This is one of a series of articles from The Hockey Writers covering the 2023 NHL Combine from Buffalo, N.Y.
The annual NHL Entry Draft combines assessments involving interviews, medical screenings, and fitness tests over four days. All 30 NHL teams send representatives to watch the testing and participate in interviewing the young prospects. The assessment includes fitness testing, medical evaluation, psychological evaluation, and interviews.
When most of us think of fitness testing, our thoughts may wander back to the days of our physical education classes, where many of us were subjected to doing various exercises to test our alleged physical fitness. The NHL combine is not much different, as the young prospects are also doing tests that include bench pressing, standing long jump, grip test, and other measures to see how fit and athletic these prospects are. However, there is one test that many of us are unfamiliar with, and it is quite intense.
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During the combine, prospects will use a stationary bike for a Wingate test, which measures anaerobic fitness, and the VO2 Max test, which measures Aerobic fitness. The prospects hop on this bike, have oxygen and carbon dioxide analyzers and a heart rate monitor attached, and then ride the bike for a set time. Both tests are extremely physically demanding for the prospects.
The VO2 Max Test is Quite a Challenge
The pioneering work of A.V. Hill, Hartley Lupton, and colleagues in the early 1920s was the first to identify that there was a limited amount of oxygen that the body could uptake and consume. Coined VO2max, this measurement is now a mainstay in the evaluation of cardiorespiratory fitness for both health and performance.
While that sounds good, this test is known to be quite grueling. The prospects will be put on a stationary cycle, a breathing tube shoved into the mouth and/or masked, nose clamped. The body is pushed to the limit in an effort to measure cardiovascular strength and aerobic power. In this test, the athlete pedals at the pre-determined power target for each one-minute stage – beginning at 50 Watts and increasing by 30 Watts each minute. The testing administrators manually manipulate the bike’s air and magnetic resistance to ensure the athlete maintains a consistent cadence of 80 rpm.
So the basic premise of the test is that the prospect will stay on the bike until the athlete physically stops pedaling, the athlete experiences difficulty breathing or chest pain, or the appraiser stops the subject because the athlete can no longer maintain the required rpm despite the intense effort.
While that all sounds good, the end result is that some prospects will need help getting off the bike, getting help walking back to the locker room while possibly losing their lunch. All for getting results that, if you could understand all of the numbers displayed on their overhead screens, give results that provide valuable insight into the athlete’s ability to endure at both moderate and high intensities, which is probably why they do this test before the full day of media availability.
At the end of the day, this test is done to see which player can do more and go for longer periods, which indicates how much endurance a prospect may have when on the ice.
Round 2 on the Bike is the Wingate
Less taxing on the prospect’s body but equally important of the bike tests is the Wingate, which is a 30-second test for anaerobic power (measuring explosive leg power and fatigue). The resistance used is 9 percent of the athleteʼs body mass.
The Wingate Anaerobic test was developed in the 1970s to measure anaerobic power and capacity. Since then, it has perhaps become one of the most recognized fitness tests in history. Over the years, many variations of this test have been developed to identify slightly different performance qualities and to make it more suitable for varying populations. Importantly, the Wingate Anaerobic test has been repeatedly proven to be a valid and reliable predictor of anaerobic capacity and power.
The prospect warms up in this test by pedaling at a low resistance for two minutes. When given the start command, the player will perform the prescribed intervals while seated. The athlete uses one constant resistance level for the Wingate for the full duration. This resistance level is determined by the player’s body mass, with heavier players using a heavier resistance.
Making a full-out bike sprint for 30 seconds sounds easier than what is done in the VO2 Max test. However, most prospects will tell you that the Wingate is actually more demanding and grueling than the VO2. None can testify more to this than current NHL star Connor McDavid, who remembered just how difficult this test was when he participated in the 2015 Combine. The Wingate is right at the end, and you’re tired, you’ve done a few tests, your body’s sore, and then you jump on the bike and complete an extremely hard 30-second sprint with some resistance. It was a tough test.”
2023 Prospect Reaction
Projected first-round draft pick Eduard Sale had the “honor” of being one of the first players to complete the Wingate and described just how difficult the test was to take. “The last test (Wingate) was the hardest one, and it was tough.” Sale also shared that he has not done anything in his training as a hockey player or as an elite junior tennis player in the Czech Republic, adding to the difficulty of the test. He also added that he wanted to incorporate similar exercises in the future, as he believes that improved aerobic function will make him a better player.
However, when asked if he ever wanted to do the Wingate again, he quickly replied, “I don’t think so.”
Another prospect that also had the pleasure of an early morning Wingate test was Finnish winger Jesse Kiiskinen, who did share that he at least had done some similar training in the past that helped him cope with the rigors of that test. “We do a lot of biking in Finland, where we train and go to your max level, so I think it was good preparation for that.” However, when asked if we like to do the test again, he replied, “No, I would not be happy to do it again unless I had to.” He added that he did not think anyone would be happy to do the Wingate again.
Surprisingly, one prospect did not mind the Windgate as much, goaltender Scott Ratzlaff. “Wasn’t looking forward to it too much, but I got a lot of motivation from the guys yelling in my ear.” Ratzlaff refers to the person who is the designated motivator for the test, sometimes referred to as “Bike Guy,” whose job is to make sure that the prospects are putting out the maximum effort on the test.
Ratzlaff did share that even though it is nothing like the Wingate, he does incorporate bike work in his training regiment. He sees the benefit of this kind of training to help him prepare for certain situations a goaltender may face. “High-intensity work helps me when shooters are in really high-quality scoring areas. I think that 30 seconds on the bike would be compared to facing a 5-on-3 when there is very aggressive movement of the puck.”
Much scientific evidence has been published confirming that the kind of results that Windgate and VO2 Max tests show benefit is one factor in how well someone can play hockey. So, much to the dismay of many current and former NHL prospects, this grueling set of tests is not going away any time soon.