By Cameron Walsh
Back in January this year I was lucky enough to head to Pittsburgh for my 30th Birthday (well it was my birthday present from July 14 the year before but you have to organize these things right?) to watch some games of hockey and to get me out of the country for the first time in my life. 6 games in 22 days, 5 in Pittsburgh and 1 in New York, covers off the hockey I think.
Before I left I sent letters out to 4 teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Pirates, Steelers and the Wilke-Barre Scranton Penguins (the AHL affiliate team of the Penguins). For those of you from Australia that is like the reserves team. Whilst I was in Pittsburgh I really wanted to see how professional sports teams run their fitness departments, obviously I wanted to get a look at how the Penguins run their ‘strength and conditioning’ department.
Catching up with the Steelers would have been great due to the NFL being a sport where some of our AFL players are starting to head over to play at the end of their careers. The Pirates was always going to be an interesting one for me, baseball is a hand-eye co-ordination sport, not an easy sport for the strength and coach to get athletes to look after their body when all they have to do is step up to a plate and swing.
I got two replies, Mike Kadar from the Pittsburgh Penguins (thank god!), and Frank Velasquez from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Both experiences are something I will never forget and something I cannot thank both men enough for taking time out of their day for teaching me and showing me their facilities.
I was fortunate enough to visit two teams going through two very different cycles in their seasons; however their professionalism was the same in each circumstance. The Pirates at the time were in their off season, they were about to move into preparation for spring training so the workload for their staff was quite low. The Penguins on the other hand were right in the middle of an 82 game regular season, playing 3-4 games per week, the staff workload was actually higher than normal due to the team having to deal with a few injuries (Kunitz, McKee), and leading up to the Olympic break.
With Frank Velasquez, the strength and conditioning coach of the Pirates, I was treated as an equal in our profession, and we had a great exchange of ideas. With Mike Kadar, the strength and conditioning coach of the Penguins, I was afforded the same respect also. Both men were very professional when questioned about ideas and philosophies on training.
The Penguins have the oldest building in the NHL, which is going to change next year when they move into The Consol Energy Centre. That being said the staff has managed to do a great job with the limited space they have. The gym floor area feels a little cramped but with the space remaining, Mike has done a great job of utilizing the space available to him and setting up the equipment in such a manor the players can get the most out of it.
The locker room has a lot of equipment in it, in the stalls themselves, as the Penguins are in season all the players body equipment (helmets, skates, shoulder pads, etc…) are in the stalls, neatly tucked away. Pride taken by everyone with their equipment.
Dana Heinze, the equipment manager of the team has had to construct his technology into the building to keep skates and equipment up to the player’s standard and considering the size of the area he has to work with, it’s a small miracle his work is at the quality it is.
The Penguins post game workout is not a cool down. It is exactly that, a workout. Players may not get to play many minutes during the game, so to catch up their cardiovascular needs they complete a workout after the game. There is not a lot of time during the season to train and improve/catch up the cardiovascular fitness; this is a great way to do it.
The medical area contains 1 hot bath and 1 cold bath; you can tell they have been added into the room, they are not built into the structure of the building. One can only assume that these things will be built into the new Consol Energy Centre for the Penguins to use next season. There are massage tables and heaps of equipment in there for Chris Stewart the head athletic trainer to use.
For the Pittsburgh Penguins their off-ice actions towards the fans are amazing. They are constantly running camps for kids around the ages of 5-12 to get into hockey, getting into grass roots hockey in Pittsburgh is very important in an NFL and MLB dominant city.
There are no off-ice incidents with the players, they all act like responsible adults, and bear in mind that key players on this team are the ages between 21-25. The ‘core’ of the team will be around in this city for a long time and are setting a great example to the community.
Another point with their off-ice behavior is Mike Kadar was flat out the entire time I was over in the states. He could have just ignored me after the couple of early attempts in my trip to catch up. He did not, he made every attempt to meet with me and uphold his end of our discussions.
The sheer size of the organizational structure of the roster of the Pirates is amazing. Frank oversees the strength and conditioning for the 40 players in the actual Pirates roster, and then there are up to 6 minor league teams that his staff of strength coaches works to cover.
On top of this there are two overseas teams that the Pirates are connected to and Frank has coaches there to implement his training structures. His assistant also flies out to those teams to ensure the fitness staff upholds these structures.
PNC Park is the Home Field of the Pirates and it is around 8 years old, it is one of the newest arenas in Major League Baseball. Due to this the Pirates were able to put in place the best onsite training facilities I have ever seen for a professional team.
The change rooms themselves were so plush it was like walking into a lounge room, soft carpet, and logo on the floor. Lockers all around a circular room, through a door was a kitchen where the players had foods and supplements.
The supplements are important in baseball now, as the testing is so important, that the Pirates supply the players with supplements only from a list of MLB approved supplements so the players can’t get picked up for drugs whilst taking those approved supplements.
The Pirates have a video room and a video coordinator. Players and staff use a good amount of video. Frank uses the video to check their base running times and their reaction times to pitches. He can use this facility during a game to analyze player’s movements and ask if they have an injury, if it is looking like an injury is starting to develop Frank and the medical staff can bring the player back into the medical/rehab area.
The medical rehab area of PNC Park detaches off the change rooms, and in here they have 2 hot and 2 cold baths, a stationary swimming pool and a stack of massage tables for treatment. The big thing for me was the pool; players can walk in the pool against a current or swim on the spot against the current.
The training floor at PNC part is awesome, as a trainer myself; I have been to gym/studios where you are stuck in artificial light. Somehow the Pirates have managed to get light down into the training/gym area and allow the players to train in natural light. The equipment is up to date and Frank has many multi-faceted training schemes to keep the players functioning correctly for baseball.
To try and put into perspective the differences in professionalism between these two teams and our AFL clubs here in Australia, a little bit of it comes down to money. The Pirates have a lot more to spend than the Penguins and the Penguins have a lot more to spend than any AFL club.
However it is the application of those funds and the attitude of both funds that separates the US teams’ professionalism away from the AFL at the moment. You don’t hear of any off-ice misdemeanors from the Penguins at all. I feel that a lot of it has to do with the attitude of the owner of the team, and that is the same with basically all the NHL teams.
There are examples of owners of MLB teams not wanting to put into their baseball club and it not having a winning season for (how many years is it now?), but I can tell you, it is not from the effort put in by the staff. The same can be said for the Penguins, there were some dark years there and looking at what they have had to work with facility wise, I’m sure it is no different now than what it was back in the Cup years as it was through the Rico Fata years too.
The AFL clubs here in Australia have no stability at the top end; they have numerous changes at ‘board’ level (almost like owners guys). The coaches get tugged by the board to play a certain style of football, instead of being left alone to do their job properly. Clubs find excuses about their facilities instead of finding solutions to their current ones or getting new ones. So ignoring the disparity in the funds that go into all 3 sports, it is the attitude that separates the professionalism of US sports teams from Australian sports team at the moment.
The clubs here. A lot of AFL clubs here have no stability or the board influences the football department too much, how can a club be professional if it has no direction from the board and the board won’t let the football department do its job.
**Melbourne, Australia’s own Cameron Walsh is a personal trainer by trade, he owns and operates dLuxe Health and Fitness. Walshy is a life long hockey/NHL/Penguins fan and he will be chiming in from time to time on various injuries that pop up in and around this game that we all know and love. He also bears a striking resemblance to the USS Hal Gill… just saying…