Bigger, faster, stronger and heavier


In his hockey heyday, former Oiler Al Hamilton was six-foot-two, weighed 210 pounds and was considered one of the "big guys" on the team.


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EDMONTON - In his hockey heyday, former Oiler Al Hamilton was six-foot-two, weighed 210 pounds and was considered one of the "big guys" on the team.

But in today's National Hockey League, Hamilton would be considered average-sized at best. The rinks are no bigger but the players certainly are, with giants such as 245-pound Dustin Penner thundering up and down the ice.

"That's a football player's size," Hamilton said in reference to Penner. "These are enormous guys. I think a small guy now is 190 pounds. A small guy when I played was 165 pounds."

University of Alberta researchers have found that players on one NHL team have grown taller, heavier and more powerful over the past 26 years. The researchers studied 703 players from one NHL team from 1979 to 2005, using data from fitness testing done during training camps. While academic research ethics prohibit the scientists from naming the team, it appears to have been the Edmonton Oilers.

"There is a general trend in the population that over time, generally, we're seeing gradual increases in height, weight and body-mass index," said lead researcher Art Quinney of the U of A's Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. "But not to the same extent we're seeing in this population."

Quinney said a hockey player considered among the most powerful players on his team in 1979 would likely score near the middle of the pack today. He said NHL players are getting bigger due to better training and the way teams screen potential players.

For former Oilers captain Kelly Buchberger, training once focused on cardio workouts, but nowadays the emphasis is on "explosive conditioning" and strength building.

Buchberger said he first noticed changes in training during his early days in the league, in the mid-1980s.

"Players started training a lot harder in the off-season," Buchberger said. "They all have personal trainers now, they dedicate themselves longer."

For Hamilton, staggering NHL salaries are motivating today's players to train harder and longer. He said his starting salary when he turned pro back in the 1960s was $13,000, which hockey players can now earn in a single shift.

"There is incentive," he said. "It's a huge industry now of parents spending thousands and thousands of dollars on training for their kids.

"In our day, we went out in the summer to play baseball."

Georges Laraque's job as an enforcer means he's often bumping (violently) up against other players on the ice.

"It's mostly when I get into fights that I get into that realization, noticing how big the guys are these days," he said. "You're like, 'Oh my God.' "

But Laraque thinks the entire population, not just hockey players, is growing bigger these days and he blames it on our diets.

"You don't end up being six-foot-nine and 700 million pounds because you started training when you were a kid," he said. "I think people are bigger now because the food has more chemical GH (growth hormone)."

The U of A study also found physiological characteristics of players differed depending on their positions on the ice. Forwards, for example, tended to be bigger, more powerful and have better endurance in 2005 than their counterparts 26 years ago. The new generation of defencemen tends to be taller and heavier.

Quinney stressed, however, that not all players have bulked up over the past quarter-century and said goaltenders today tend to be shorter and have less body mass. Quinney said NHL rule changes protect smaller players from clutching and grabbing and have also helped ensure their place in the game.

To Laraque, rules that now forbid obstruction have allowed smaller players to compete against increasingly bigger ones. "You see more and more smaller guys making the NHL," he said, citing Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano as examples. "Now it's more of a speedster game, so more small guys would make it."

The study notes that extra bulk hasn't necessarily translated into more successful seasons for the team studied. Quinney found a weak relationship between fitness levels, size and a team's performance. The study noted other factors such as leadership, coaching, injuries and individual player attributes all contribute to a team's success.

And for Hamilton, a player's proportions are just a contributing factor when it comes to on-ice success. He cites courage as the most important quality for a player to possess, regardless of size.

"I don't care if you're 240 pounds or 180, you have to be skilled and you have to be tough," he said.

"If you had a star from 50 years ago, like Gordie Howe, and you transplanted him into today's game ... (he) would probably be bigger and stronger and he'd be able to play."

The study was published recently in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.

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