The mess in Edmonton through the eyes of a former NHL coach

Craig MacTavish

Upon hearing the news this morning that the Edmonton Oilers have hired Craig MacTavish as their new General Manager, I couldn’t help but think back to an interview with one of their former coaches.

It was April 19, 2010 – nearly two years to the day of this morning’s press conference – where Dr. Chad Moreau, their former Strength and Conditioning coach, gave an exclusive interview to MayorsManor.  The comments were so telling, portions of the conversation ended up appearing in both Edmonton newspapers and it received some traction throughout Western Canada at the time.

In brief, Moreau’s four-year run with the team included the period where they went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.  The season after he left though, Edmonton lost a franchise record 530 games due to injury and many people were looking for answers – with the fitness of players being one of the areas closely examined, partially stirred by some comments from Pat Quinn.

Moreau’s response and overall commentary was interesting back then, but even more so now when you compare it with what was said by Oilers management today and the person they just hired to fix things.

[following are excerpts taken from the original article with Moreau]

- On transitioning into the role with the Oilers: When I came in, the weight room they had was horrible.  When I spoke with MacTavish he told me ‘Hey, just to warn you, what we have here as far as equipment is really antiquated and I don’t think you’re going to be terribly impressed.’  And believe me, I wasn’t.  The weight room was very small, I’d guess maybe a 500-750 square foot room.  It had a very low ceiling with a bunch of pipes overhead.

For example, Chris Pronger couldn’t even push a bar over his head without crashing the plates into a pipe overhead.  We would even tease the guys and tell them the pipes are filled with oil, so they better be careful.

The team wanted to catch up to where some other teams were with strength and conditioning, so we started purchasing new equipment.  They really wanted to turn over a new leaf, so the team was great.  I know the Oilers were really excited at the time about getting a new program and getting their players on board with it…and getting some of their guys maybe a little stronger and improving their fitness level.”

- On changing the team’s overall fitness level:  In the second half of the season I was hoping that all the work we put in throughout the season would give us, even if it was a 1% advantage…it would give us a slight edge when we needed it. And that season it did.  The team was awesome in the third period and awesome in overtime…they never really seemed to fatigue or breakdown against other teams.  You could almost just count on a guy scoring a big goal to turn a game against teams like Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim in the playoffs…and even against Carolina in the Finals.

The guy who helped me the most in doing my job was Chris Pronger.  He obviously commanded a lot of respect from the coaches and the locker room.  He was pretty confident in his on ice abilities.  So, one of the things he liked to do is spend time off the ice training – just to maintain his level of strength and endurance.

He would always talk to the coaching staff and ask that we could get days off to spend time in the weight room and train.  I really learned through that process that there is such an emphasis in the NHL on putting the guys on ice and spending time on positional play, power plays, penalty killing and everything else they work on…however, they end up spending so much time on the ice – including the actual games – that they end up having very little time for off ice training.

So, having Pronger almost demand that he gets time in the room to train and work on his fitness benefited the whole team because the coach would say ‘Look, if we’re going to give Pronger the day off the ice, why don’t we do the same thing for some of our veteran players?’  So, sometimes I’d have 9 or 10 guys in the weight room.  The only thing they would do that day was train in the room.  They wouldn’t go on the ice, so we’d get some really good training days in.  And this would happen frequently during each month.  Organizing training programs was an easy thing to do at that point because the coaching staff gave me so much leeway to get the guys fresh – either on the bike or in the weight room doing strength lifts.

I thought my whole tenure in Edmonton would be really similar to that, but it wasn’t.  Little did I know what a huge ally Pronger was and what the impact of him leaving would be for somebody like me and my ability to do my job.  As a result of our efforts that year I think we were a great finishing team, coming so close to winning the Stanley Cup.  It was a real learning experience to see how things would evolve over the next three years.”

- On other changes he noticed:  When they lost some of the veteran players starting in around 2007 they wanted to spend more time on the ice with their younger players.  I would talk with MacTavish – who I always had a great working relationship with…we needed to spend time in the weight room like the first season I was there.  One of the things people forget sometimes is the off season for a team that doesn’t make the playoffs is four months.  But, the season is eight months – that’s 2/3 of the year.  If you don’t do proper training for that period of time, your players are going to decondition.  I don’t care how hard you’re skating players in practice, there’s no substitute for the work we do in the room, working on all the different areas with players.

So, I think one thing that happens when a team starts to panic, when they start losing some games – especially if they have a younger line-up…they start spending so much time on the ice the players start to lose some of that strength base that they built up in the off season.  You really start to see this in the second half of the season and into the playoffs.  In fact, I saw this with the Oilers.  When I was with the team we would do mid-season testing and their testing scores would be significantly lower than when they first came into training camp on day one.  I would express my concern to the training staff…that this could not only lead to decreased performance, but higher injury potential.

It’s not to pick on the coaching staff in Edmonton.  They were great to work with.  And I think it’s probably an issue that strength and conditioning coaches across the league have to deal with.”

- On Pat Quinn being quoted in the Edmonton Sun saying “Four years ago they made a change in the person that leads training and since that time, the spike started to come in the injury levels.” – a direct link to his time with the team:  “First off, let me say that I’ve never met Pat Quinn or had a chance to speak with him about this.  However, to criticize the strength and conditioning coaches I think is unfair.  The coach needs to share some of the blame in that because a team that isn’t fit by the end of the year…the coaching staff has the ultimate control over how much time a player spends in the weight room.  So, I somewhat look at that with a grain of salt.

After a couple of other people pointed that comment out to me though I went back and did some research.  It’s pretty interesting.  I looked at the stats for man games lost to injury, which I think could be a slightly over stated statistic.  For instance, this season (2009-10), the least injured teams – based on man games lost to injury – were Tampa Bay and the Rangers.  Neither team made the playoffs.  Edmonton led the league in man games lost and obviously they didn’t make the playoffs either.  Yet, the team with the second most games lost to injury was Detroit.  And they’re in the playoffs.  So, this might be a little bit of a misleading statistic.

But, let’s go back to 2005-2006, when I felt like I did a great job of convincing the coaching staff that it was important to have the training in the weight room, not just during the off season – but, in-season as well.  Obviously we had success that year, almost winning a Stanley Cup.  We only had 134 man games lost to injury according to my statistics.  I also looked at goal differential in the third period and overtime.  We were a +20 in the regular season.  That’s pretty significant to me because it means we were a good team at the end of games, which was always my goal.  From a strength and conditioning standpoint, I wanted the team to still be strong at the end.”

- On his other years with the team:  There were lots of personnel changes over the next few years, with a mass exodus of players.  The team dynamics changed quite a bit, with the focus of training being more on the on-ice drills.  For 2007-08 we had over 300 man games lost to injury.  We were also a -20 in goal differential for the third period and overtime portion.  So, I think there was actually a correlation between how many injuries we had and how poorly we were playing at the end of games.

In 2008-09, my last year with the team, we had fewer man games lost to injury than the season before and we were a +3 in that late-game goal differential.  This year was just a disaster with a -36 and over 500 man games lost.  So, when I see Pat Quinn say ‘We must be doing something wrong with our off season training,’ I don’t totally agree with him.  I think for a lot of these players in-season training might be even more important than what guys are doing in the off season.  Remember, the season is eight months long, so coaches need to help find the time for guys to get into the weight room and do their training.”

Since that interview, Moreau has continued to train NHL and junior hockey players, as well as other athletes, via his private practice in the Los Angeles area.  He also has a website, HOCKEYOT.com, where kids and adults can get more information about training.

RELATED CONTENT:  EXCLUSIVE - What went down behind the scenes with Ethan Moreau leaving the Kings

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