren’t visible at home games. They have their own weight room out of sight of prying eyes near their locker room. But the visiting players get no such luxuries.
Instead, they find space where they can to get their bodies ready for warm-ups about 45 minutes before puck drop. The Capitals do the same when they go on the road.
There’s no one right way. For some Capitals players, their basic routine might stay the same at the morning skate – how long they stay on the ice, what they try to accomplish while on it – and a pre-game nap in the afternoon is almost universal.
But before a game is when things really get wild. T.J. Oshie uses the EVO UltraFit training method developed by Arizona-based trainer Jay Schroeder. It employs exercises that help Oshie with balance and coordination and gets specific muscle groups firing in unison to help reduce the chance of injury on the ice. Oshie has multiple programs he can use depending on how he feels physically before a given game.
“The only things that stay the same is the little stuff for me,” Oshie said. “The things I do with the trainers, the handshakes and then the warm-up I do on the ice.”
Oshie used to shoot hoops before games. During the Stanley Cup playoffs, press conferences were moved onto the Wizards’ practice court at Capital One Arena to accommodate more media demand. It wasn’t unusual to see Oshie and some teammates, including former Capitals forward Justin Williams, dribbling and firing up shots at one end of the court while reporters waited for the coaches to talk at a podium at the other end. That all went away when the Wizards moved to their new training facility across the Anacostia River and the practice court was transformed into the MGM lounge.
A large contingent of Capitals, estimated at 12-to-13 players, like to kick a soccer ball around before games. That group stays pretty steady and includes most of the European players. That’s common across the NHL. Players come to the rink on the bus from the hotel, prepare their sticks and make sure their equipment is in order. They get some food and then go through pre-game meetings. For some, their remaining down time is spent kicking the soccer ball around. It helps get the body going before it really has to move.
“I think every team does it. A little elimination soccer helps get you ready,” forward Brett Connolly said. “I wonder when it started? But it was well before I came into the league. We have fun. You get in that competitive mode a little bit.”
You can tell that just from the jeers and trash talk that accompanies the games. That was on display again in the bowels of Wells Fargo Center before Washington played the Philadelphia Flyers last Wednesday. The sounds of the soccer game mingled with forklifts taking equipment around the arena and kegs of beer being stacked onto trucks and taken upstairs on the elevator. There is a lone basket attached to a wall in the event-level concourse where Flyers players sometimes shoot. For pro athletes, the mini-games aren’t very attractive.
The soccer games are free form. Some players participate the entire time, others take part for as little as two minutes. Some duck in and out depending on what else they need to accomplish before a game. Wilson gave a very specific “seven minutes” when asked how long he plays. Some players would rather be on their own in the locker room or training room. Some are very serious, no talking. Others are very loose. The soccer game epitomizes “loose”.
Oshie used to play pre-game soccer early in his career with the St. Louis Blues, but after a couple of concussions that’s probably not a good idea any more. Every arena is different. Some are better than others. Indeed there has long been a “No ball playing of any kind” sign just across from the Wizards locker room at Capital One. That is a directive honored in the breach.
“I played soccer when I visited here and it’s no good,” Oshie said of Washington’s arena. “You get no space there…But it’s a long season. You’ve got to make it fun.”
Oshie said he actually likes the smaller spaces in older, cramped buildings. It makes the games more competitive and skill matters as players try to keep the ball alive by any means possible, including bouncing it off the wall, the ceiling, the scaffolding. Once a local reporter, waiting for Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, took a ball off his face. It’s all in the name of getting ready to play.
“Gets your eyes going a little bit, hand-eye, foot-eye,” Wilson said. “You go through that game day routine so many times that playing soccer is kind of a fun thing you do with the guys that keeps it light before the game and breaks up the serious stuff a little bit.”
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