By Mick Hatten
SARTELL, Minn. — There is size and strength, knowledge of the game and a desire to keep improving that makes an NCAA Division I or NHL hockey player.
But what does that look like during the offseason for a player?
Players at both levels are typically given plans for the offseason by strength and conditioning coaches.
For Spencer Meier of Sartell, Minn., his offseason may sound like more work to a fan than his time on the ice during the season.
“I’m working with my skating coach, Katie McDonough, two days a week whenever the schedules work out,” Meier said. “I’m training with John Swanson, who has hockey specific workouts for me, Mondays through Fridays or Saturdays.”
Meier, a 20-year-old who will be a sophomore on the St. Cloud State men’s hockey team this fall, will get another chance this weekend to see if all of his hard work will help him reach his lifelong goal of playing in the NHL. There will be seven rounds of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft that will take place June 21-22 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Meier, a 6-foot-3, 204-pound defenseman, was ranked 178th among North American Skaters in the final NHL Central Scouting list for this year’s draft. There are 31 teams, which means there will be 217 players taken in the draft.
“There’s been some talk, again, about me being drafted and last year there was a lot of people who said I would be getting drafted,” said Meier, who was not chosen last year. “Why would you not want to be drafted? I’d love to get drafted into the NHL.
“But if it doesn’t happen, I look at it as there will be 31 teams to offer me a contract at the end of my college years instead of just one. You have to have a positive mindset and you can’t let it affect you either way. But it it happens, it would be awesome.”
Playing professionally is something that Meier has been working at with conditioning as a long-range goal since he was about 12.
Talk to Meier or other hockey people at his level or above about him as a player and there are recurring themes.
“The thing with Spencer that we all know is that he needs to work on his mobility,” St. Cloud State head coach Brett Larson said. “He’s putting in a ton of extra time and effort on getting a little quicker and stronger in his legs. If he can get better in that one area, he can be big time.
“He’s got the size, has great hands for a big guy and his hockey IQ is real high end. It’s that one simple area for how far he goes: getting better with his mobility.”
Meier’s approach to adding more mobility comes with the help of two primary coaches.
He works on his skating twice a week with McDonough at Coon Rapids Ice Center, about 70 miles from home. McDonough is the founder and director of Cutting Edge Performance Power Skating.
“We usually go in the early mornings and sometimes 5:30 a.m. comes a bit early, but it’s good to get down there and work on it and have the rest of the day to work out,” Meier said. “We’ve got the form down. I’ve just got to get everything smoother and quicker and I’m working on lengthening my stride just a bit.”
Swanson is a former St. Cloud State men’s hockey player who owns Fast Factory in Sartell. Meier played in 38 of the Huskies’ 39 games last season and St. Cloud State was the top-ranked team in the nation for the majority of the season. Swanson, a fast skater who played for the Huskies from 2005-09, has some perspective on Meier’s skating.
“He’s just getting to where he can squat more than his body weight, which is saying something about a kid playing well at the Division I level,” Swanson said. “Most kids at the college level have peaked with their strength and skating.
“He’s only going to get stronger and faster. He controls what level of hockey he plays at going forward.”
That is a regular theme for Swanson with Meier since the two began working together when Meier was 12.
Body, mind workouts
Fast Factory is a fitness and lifestyle facility that is typically for adults and is not for sports training. Swanson and Meier got to know one another by sight at first and then off the ice.
Meier, who grew up about seven miles from St. Cloud State’s Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, was one of those kids who would stand near the Huskies’ bench during warmups. Swanson, who grew up in St. Cloud, ended up seeing him so often that he began flipping him a puck after pregame warmups during home games when Meier was 5.
Swanson ended up playing about 1 1/2 seasons of pro hockey for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL before finishing up his pro career in Norway. After he retired, Swanson ended up coaching Meier’s bantam (ages 13-14) hockey team and starting Fast Factory.
Swanson said he developed his own offseason workout regimen when he was playing for St. Cloud State.
“I wanted something that was completely tailored to me because I knew what my weaknesses were,” he said. “I had really badly torn ankle (ligaments) twice and I had a shoulder injury.
“I’ve taken a lot of those things to Spencer’s training. We start with an assessment because, year by year, it changes. Every athlete will tell you they want to get stronger and faster. But what about injury prevention and what type of toll a season has taken on their body? How has their body changed from all those games and practices.”
The assessment takes about 90 minutes and then Swanson, with the help of some of the people at Fast Factory, helps come up with a workout regimen for Meier. Through a computer program, Meier sends Swanson information on how long he may have worked with the skating coach, if he also skated with his St. Cloud State teammates that day, what he ate and how much he slept.
“I’d say there’s probably four days of old school strength training, 2-3 days with aerobic where we are building lung capacity and another two days of a flow workout to help with recovery,” Swanson said of a typical week.
A flow workout can be biking, rowing, a relaxed sled walk or a hike.
“You get the heart rate elevated, but you’re not out of breath,” Swanson said. “You want to be able to hold a conversation. If you’re not, you’re probably pushing too hard.”
Some of the off-ice workouts are geared toward helping with that skating explosiveness that Meier is seeking.
“The biggest knock on Spence is that he’s not a fast skater and you could see that when you looked at his hip range of motion when he was a pee-wee,” Swanson said. “I told his dad that I would take a slow approach to get him to where he was looking long term.
“Once we got the proper range of motion, he could load the hip and it has evolved into power (skating) input. It wasn’t until his junior year where we started to load his hip.”
That loading came with more weight lifting for his lower body.
If all of this sounds like a more scientific approach to building a better college (and possibly pro) player, you are correct.
“You almost have to force them to take some time off because they need to recover and rest and need some down time,” said Larson, who played defense for Minnesota Duluth from 1991-95. “It’s become so specialized with these workouts.
“A lot of these players work out at a hockey specific training facility. This is not just squat and bench and ride the bike. There are leg lifts just to help with balance. There was not as much of this 20-30 years ago.”
And if you think the conversations between Swanson and Meier merely talk about physical things, you are wrong. There’s also the mental side of training.
“You get to college and there’s the distraction of girls, you get to be of drinking age and then there’s the freedom that goes with being in college,” Swanson said. “My message to him is that you’re so close to your dream and this could be the hardest 2-3 years.
“It’s not just doing the work, it’s being relentless in staying away from the distractions and you’ll be getting paid for doing the thing that you love.”
Meier had a 3.6 grade-point average his freshman year and plans to major in business.