Health Package: Modern Maturity

Proper Diet And Exercise Are Key Ingredients To Players’ Development At The NTDP

Over the course of his 16 years with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Darryl Nelson has worked with athletes of different shapes and sizes. One thing they all have in common is their skill on the ice. Still, Nelson is amazed by how many youth hockey players lag behind when it comes to their understanding of proper fitness and nutrition. And he’s working with many of the top young players in the country.

“I’ve seen kids who eat two bowls of Frosted Flakes for breakfast and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch,” Nelson said.

“My advice to both kids and their parents is that if you want to be a world-class athlete, you shouldn’t eat foods with cartoon characters on the box.”

The Plymouth, Mich., based program annually welcomes 46 of the top young American players to develop their skills and prepare for the next level. And while all of them come to Plymouth with an impressive set of on-ice skills, Nelson finds that most need to become more aware of what it takes to make it to, and succeed, at the next level.

“We motivate our players, mostly through education, so that they understand why,” Nelson said. “If the athletes know why they’re doing what they’re doing, they’re going to buy in. If they don’t understand the point, then it’s going to be a really hard sell.”

So, in addition to working with an experienced coaching staff on the ice, players are also introduced to the weight room, often for the first time, where they develop their bodies under Nelson’s watchful eye.

An almost universal need for teenaged players is strength, which is best achieved in the weight room, not on the ice. And that’s where Nelson takes over.

Too often he finds that players either come to the program with little experience in the weight room or have already established bad habits.

“It would be really nice if they were entering that window and they were already proficient in the weight room,” Nelson said. “If they have already practiced sound technique and had experience with a wide variety of different exercises.”

The best time to begin serious strength training is after the child’s adolescent growth spurt, which is around age 16 for boys and around 15 for girls.

“Once that happens, that’s really where they can develop strength and power and muscle mass and bone density most easily,” Nelson says. “That’s when they’re the most trainable.”



Becoming a more explosive player on the ice starts in the weight room. That’s the message Darryl Nelson has for the players who come to USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.

“We do lots of jumping and plyometric-type exercises, including the Eric Heiden (five-time Olympic gold-medal speed skater) jump, ladder and diagonal bounding off one foot. Things like box jumps and hurdle jumps and more conventional two-legged plyometrics are still okay,” said Nelson, who has been with the program since its early days.

“For our strength training, we use more of the stuff that we’re doing year-round. That would include Olympic-style lifts, single-leg squatting, using various kinds of resistance sprinting, whether it’s like a partner resistance sprint with a band or it’s using some kind of a bobsled or even some on-ice sleds. That’s where we’re getting most of our explosiveness and power.”

VIDEO: Check out some of Darryl Nelson’s favorite exercises at




Who is your favorite 2023/2024 NHL Rookie?
Connor Bedard
Matthew Knies
Brock Faber
Logan Stankoven
Logan Cooley
Total votes: 3