By Bob Crawford

Not long ago, it was relatively rare for an NHL team to have a full-time strength and conditioning coach, and it was virtually unheard of in the AHL.  Nowadays, however, virtually every NHL team has a staff position dedicated to strength and conditioning, and Hartford Wolf Pack strength and conditioning coach Mark Cesari is an example of the extension of that trend to the AHL level.

Mark CesariNow in his fourth season with the Wolf Pack, Cesari also has experience as a strength and conditioning maven at the Division I college level, at RIT, and in the WNBA and ECHL.  Since getting into the field in the early 2000s, the Montreal native has seen the attitude of professional and college athletes toward conditioning and strength training undergo a sea change.

“When I started at the college level, we tried to do whatever we could to make sure that the players were stronger and faster than the opponents,” Cesari said last week.  “And that’s changing every day, players are taking it upon themselves to make sure that they’re in the best physical condition, and they’re always looking for an edge.  They’re approaching me, asking me questions about how to get to the next level, and not me necessarily imposing these demands on them, which is, first of all, the sign of a great athlete, someone who wants to try to get better.  And second of all, that keeps me on my toes, to make sure that I’m up to speed with what they’re asking.”

That process of keeping abreast of the latest trends and knowledge in his line of work is a big challenge, according to Cesari.

“It’s hard enough to try and stay ahead with the research in strength and conditioning, and then you have to worry about other aspects, like nutrition and supplementation,” he said.  “Fortunately enough, I have kind of a long-standing drive to always want to learn.  In order to do that, I completed my first Master’s in 2006 and I’m currently doing a second one, to really try to stay up with that research and make sure that I’m staying with the times.”

One of the biggest areas of progress that Cesari has seen in his experience working with athletes is in the area of nutrition.  With so much money to be made in pro sports, and the competition ever more intense, players have become much more attuned to the value of eating right.

“In the last ten years it’s changed dramatically, especially when it comes to learning how to eat, and the players’ awareness of learning how to eat,” Cesari said.  “In the old days it wasn’t necessarily an issue, but today that’s certainly not the case.  Guys are trying to get every edge possible over the competition, and to do that, nutrition is a big part.  That being said, the influx of organic supplements and organic food has really changed the way that we approach our nutrition plans.  Whole Foods and those types of places are really places that our players tend to migrate to a little bit.  That’s where the organic foods are, it’s a little healthier, a little more natural.  Our nutritionist with the New York Rangers, Cynthia Sass, she does a really great job with our athletes, making sure that they know what to take in and what not to take in.”

Many, if not most, hockey fans have seen an on-ice practice and have an idea of what kind of drills and workouts are involved in that framework.  Almost all of Cesari’s work, though, is done out of sight, in the environs of the Wolf Pack weight room.  Though an off-ice workout obviously looks significantly different than an off-ice practice, it takes no measure of a back seat in terms of importance.

“On a daily basis, the gym is usually the first place the guys go,” Cesari said.  “A lot of them will use that time to get warm and to get prepped for on-ice.  So a lot of the time before practice is what I call activation.  I use that time to make sure that the players are ready to get on to the ice, their muscles are ready to get on the ice, and they’re ready to work.  Some guys will even do a workout before, and that’s a really good time to get a really solid workout in.  Most guys, once they leave my weight room before practice, they’re already sweating and they’re ready for practice.  Once practice is over, then they’ll come back up, depending on the day, we always have some kind of workout or recovery workout.  They spend a lot of hours around the rink, whether it’s on the ice or in the weight room.

“They’re working so hard on the ice, day in and day out, so for me it’s more of a recovery tool, using those workouts, some people will call it ‘prehab’, really making sure that we’re maintaining the gains that they made in the offseason and the gains that they’ve made through this point, and just try to keep them injury free.”

To hear Cesari tell it, his job is as much about injury prevention as it is about improving in-game performance.  In addition to his strength and conditioning background, he is certified as an athletic trainer, and works closely with Wolf Pack athletic trainer Damien Hess on tailoring workout programs to minimize injury risk.

“We’ve changed our approach a little bit, but the percentage of weight training that we perform in the season, it’s really dependent on the strength and conditioning coach, and how well he knows his players and how well he feels he can push his players,” Cesari said.  “My approach really hasn’t changed all that much.  Obviously there’s a huge emphasis on maintaining and rehabilitation and prehab.  Being an athletic trainer, I really take pride in that side of my game, but I think the biggest thing is just to really understand what is going on at the physiological level.  And if we can understand physiologically what’s happening with the body, we can adjust to that throughout the season, weight training, conditioning, whatever the case may be.

“I go to Damo (Hess) several times (daily), just to make sure that we’re on the same page when it comes to players and where they’re at physically, so that when I do push my athletes, I know where their end-point is.”

In addition to pushing, it is just as important for Cesari to know when to back off, to emphasize to the players the necessity of allowing their bodies sufficient time to rest and recharge.  A prime example of that was his message to the team going into the recent AHL All-Star break, during which the players had four days completely off from any team practice activity. 

“When you’ve got four days to really get away from hockey, the biggest thing, with the long season, is to make sure that they take the rest and they use the time to recover,” Cesari said.  “So that was my advice to them, take some time, go home, enjoy those four days.  Nutrition is a key part of that, making sure that they’re not getting out of their usual routine, but other than that, rest and recovery.”

Cesari had few worries about this year’s crop of Wolf Pack players ever neglecting the necessary commitment to taking care of themselves.  The man responsible for ensuring that they maximize their conditioning has been impressed with their self-motivation.

“We’ve got a really good group, a young group, which makes it easy for me to push them,” Cesari said.  “They all know what it takes to get to the next level, and they’ve seen it from the older players that we have.  That makes it easy for me to know that these players understand the intensity level that needs to be in the gym.  There’s one thing about coming in and going through the movements, and there’s another about actually coming in and training and getting prepped for the next day.  These guys, as a group, have really done a great job with that.”

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photo credit: chris rutsch