by Kevin Woodley
It may not fit the macho hockey stereotype, but touchy-feely exercises can help goaltenders
On the surface Yoga and Pilates hardly seem a good fit for the missing teeth, stitch-it-up and get me back in the game world of professional hockey.
I mean what self-respecting player would be caught dead in Yoga pants?
Would you believe one that once hunted bears with a bow and arrow? Or another was once named to People Magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People list?
Okay, so that second one, Rangers’ star Henrik Lundqvist, fits the stereotype as a slick-dressing Swede dubbed “The King” by the New York press. But can anyone really picture Boston Bruins’ standout Tim Thomas – a man so square his nickname is Tank – sprawled out in stretchy clothes trying to channel his breathing?
Evidently it shouldn’t be hard to imagine, because not only does Thomas use Yoga to improve his flexibility, he credits it for helping him get through his Vezina Trophy-winning season in 2008-09 with a hip injury that would eventually derail his campaign late last season and require major surgery this summer.
“In hindsight, probably,” Thomas wrote in an email Sunday of whether yoga helped him get through the season. “I came across a 2008 yoga evaluation report this summer that pointed out the lack of mobility of the left hip. I know we worked a lot on that area, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.”
Thomas went on to point out his hip wasn’t as bad then as it got last year, but the point about the value of Yoga remains. Never mind that a Yoga instructor was the first to identify a serious injury, even before that, one of the NHL’s best goaltenders believed sincerely that it helped his flexibility and his game.
“I actually didn’t know how much it was going to help, but it helps balance out your body,” Thomas told InGoal Magazine during that Vezina Trophy-winning season. “They try to find weaknesses in your body and work on them so they catch up with the rest of your body. My hip flexors, for example, were much tighter than I ever thought they were. It had never affected my play that I knew of, but adding that little bit of flexibility, working on flexibility through the hip flexors, who knows how much that has helped me? It’s hard to quantify, hard to put a percentage on how much it’s helped, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
“Your body is more balanced overall in terms of both flexibility and strength,” he continued. “A lot of the techniques have to do with balance. Not that I think my balance was bad, but it certainly is better now.”
Thomas certainly isn’t alone in his belief that Yoga – and for some Pilates – can help goaltenders. Former Ottawa and Philadelphia goaltender Ray Emery is using both in his attempt to get back to the NHL after undergoing a career-threatening procedure to graft bone from his lower leg into the ball of his right hip, which had deteriorated to its core. And Carolina star Cam Ward used Pilates to come back from last year’s back problem without needing surgery, and his playing partner Justin Peters got into hot yoga two years ago, saying it helps with flexibility, realigning the body and leg and core strength.
And just because it’s touchy-feely, with lots of emphasis on breathing, don’t think either Yoga or Pilates is easy, even for professional hockey players.
“It’s pretty hard when you’re not used to it,” Lundqvist once told InGoal. “As a goalie I’m supposed to be a pretty flexible guy but I learned I’m not, so I need it. It helped me relax too, but I have to keep doing it if I want to improve.”
If it improves their ability to stop pucks at the same time, NHL goalies will keep going back, no matter how much ribbing they take from teammates.