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Why sleep is so important in the NHL and how the Caps make sure they get enough of it

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Why sleep is so important in the NHL and how the Caps make sure they get enough of it

Life is busy. Between work, family and the other responsibilities that adulthood brings, sometimes there just are not enough hours in the day to get everything done.

We’ve all been there. When things get busy, if you’re like many Americans, sleep often becomes the casualty.

According to the CDC, more than a third of American adults are not getting at least seven hours of sleep a night on a regular basis. It’s an unfortunate cycle where we feel too tired to get everything done, but then sacrifice sleep to finish everything we need to.

Lack of sleep effects everyone in their jobs, but what about when maintaining physical health is a part of your job?

That’s the challenge the Washington Capitals and all professional hockey players face.

“You've got to get your sleep,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “Otherwise, it's going to be hard perform at the highest level.”

“It's the most important thing,” Travis Boyd said. “I put it as more important than nutrition.”

Sleep is important for a person’s overall health, reflexes and focus, all of which are important for a professional athlete. One of the most important aspects of sleep is how it helps the body recover.

Your body needs to recover after grueling workouts. The NHL season lasts from mid-September through the beginning of April with training camp, the preseason and 82 regular season games. A long playoff run can extend the season into June and add a maximum of 28 games.

Seven months of games and practices is a long, grueling season and the players need to consistently get enough sleep in order to play at their best throughout.

“It's very important recovery wise,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think there's times where you can get away with it like a day after and some guys think it doesn't affect them, it might not be the next day but it definitely catches up to you especially with the kind of schedule that we play.”

“Personally, for me, the difference between getting six hours of sleep and playing a game vs. getting eight vs. taking a nap or not, I can tell right away,” Boyd said. “I think it just goes into playing at 100-percent and if you want to play at 100-percent of what you're capable of playing at, you need to get a good amount of sleep.”

But even with the importance the players place on sleep, sometimes they just cannot get all that they need.

A regular 7 p.m. game will end around 9:30 p.m. That’s not too late if you assume the players simply shower, go home and go to bed.

Coming down from the physical high of a game, however, is easier said than done.

“It's just hard in general to wind down after games as it is for how jacked up and how your senses are,” Boyd said. “You've got every sense going. I'd be surprised if there's a guy in here that was sleeping before one in the morning after a game and then that might be three or four hours after the game, but that's how wired your body is, that's how alert it is. It takes some time to come down.”

When you have practice the next morning, not getting to bed until late will affect your performance the next day. Travel obviously makes things worse.

The amount of traveling required of players, especially when it comes to back-to-back games, makes it extremely difficult for players to get the amount of rest they know they need.

“The travel is probably at least as much of a reason for what wears your body down, sometimes even more than the games I find,” Lars Eller said. “It's really the travel that wears your body out during the course of a season.”

None of the players expect any sympathy when it comes to travel. It is not as if they are waiting in a security line with the general public at the airport and staying in a cheap motel on the side of the road. The players fly on chartered planes and stay in nice hotels.

Traveling in style, however, does not make up for a lack of sleep. When a team plays in a game, goes from the arena to the airport and arrives in a different city in the early morning hours, there is no way for the players to get the seven or more hours of sleep they need to play at the top of their game.

“If you had your perfect routine, you're going home, you're going to bed at 10 and then sometimes you travel on those back-to-backs and you're getting into your hotel at two so you're thrown off a little bit,” Orpik said. “I think being consistent with your wake ups, then all of a sudden you kind of have that internal alarm clock where even if you set your alarm for 9:30, you're getting up at seven. I know that's something I struggle with a lot of times.”

And then of course there is the ultimate enemy of sleep that plagues many of the Capitals’ players: Kids.

“When you go through having young kids, you just adapt to having less sleep so it's kind of weird for me to get an eight-hour sleep now,” Braden Holtby said.

Having kids is simultaneously rewarding and exhausting. A teething baby doesn’t care if you have a game that night and a crying toddler doesn’t care if you are late to practice.

There is no denying that professional athletes do not live normal lives, but no amount of fame or money matters to a young child. When it comes to being a parent, players feel about as helpless as the rest of us.

“It's not even if your kid's getting up in the middle of the night,” Boyd said, “It's you spend the whole day watching your kid and finally you get them to sleep, it's 9 o’clock and that's the first time all day where you can actually sit down and get what you need to get done whether that just be I got to go email these two people and I was going to look this up or buy something online, whatever it is, your only time to do that is later that night. So it becomes a little bit of a challenge to make sure that you're getting enough sleep along with just doing the things that you would like to do in your day-to-day life.”

Perhaps no one knows how much of a challenge kids can be more than defenseman John Carlson.

Carlson has two sons, Lucca and Rudy. Rudy was born during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, right before Game 5 of the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, to be specific.

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My boys! Lucca + Rudy

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Newborn babies are a lot of hard work. For the first two months, babies need to eat about every three hours, day and night.

Carlson, however, did not miss a single game and scored in Game 5. In the 14 games after his son’s birth, Carlson scored three goals and ten total points.

What was Carlson’s secret to making sure he was well rested for each game? His wife, of course.

“My wife did it all, pretty much,” he said.

“She wanted me to feel my best and sleep is paramount. So she took the brunt of the pain and misery of those sleepless nights on her own until we obviously finished.”

Carlson is not alone. An understanding wife is something many players rely on when it comes to kids.

“A lot of athletes probably has a good better half to take care of that,” Backstrom said. “Every time it's game day, they're being very helpful for us. They know we have an important job to do.”

No one is able to get the right amount of sleep every single day, however. To combat that and the fatigue of a grueling season, there is also the treasured hockey tradition of the pregame nap.

“You do it more for to try and make up for it at night because you know you're not going to get the right amount after a game or after a travel game,” Holtby said. “Won't get to bed until 2, 2:30, something like that. So you try and make up for it that way.”

There is a danger to all this focus on sleep, however, and that is getting too much.

Is there really such a thing as too much sleep? As ridiculous as this may sound to many, getting too much sleep is something the more experienced players learned and now warn against.

“You've got to manage your rest, but as you get older you don't need as much sleep or anything,” Holtby said. “I find oversleeping actually makes me worse than getting less.”

“I think when I was younger there's probably times when I got too much sleep,” Orpik said. “Trying to explain that to some of the younger guys now, they look at you kind of confused. I think it's all about kind of finding a routine that works for you and same thing with sleep. I think you've got to find kind of that sweet spot where how many hours you get where you get recovered enough, but not too many where you feel sluggish all day.”

Managing sleep is all about figuring out what works for you and your body as every person’s body reacts differently. Some players need only seven hours while others need eight or nine plus a pregame name. When you find that sweet spot, that perfect amount of sleep you need to recover from a long day and rest for the next, making sure you can get that amount each and every night is something athletes emphasize. Their jobs depend on it.

For a lot of people, when life gets busy, sleep is often the casualty. We have all had that feeling at times when we are just too busy to sleep. For a professional hockey player, however, when taking care of yourself physically is part of the job, sleep is vitally important and players cannot afford to lose sleep even when life gets in the way.

“Whenever you have a chance to get sleep, everyone in here is told to sleep no matter if it's a nap or whenever it is,” Boyd said. “If you have a chance to sleep, sleep. It's going to be beneficial at some point down the line.”

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Building Trust at Work: DC's NBA, NFL, NHL and WNBA coaches share leadership tips

Building Trust at Work: DC's NBA, NFL, NHL and WNBA coaches share leadership tips

NBC Sports Washington brought together local coaches Ron Rivera (Washington football), Todd Reirden (Capitals), Scott Brooks (Wizards) and Mike Thibault (Mystics) to discuss the intricacies of their craft in a free-wheeling discussion hosted by Julie Donaldson. We present six days highlighting different themes of their conversation - experiences, stories and lessons shared from careers in coaching.  

One of the most important jobs of a head coach of a professional sports team is to build trust with players. This isn’t the pee-wees where coaches are teaching you how to play the game. A head coach must bring several professional men or women together and convince them that he can make that team successful. It’s about selling yourself to the team as much as it is leading it.
 
This is a task coaches like Scott Brooks and Todd Reirden know all too well.
 
Brooks took over as head coach of the Washington Wizards in 2016. Reirden, meanwhile, was promoted from associate coach to head coach after Barry Trotz resigned in the wake of the Capitals' Stanley Cup championship in 2018. Both coaches joined host Julie Donaldson along with Washington football head coach Ron Rivera and Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault in NBC Sports Washington’s Coaches' Roundtable.
 
Brooks inherited a team with two superstars in John Wall and Bradley Beal and immediately went about the task of teaching them how good the Wizards could be if those premier talents worked within the team’s structure. But that took work. 
 
“When you have superstar players, you have to form a relationship with them and have them have a good understanding that you need your teammates to help you even become even better of a superstar,” Brooks said. “I’ve always believed in good role players. If you can make them superstars in their roles, and I think the star players and the coaches can do that and allow that to happen, that makes the star players even better. It makes your team better. ... When they understand that your team has a chance to be special."
 
Brooks has now been the head coach in Washington for four seasons, leading the team to the playoffs twice. The Wizards did manage to make the cut for the resumption of the 2020 NBA season on July 30, so Brooks still has a chance to make it three out of four.

RELATED: HOW RON RIVERA QUICKLY MOVED ON AFTER PANTHERS' FIRING TO COACH WASHINGTON
 
Reirden also inherited a talented roster with players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals were coming off a Stanley Cup championship when he took over, of course, and he had been with those same players since 2014 so his task was unique. He already had established relationships. 
 
“I thought the real challenge for me coming in and taking over the defending champion was to be able to relate to that and find different strategies,” Reirden said.
 
Reirden was with the Capitals as an assistant coach for four years under Trotz coaching the team’s defensemen. Now in his second season as head coach, Reirden has led the Caps to two Metropolitan Division titles and the team will be among the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference when the NHL’s season pause ends on Aug. 1. 
 
As a member of Trotz’s staff, Reirden knew the players already. Building the same level of trust with those players that Trotz had while convincing them that he, too, could lead them to the NHL mountaintop, however, remains was an unenviable task.

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“It was going to be a tough act to follow,” Reirden said.
 
But in many ways, that relationship with Trotz helped Reirden. In fact, much of Reirden’s preparation in taking over was learning from his own coaches.
 
“I think trust from players, it comes from honesty and as a player, I was fortunate enough to play for a coach by the name of Joel Quenneville, who is the second-winningest coach in the NHL history,” Reirden said of the current Florida Panthers coach who led the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups last decade. “What he taught me as a player, and I didn’t always like to hear it, but it was honest evaluation of my game. And some days were some pretty long drives back to my apartment. I may have even shed a tear after some of the things he said to me. But at least I knew where I stood, and it allowed me to focus on what I needed to do to improve.”
 
That is a philosophy Brooks shares with Reirden after a discussion he once had with legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden.
 
“I remember middle of my career, like in the middle of the 90s, I knew I wanted to get into coaching, so I had a meeting with Coach Wooden and it was the most surreal experience I've ever had,” Brooks said. “It was like a biblical figure. It’s like John Wooden. You've heard so much about fundamentals, so much about pyramids, so much about the first thing he taught his players, how to tie his shoe and put the shoes on so it wouldn't cause blisters. And I just remember one thing, one word that really just stood out, and he said 'honesty'. You want to be a good coach? Be honest with your players. And some of the tough conversations that I had with players or some of the tough conversations that coaches had with me and honesty was so important.”
 
Brooks added, “Sometimes you kind of want a little bit of a half-truth and the reason why you didn't play was because you couldn't guard anybody and you couldn't pass in positions. But you want honesty, and I think that helps gain your players’ trust.”
 
On the one hand, what is Brooks going to be able to teach Wall or Beal about the game of basketball that they don’t already know? What could Reirden possibly have to tell Ovechkin about scoring goals? They most want to be put in a position to succeed. 
 
As great as those players are, however, they can’t have that success without the team and both coaches agreed it takes that honesty to build up a player’s trust enough that they are willing to listen and play how they are coached. But that is a goal more realistic with buy-in from the top players. If they believe, their teammates will follow, too. 
 
“You cannot fake genuineness to the players and passion and the desire,” Reirden said. “They know whether you're trying to make them better, trying to make our team better. They know whether you're all in or not. They see right through you and I think that it's best to wear your passion on your sleeve and show up with a great game plan that involves everybody, involves your full team. Because none of us are winning without having a team in our sport.”

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Can Tom Wilson be as effective a player without a crowd to feed off of?

Can Tom Wilson be as effective a player without a crowd to feed off of?

When the 2020 postseason finally gets underway in August, the games will be played without fans. NHL commissioner Garry Bettman said in a press conference Saturday that the league had "very special things planned" to enhance the game atmosphere, but regardless of what the league tries to do, there is no question that the games are going to lose something without that fan element. No Capitals player understands that more than Tom Wilson.

"Less boos and less cheers, I guess, at home," Wilson said after Monday's practice. "But it will be weird."

Fans like having access to the players, but there is such a thing as too much access. We see that every year when a team wins the Stanley Cup and the cameras (and especially the mics) get too close to the celebrations. After a few swear words make it into the broadcast, the camera quickly shifts away. Now imagine what you can hear from players when there is no sound from the fans to drown them out.

That's something that Wilson, a known trash-talker on the ice, has thought about.

"I’ll have to watch, I guess, what I’m saying," he said. "Less F words and stuff like that. It will definitely be a little bit different if the mics are picking that up. But I guess it will be entertaining."

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But how will this affect the game itself?

Just how strange it will be to see games without fans in the stands and how exactly these games will look and sound has been discussed ad nauseam to this point. Something that no one is talking about is how this could actually affect the game.

Physical play is not just about the physical toll it takes on opposing players, it's also about building momentum. It's about feeding off the swell of the crowd, the boos or the cheers after a big hit.

While physical play will always be a part of Wilson's game, what will that look like without fans? Will that element of the game be as effective without a crowd to feed off of?

"I’m a guy that thrives off of momentum and energy," Wilson said. "That’s something that I try to bring to the table, so I guess you can say that it’s even more important for me to do that and try to lift the team up any way I can."

RELATED: WILL LATEST INJURY PUT STAMKOS BE IN JEOPARDY VERSUS CAPS?

Wilson has worked his way into a top-line role as a player with top-six skill to go with his physical prowess. It's a combination few players can match in today's NHL which makes him such a valuable asset for Washington.

Can he still be as effective with no crowd and if not, how will this change Washington's forward makeup? It's a question the team needs to answer very quickly.

"I think there will definitely be times when it gets a little bit quiet out there," Wilson said, "But I guess we’ll just pretend that we’re playing in a rink that has a little less atmosphere than we’re privileged to have in DC.”

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