By ANDREW KNOLL
APRIL 24, 2016
In hockey, a sport whose arena sound systems blare “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” a competitive edge may be found in a lullaby.
Like other major professional teams, N.H.L. franchises are paying closer attention to the quality and quantity of their players’ sleep across a grueling 82-game schedule. It is particularly demanding for some Western Conference teams, which can log upward of 50,000 miles in the air each season.
“Over all, there is growing interest in sleep from teams across all the leagues as proper sleep is frequently sacrificed and overlooked,” said Cheri Mah, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. “However, it can have a significant impact on peak performance and overall health. In my opinion, it is one of the most untapped areas of sports performance.”
Mah has worked closely with the San Jose Sharks, who had the best road record in the N.H.L. this season, and the Golden State Warriors, who followed a victory in the N.B.A. finals last year by winning a record 73 regular-season games.
“She’s been an amazing resource for us,” said Mike Potenza, the strength and conditioning coach for the Sharks, who ousted the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs with a 6-3 victory on Friday. “I still speak with Cheri about different things we should be concerned about going through different time zones. Any Pacific team has got to play in at least two out of three time zones on a road trip.”
Potenza said Mah’s input led the Sharks to change when they practiced, how they trained and whether they had a morning skate.
Every night, the Sharks are encouraged to swallow chamomile, lavender and tart cherry juice, a melatonin producer that also combats inflammation. Augmenting players’ consumption of zinc, magnesium and other nutrients has also helped the Sharks get better, more reliable sleep while diminishing their use of prescription drugs such as Ambien. In addition, the Sharks’ staff suggests that players control their sleep environment, minimizing ultraviolet light and keeping their rooms quiet, dark and cool.
For an athlete, the benefits of proper rest are manifold and the effects of sleep deprivation severe.
A study Mah did on the Stanford men’s basketball team, as well as her later work with Andre Iguodala of the Warriors, showed that more sleep measurably improved speed, explosiveness and shooting accuracy.
Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard gave the Boston Bruins sleep advice on the eve of Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals in Vancouver, British Columbia, a game the Bruins won. Czeisler — who has also counseled other kinds of elite performers, like Mick Jagger and NASA astronauts — said that apart from energy and stamina, sleep or a lack of it could also affect quickness, strength and testosterone levels.
“Sleeping four hours a night for a week reduces testosterone levels by an equivalent of 11 years of aging,” Czeisler said, meaning a rookie called up from the American Hockey League could quickly feel like a past-his-peak veteran.
Czeisler said inadequate sleep considerably slowed reaction time, which in turn led not only to diminished performance but also a sharply elevated risk of injury.
Sleep is also essential to processing information and problem solving, meaning that a lack of sleep can hinder an athlete’s judgment, composure and ability to read a play, as well as negate the information gleaned from practice and film study. That looms especially large in a seven-game playoff series against a single opponent.
“You actually gain insight during sleep; you can solve things subconsciously,” Czeisler said, emphasizing the speed and effectiveness with which one integrates new and old memories during sleep.
For the 2013-14 season, the N.H.L. moved to a division-based playoff system, in part to reduce the travel for Western Conference teams. But that did not prevent an opening series this year between the Anaheim Ducks and the Nashville Predators, whose arenas are separated by 2,000 miles. The road team won the first four games of the series, which Anaheim leads, 3-2.
Players in that series said they tried to “get on time zone” immediately during trips.
Mah said each hour of time-zone change would typically require one day for a player to get acclimated. But she and Czeisler also said there were instances in which it was better to remain in sync with one’s home time zone. Czeisler suggested that to the Bruins for their game in Vancouver so they would maintain their circadian rhythm — the roughly 24-hour cycle that tells the body, for instance, when to sleep. Ducks center Rickard Rakell said his team stayed on Pacific time during the Western Conference finals against Chicago last year, knowing a Game 7 would be in Anaheim.
Other N.H.L. teams, too, are responding to science and shedding convention in favor of modern experiments. The Predators arrived in Anaheim for the first two games of their current series two days early in order to adjust, and Nashville Coach Peter Laviolette has long favored sleep and rest over traditions like the morning skate. He did away with the ritual entirely when he coached the Carolina Hurricanes, although he was fired early that season, before the change had yielded any clear results. With Nashville, as he did in a stint with Philadelphia, he has tended toward optional skates and practices whenever scheduling places tough demands on his players.
Even Kings Coach Darryl Sutter, known for his gruff demeanor and farm-grown work ethic, said his team’s decisions to skate or sleep were made by committee.
“There’s a point where you’re going to your leadership group and asking them: ‘Should we be on the ice today? Should we be off the ice today? Should we be away from the rink today? What should we do tonight?’ ” Sutter said.
Ducks right wing Corey Perry has a routine typical among hockey players, sleeping eight to nine and a half hours a night, he said, with a nap of “an hour and some” in the afternoon.
Czeisler is a proponent of napping as long as necessary to make up for sleep lost, for example, on an overnight flight. Mah suggests players take naps of only 20 to 30 minutes to avoid grogginess.
Having a wind-down period with reading, yoga or some other activity a half-hour before bed is also important, Mah said.
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, as in most things related to hockey, seemed to be a natural with his sleep habits.
“I’m a big sleeper,” he said. “I try to get as much as I can. My naps are long. I try to get to bed early and wake up as late as possible.”
The only exception?
“After a loss,” Doughty said, “it’s hard to sleep.”