September 29, 2011
(The Player is an active member of a National Hockey League team. Anonymous by choice, he will provide insights about life in hockey on occasion throughout the season.)
One number that has made the headlines in the hockey world recently is 286 — as in the number of pounds Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien(notes) allegedly weighed near the start of training camp.
All of the uproar got me thinking about how there are NHL players, all across North America and more than you might think, stressing out about their body fat.
When camps open, one of the first things that every player will do is strip down to his shorts, step on a scale and then have his percentage body fat measured. For some guys — OK, most guys — this is a non-event. They have trained hard all summer, been disciplined with their diet and they are naturally lean.
For others … it's more complicated.
They might be among the small fraction of players who show up to camp out of shape. More likely though, they simply have a tough time keeping their body fat down. It's not that they don't work hard, it's just genetics.
The problem for these guys is that a high body-fat score in camp can haunt them all season. Depending on what team you play for (and who the coach is) offenders can be sentenced to the "Fat Club" or something similar. I've seen this play out in a few different ways.
In one instance, those players whose body fat was higher than some arbitrary number — say, 12 percent — were made to ride the stationary bike for 45 minutes every non-gameday until they got under the cutoff.
Of course, with nothing being off limits inside the dressing room, the guilty parties are also ridiculed mercilessly by their teammates.
"Fat Club" members are often heckled at team meals every time they reach for a dinner roll or sprinkle some cheese on their pasta. At these moments a loud groan will go up from the group and calls of "stay light!" can be heard from the peanut gallery.
Another popular one is the "boom-babba-boom-babba" chant (remember Lard-Ass from the pie-eating scene in "Stand By Me"?) that you can do when one of these guys walks across the room.
Probably the most common way to needle a "Fat Club" member is to add zeroes to his number on the team weight chart every day.
Most of this humor falls somewhere in the seventh to eighth-grade range on the wit and originality scale. Regardless, hockey players don't seem to get tired of it and it always gets a laugh.
On a team I played for, we would have surprise weigh-ins throughout the season. If a player was found to have gained more than five pounds since the opening day of camp he was subjected to a similar bike routine until the next weigh-in.
This led to at least one ridiculous scenario in which one of my teammates was being tipped off by a member of our training staff when there was going to be a weigh-in. The player would then not eat or drink anything until after he stepped on the scale. The problem was, whatever he could find to stuff himself with after the weigh-in couldn't get into his system in time for practice. So on those days he could be seen skating around completely light headed, on the verge of passing out, back flat to the ice.
Just the other day one of my teammates told me he hadn't eaten any carbs for about a week in preparation for the training camp physical. Not exactly the ideal way to prepare physically for one of the most intense three-week stretches of the season.
Situations like these are so obviously counter-productive they beg the question: What's the point?
The traditional theory is that the less body fat you have, the less extra weight you have to carry up and down the ice. Lean body mass will help you be faster, more efficient and have greater endurance, while having too much fat will have the opposite effect.
Theoretically this makes sense. The question then is how much fat is too much? How little is too little?
Presumably there is an optimal range, but no one has ever given me a convincing explanation of what that range is. I feel pretty strongly, though, that it differs from player to player. Remember, we play a sport that is broken up into approximately 45-second bursts of high intensity. We're not soccer players running around constantly for 90 minutes so we are able to carry more weight (muscle AND fat.)
The theory also doesn't take into account that the NHL is full of exceptions to these "rules." The fact is there are so many athletic freaks in the NHL — guys who look heavy but are lightning fast, guys who are skin and bones but impossible to knock off the puck.
There is an urban legend that former St. Louis Blues winger Keith Tkachuk(notes) tipped the scales at over 300 pounds at some point during the NHL lockout. Granted, he was out of season, but one would think that someone with that body-type would have a tough time playing at a high level. It didn't stop him from playing over 1,200 games and scoring more than 500 goals — and if you ever ran into him on the ice you knew that his size was an asset.
It's pretty tough to judge those types of physical gifts quantitatively.
I'll concede that I've never been in the position of a coach or a GM trying to pick a team, but my gut (no pun intended) tells me that a player's body fat rarely factors into whether or not he makes the opening-night roster.
The truth of the matter goes something like this: As with a lot of things in life, perception is a large part of reality.
So, if people within the organization perceive you as hard-working, responsible and professional, they are not going to worry too much about your test results. Sure you may have to sweat it out in the "Fat Club," but no one's really going to hold it against you. It's not going to hurt your career.
However, if you have a reputation for being lazy and out of shape, coming into camp at 15 percent body fat might be another big strike against you.
I think it's also true that these sorts of training camp tests carry more weight for younger players than they do for veterans. Again, it comes down to perception — if you've lasted six or eight years in the league, management, coaches and training staff tend to trust that you know how to take care of yourself.
Having said all that, it's still professional sports. Results and performance trump everything else. I read somewhere that Byfuglien played at 245 pounds last year. How does anyone really know that outside of the dressing room? I know guys whose height and weight listed in the program are still what Central Scouting measured them at when they were drafted at 18 years old.
So whether or not "Big Buff's" weight remains a topic for discussion will depend almost entirely on how he plays. I didn't hear too many people complaining about it last year when he was playing 23 minutes a night at an All-Star level for the Thrashers.
Besides, maybe he's just bulking up for a long winter in the 'Peg.
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(Ed. Note: As was stated at the top, we've granted this player's request to remain anonymous in exchange for what we believe will be candor about life in the NHL. As such, this won't be a column with non-sourced character assassination. It's not a gossip sheet. We see it as a text-based version of "24/7," bringing all of us a little closer to the game and behind closed doors. The Player will blog occasionally throughout the season. Oh, and the answer is no: We're not going to confirm or deny your guesses. What's the fun in that? Thanks for reading and supporting Puck Daddy.)