Penguins' biometrics program helps alleviate injury woes
Along with all of their protective gear, the Penguins sometimes leave little rubbery black belts hanging from the stalls in their dressing room after practices.
Nothing about the belts, which wrap around players' chests when in use, visually suggests they're as vital to safety and wellness as the nearby helmets, gloves, various pads and jock straps. Yet they're at the forefront of the Penguins' efforts to improve healing processes for those players who are hurt and to preserve those who are near their physical peaks.
For all of their bad injury news and more than 250 man-games lost this season, the Penguins have kept pace with the NHL's best and remained in position to repeat as Stanley Cup champions with some help from biometric tracking technology.
No device predicts injuries or spits out a solution to heal Kris Letang's herniated disc or Evgeni Malkin's wonky shoulder. But myriad wearable tools collect data on heart rates, sleeping patterns and other biological processes. That information funnels into a software system known as CoachMePlus, which helps the Penguins dig deeper than ever to decipher how many of their players, whether fresh off of an injury or yet to miss a game, are ready to perform to their fullest potential.
That might prove critical as they plug Malkin, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta and Carl Hagelin back into lineups with the playoffs set to begin this week.
“As long as the athletes believe (the tracking) is beneficial and there's a trust relationship between the coaches and the athletes, then (players) will buy in,” said CoachMePlus president and co-founder Kevin Dawidowicz, who counts 11 NHL teams among his company's clients. “The Penguins are actually a very successful organization at doing this. … They're one of the more advanced teams.”
Dawidowicz is not at liberty to share the specifics of the Penguins' biometric monitoring program. Neither is the Penguins' Director of Sport Science and Performance, Andy O'Brien, whom team officials declined to make available. When asked about the monitoring program's role in the team's decision-making, coach Mike Sullivan claimed borderline ignorance.
“I don't even know what biometric data is,” Sullivan said. “We talk with our strength and conditioning guys on a daily basis. We have objectives that we try to meet based on workloads and rest and recovery.”
But players acknowledge the tracking goes beyond heart rate measurements, and most welcome that thoroughness.
“They're very open about it if you want to know,” winger Bryan Rust said. “They'll have a big long conversation about how things work and what their thought process is. … Usually I'm fairly curious. When they're trying to experiment with things, I'm trying to get in there and be one of those guys.”
Notre Dame opened Rust's eyes to the field of biometrics, but the school's approach largely concentrated on heart rates.
“Now there's like 8,000 components that they look at,” he said half-jokingly.
When goaltender Matt Murray went through his rehabilitation from a lower-body injury in January, he kept a close eye on his heart rate. That habit started long before he missed any games this season, though.
“I'm mostly about heart rate and how high it is for how long,” Murray said. “That's the biggest thing. … If it's a drill where we're going for a long time and it's just shot after shot, and you're heart rate gets too high for the entire time, that's when you may need to take a little breather.
“If they asked me what my heart rate was, I could probably get it within a couple beats per minute.”
For Conor Sheary, a scale long has served as a useful tool. Listed at 175 pounds, the winger weighs himself every morning, hoping to see the total land within three or four pounds of his target.
His ascension to the NHL gave him new numbers to ponder.
“This monitor is just another kind of key to see where I'm at with how I'm sleeping and stuff like that,” Sheary said. “Usually after a game, it's important to wear it.”
O'Brien, hired in July of 2015, worked with Sidney Crosby before he became part of the Penguins organization. Yet Crosby sounded more cautious than his teammates about the utility of biometrics.
“There's lots out there if you want to wrap your head around it,” Crosby said. “You don't go by everything, but there's certain pieces of information you can use. It's not always the information you get. It's how you interpret that information.”
When he first landed a full-time job as an NHL strength and conditioning coach in 1985 with the Penguins, Doug McKenney found himself encouraging players to wrap their heads around better sleeping, eating and training habits on a daily basis. He grimaced at undercooked steaks as pregame meals and tried to explain to confused coaches and front office members the difference between basic stretching and plyometrics.
As CoachMePlus' preeminent performance specialist, McKenney continues to seek the latest and greatest ways to evaluate and optimize hockey players' physical abilities.
“There's going to be injuries,” he said. “All of the information, what it does is it drives intervention.
“A coach might think it wasn't a hard practice, but when you look at the RPE, or rate of perceived exertion of the players, they're saying that was a hard practice. (The coach) might not have considered the fact that they're sleep-deprived and somewhat glycogen-depleted and somewhat dehydrated. That all has an impact on how they perceive or how they feel during that practice.”