Playing pro hockey is something that all motivated hockey players strive for. Not everyone will reach that level, but having a former pro hockey player give you advice never hurts. So I’m very pleased to have Dave Cunning share with you some of the things he learned and experienced along the way to becoming a pro hockey player and what it takes to play at that level.
1. Hey David, Nice to have you on the site. I’m interested, along with other readers, what sports you played growing up?
I started playing hockey and soccer when I was five years old, but soccer eventually gave way to baseball. I used to ski when I was a kid too, but I transitioned to snowboarding when I got older, and learned to wakeboard after that. My family plays a lot of badminton, so I picked that up, along with golf. I played volleyball and basketball in elementary and high school. I recall trying archery at one point too. I was obviously pretty deep into sports. Hockey eventually won out over them all, though I still participate in most of the others from time to time.
2. I hear you’ve played a bit of pro hockey. Tell us a bit about your hockey career.
Getting to play in the pro ranks was a dream come true that I worked very hard for a lot of years to accomplish. It took me 17 years to rise through minor, junior, and college hockey before I had the opportunity to fly across the world to Europe and play professionally. Scoring a goal in my first game as a pro made every second of that struggle worth it. It was an amazing feeling to play at that level, and remains one of my greatest accomplishments. A lot of guys played a lot longer and had a lot more lucrative careers than I did, but I cherish the time that I had to live out my dream and play at that level. Hockey allowed me to travel through four countries to play, and to meet some of the best friends that I have, so I am very thankful for the time I had to play the game.
3. Did you have a strength and conditioning coach with any of the junior or pro teams you played with?
I remember having strength and conditioning coaches with my junior team (Creston Thundercats of the KIJHL) and my college team (Briecrest College of the ACAC), but oddly not with my pro team in France (Lyon HC). They were helpful to have around, usually doing group sessions with our entire team. I know a lot of guys were like me and didn’t utilize them as much as we probably should have. A lot of the exercises I picked up were from teammates sharing parts of their training routines with me, which I cherry picked from to help form my own approach to training. If I’d had the money to hire one of them I probably would have, but there isn’t a lot of money in junior and college hockey – at least not where I was and when I was there.
4. If so, tell us a bit about the programs that those coaches took you through.
Again, I didn’t get the most out of the strength coaches that were around, but the gist of what they were trying to teach us as a group was to train specifically for our sport, and to train the muscles and movements that hockey players use in the game. There was a lot of power and quickness prescribed to be used in each motion. They were trying to get us away from just general bodybuilding exercises – though there were always a few guys who insisted on coming in to just train chest and biceps, no matter what they were told to the contrary. A lot of the advice that was doled out to us over a few sessions at the beginning of the season, then we were on our own to carry it out that year, save for a few sporadic check-ups here and there. We had pre-season and mid-season fitness testing too. It’s important to remember that a hockey season is rather grueling physically, so our in-season workouts were nowhere near as intense as they were in the off-season. It was maintenance more than anything.
5. Were there any differences between junior and pro strength coaches, in terms of their programming and beliefs about strength training?
I think my junior and college strength coaches were very much of the same school of thought, though they all had different sports backgrounds. They all knew it was an important component for an athlete though. What I think might have been the difference between training between amateur and pro was the geography and perhaps the language barrier. In Lyon we had a gym at the rink, but it was pretty basic. Most of the times I would go in there to train, I would be the only one. The guys could have been going somewhere else to workout that I didn’t know of, but I didn’t have a strong enough level of French to find out where that was if that was what was happening. I think in Canada, you get spoiled a little as hockey players because our whole country is so in love with hockey and the guys and girls who play it have a plethora of options in front of them to take advantage of to get better at it. You can find a trainer at a gym to train you specifically for hockey at a gym, or you can find a hockey school in your town to improve your gameplay. Not every country in the world has that high of a regard for hockey, so those options aren’t as readily available, as it appeared to be where I was. Surely other nations who embrace the game like Canada does are different though.
6. What made you want to become a strength and conditioning coach?
When I realized that my playing days were done, I knew I wanted to stay involved in the game, and I had to think about which capacity would be the best fit for me to do so. Remembering back to when I was playing, I loved working out in the summers with a buddy of mine – we pushed each other as hard as we could to get stronger, faster, and better so that we could keep going farther in the game. I loved being motivated by a like-minded person, and I loved being that same thing to someone else. It paid off for us both, as we both eventually become pros (though he got an NHL tryout, so he got farther along than I did). I saw becoming a strength coach as an opportunity to help other players see what it takes to get where they want to go, and help be one part of their preparation and motivation to go as far as they could in the game. It’s been awesome to watch the players I’ve trained get noticeably stronger and quicker, and have a bigger impact on their team than before.
7. What types of courses or certifications did you take to become a strength coach?
I graduated through the BCRPA Personal Trainer certification program.
8. What level of hockey players do you train at the moment?
I’m currently overseas in Korea teaching English, so I am only training general fitness clients on the side at the moment. But while I was still in Canada, I was regularly training WHL, BCHL, and KIJHL players, and plan to do so again when I return home.
9. Take us through what a workout would look like during the season and the off-season.
Off-season workouts are a lot more physical than in-season ones, but that is for a reason. You aren’t skating everyday and playing every weekend in the summer, nor are you battling fatigue and injuries, so you have to balance the two training seasons appropriately. The off-season’s for building strength, size, quickness, stamina, power, mobility, and range of motion, while in-season training is primarily about maintaining those attributes. Off-season workouts see you lift a lot of weight, perform a lot of sets, and execute each motion with a lot of a lot of power to help build the specific major and minor muscle groups that hockey players use most during the game. There are a lot of all-out sprints and related exercises to get your feet moving as quick as they ever have, in hopes of that translating into you becoming a quicker skater during the season. While you work out through hockey season, you perform a lot of the same exercises and motions, but you do it with an approach that doesn’t leave you sore, tired, or otherwise not in optimal condition when it comes to game time. Every level of hockey has a different length of season, and you have to be ready for each game whether it’s the first, last, or somewhere mid-season. Usually in-season workouts have guys scaling back their sets and reps, and not pushing their limits, though they do their best to maintain the benchmarks they’ve already set, and not regress in any categories.
10. What sets apart the players that really get great results compared to those that get average results from training?
It’s simply the dedication to get the work done, and to use your time wisely. In junior hockey and pro hockey, you have a lot more extra time in your day, so there are less excuses to miss workouts – though some guys always find a way. In college hockey, you have to balance student life, class schedules, and everything else, so it’s tougher to find the time, and it’s really easy to pass on trips to the gym. It becomes about prioritizing your time to do it, no matter what your current lifestyle allows. The guys who make that time to get better are almost always the guys who have the most success.
11. When you played pro hockey, was there a player(s) that really stood out in the weight room compared to others?
There were always two or three guys on every team I played for that were standouts in the gym, and had the bodies to show for it. I saw each one of them put in the time and effort to get themselves there. One guy in particular was Bobby Leavins – he was a New York Islanders draft pick, and had played a season of minor pro, so to have him on our college team as our captain was huge for us. He brought his dedication to off-ice training to our team, and always made time to get in the gym. Our school’s gym was located in the basketball/volleyball gymnasium, and somehow Bobby had managed to get himself a gym key so he could workout even when the gym was closed. One time during a school event, the gym was packed with students, including our team, all focused on whatever event was taking place in the gymnasium that night. Conspicuously, Bobby was nowhere to be found – until further inspection revealed that he had made his made his way into the gym with his key, kept the main lights off and smuggled in a desk lamp, and was basically working out in the dark, undetected until I found him. Despite playing as a left-winger as a pro, Bobby moved back to defense for our team, and still finished second in team scoring. The guy was definitely doing something right, and I know his commitment to training had something to do with it.
12. If you could give hockey players that want to start an off-ice training program any advice, what would it be?
My advice would be to do it! A lot of guys unfortunately don’t get past the stage of talking about it and saying they want to start doing it. Whether you hire a trainer, find a like-minded gym buddy, or research and put together your own program, just get to it. Of course I recommend hiring a professional over all the other options – certified trainers are educated to make your training routines sport specific, efficient, and optimized to make you the best you can be, when you need to be. Of course, trainers are an investment, and some players think that they know enough and don’t need them. While some players have the luxury on relying on natural talent to ascend in the sport, most guys have to work for everything they get. Whether you can afford to hire a trainer or not really is a question of whether you can afford to be less prepared than you could be if you did. Personally, after becoming a trainer and learning the approaches and methodologies I know now, and after seeing how many NHLers hire trainers and seeing how hard they work in the summer, part of me wishes I had made that investment when I was still playing. Competition for spots on teams at every level is so intense these days – players have to find a way to stand out from the crowd to get one of those open spots on a roster. If off-ice training is the thing that helps you catch a scout or coach’s eye in training camp, there’s no question it’s worth the investment. Never be satisfied with where you’re at – in hockey there’s always someone younger, bigger, and better that wants to be where you are, so you’ve got to do what it takes to keep your place, or be the one that takes someone else’s spot.
You can find out more about David and his work at: