Feb 26, 2018

By Tom Witosky  |  Follow @toskyAHLWild

Jason Aldrich learned something important while attending Finlandia University: his future in hockey wasn’t going to be on the ice.

“Just an up and down, no-skill winger,” laughed Aldrich, who played Division-III hockey for Finlandia in his hometown of Hancock, Michigan. “My passion has always been hockey so I figured I’d better find myself something that would allow me to stay in the game.”

As a result, Aldrich has a career climbing the hockey ladder in a role that has become key in any professional hockey team’s success - a certified strength and conditioning coach. And, as a way to get to the American Hockey League, he agreed last summer to also become the Iowa Wild’s assistant equipment manager. Call him the Wild’s jack of all trades.

For Aldrich, it’s simply about following the family tradition. Aldrich’s father, Mike, has been the equipment manager for the San Jose Sharks for the last 21 seasons and with the Shark’s minor league affiliate in Kansas City four years before that. In addition, Mike Aldrich was the equipment manager for the silver-medal winning U.S. Men’s Olympic hockey team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“My brother and I always joke about it,” Aldrich said. “Literally, our entire lives have been in locker rooms growing up. We had no other choice because our lives have always been connected to hockey.”

With two sets of duties, Aldrich’s day starts early and ends late. He arrives early in the morning to prepare the dressing room for practice, then spends much of the rest of the day working with athletes.

“After practice, I will work on strength and conditioning with the guys until they are done working out,” he said.

Then it’s back to the assistant equipment manager’s role.

“After the players have left, I spend the rest of the day getting ready for the next day. Getting the laundry done, fixing things that need to be fixed,” he said.

 With Aldrich’s certification in strength and conditioning combined with his family background, Aldrich was the perfect find for Lalonde when he was head coach and general manager for the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League. Aldrich, a native of Michigan’s nearby Upper Peninsula, jumped on the opportunity and spent five years there.

“We considered ourselves an elite program to attract top round talent to develop into first-round draft picks,” Lalonde said of Green Bay. “We thought it was very important to have a full-time strength and condition course. Given the financial situation in the USHL, he was forced to be the equipment manager there.”

Ironically, the same opportunity presented itself this summer in Iowa when former Wild assistant equipment manager Nate Belliveau became the assistant equipment manager for the NHL New Jersey Devils.

“It is a unique situation that is the result of finding a way to deal with the financial realities of the AHL,” Iowa Head Coach Derek Lalonde said. “But, Jason is first and foremost an elite strength coach. He is one of the best in the business and we are lucky to have him.”

As evidence, Lalonde said, has been the health of the club’s roster throughout the season. As evidence, 12 players on the Wild’s current roster have missed fewer than 10 games – an improvement over previous seasons.

“I think he’s had an effect on keeping us healthy,” Lalonde said. “He really takes helping players avoid nagging injuries like groin pulls and other muscle strains seriously. He knows the priority is maintenance and has done a really good job with it.”

Masa Takaiwa, the Wild’s athletic trainer, said he and Aldrich work closely to help players maintain their strength as well as recover from injuries. Takaiwa has the final say on all athletic training decisions, but consults with Aldrich on various approaches in particular for rehabilitation.

“I have 100 percent confidence in his skill and knowledge of the strength and conditioning aspect.” Takaiwa said. “His background, especially when it comes to functional rehabilitation of injuries, allows him to do a really good job of getting players back on the ice and keeping them there.”

In directing strength and conditioning workouts, Aldrich has divided the team into clusters of younger and older players.

“The younger guys want to do a little bit more in their workouts most of the time. You have to appease them because they are always so full of energy and drive,” Aldrich said. “With the older guys, it’s more about keeping them healthy and working with them on rehab and maintenance exercises and lifting.”

But as the season progresses, workouts change mostly out of concern for fatigue. Right now, Aldrich said, he often has to tell younger players to back off a bit on trying to increase their strength and size. With a heavy schedule in March, players will be emphasizing maintenance and working on ways to recover from daily wear and tear. 

“Time of the year is a huge factor in what we do,” Aldrich said. “It’s more about reducing the possibility of injuries through maintenance workouts to make sure they aren’t getting hurt.”

Also, much of the March schedule will be on the road, another problem because facilities and time for conditioning is limited.

“Travel workouts are the biggest challenge I face,” Aldrich said. “The opponents don’t provide anything, hotel fitness centers don’t provide much. I travel with a big gym bag of weights but it is mostly for game preparation for warmups and to work with any kind of soft tissue strains,” he said.

Overall, Aldrich said, the goal is simple: keep players as healthy as possible and get them back on the ice as soon as possible when injured.

“If your athlete is sitting in the press box, he is doing himself and the organization no good,” Aldrich said.  “An unhealthy athlete is doing no one any good.”

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