Mar 28, 2024

1.pngBy Andrew Mossbrooks | @Mossbrooks48


Fans gravitate toward players. They identify those who come up in the clutch moments, be it through a big goal, hit, or fight. These are their heroes.


But not all heroes wear jerseys.


Enter Rochester Americans strength and conditioning coach, Nick Craven.


“He is one of the most important people, if not the most important person that we have down here in Rochester,” said Amerks head coach Seth Appert.


Craven’s job title is two main words: strength and conditioning. But those two words take far more than just those 20 characters to describe.


“I mean, there's a lot that goes into it,” said Craven. “Professional hockey these days is insanely competitive, and players really have to train and prepare their body in order to be able to compete at this level. You no longer see guys work offseason jobs and just show up and get in shape during training camp. There's a whole process that goes into it. Hockey is a fast, physical sport, and the better your body is prepared for the demands on the ice, the more likelihood you as a player have of being available for all the games. At this level, the best ability is availability.”


The 33-year-old out of Fort Collins, Colorado is in his seventh season with the Amerks. Craven’s longevity and success within the position comes from not simply his ability, but rather, his relatability.


“He's a very unique talent in that he's an elite strength coach that played high level hockey,” said Appert. “Most strength coaches can't go on the ice and put guys through rehab skates and do rehab skates with the players or even understand what should be in rehab skates.”


While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at Division III-Wesleyan University, Craven received a call from the Binghamton Senators, who signed him to an AHL contract late in the 2012-13 season. The following season, he went south to join the Fayetteville FireAntz, a single-A independent team competing in the Southern Professional Hockey League. A year later, Craven again found himself in a different league, this time joining ECHL-Colorado for 14 games before retiring and deciding that it was time to go back to school.


“I knew that I wasn’t going to be a hockey player forever. I just knew that in the back of my head. I was so used to balancing the load of being a student-athlete, so when I transitioned to just playing hockey professionally, it was weird to have like all this time on my hands and I didn't have any strength coaches ever.”


“I'd practice in the morning and then go take a nap and then go to the gym for like 2 hours in the afternoon. Hockey is frustrating. There's a lot of ups and downs of the sport but I always found solace in the gym because it's under my control. I'd been spending a lot of my time obsessing with training and the process, the preparation, everything. I started reading some articles online and I remember reading a men's health article that I thought was super interesting. So, I looked at the author and I discovered that she had a master's degree in exercise physiology.”


The lightbulb turned on in Craven’s mind. To couple his undergrad in neuroscience with a master’s in exercise physiology. Like working out, Craven was committed to the long-term process. He had planned to stay away from hockey for some time, welcoming the break after committing a life to the sport that began in the mid 90’s as a kid watching his hometown Avalanche lift a Stanley Cup.


It was a nice thought, but things can happen when you least expect it. Through word of mouth after attending the University of Georgia, Craven got word that the Buffalo Sabres were in search of a strength coach for their affiliate down the road in Rochester.


“That's kind of how I got into this position. And this was 2017 and never did I think that this would be my first job. I thought hockey, you know, maybe down the line would make sense like given my athletic background. But I was not like looking for hockey jobs. It just kind of found me.”


Craven compares what he does to solving a puzzle. You’re taking pieces of information that are unique from one player to the next and trying to fit them in perfectly to develop a plan, be it for a player returning from injury, or a player who needs to build muscle mass, or someone who needs to alter their diet and get the proper nutrition in their body.


“He does so much work behind the scenes with our players,” said Appert.
All our players, but especially our young prospects, to mentor them off the ice, to add muscle to their frame, to show them how to be a pro and how to take care of their bodies, what they should be doing on off days; it’s a credit to him and his work ethic.”


Over his seven years with the Amerks, Craven has aided dozens of players in their return to play from injury, along with countless others in their quest to improve their conditioning off the ice.


As a player, Craven wanted to reach the National Hockey League like any kid that has played this game would. But thanks to the Amerks, he still gets the opportunity to chase and live that dream, doing so vicariously through the players he’s helped along the way.


“I love it. I'm obsessed with the sport. I'm obsessed with the strength and conditioning stuff that I do. Being able to combine the two is unbelievable. I get to see every single player here living out their dream. To be able to help them do that is unbelievable.”


“I think most strength coaches that are really good either tend to be more old school, but it's competitive and hard, which is a good thing,” said Appert. “But they're maybe not as new age in terms of the training methods or they're more new school in that they're more innovative on today's methods of training, but maybe they aren’t quite as hard as they need to be. Very few I've ever been around can mesh. Both can have a little old school like, we're going to work, we're going to really compete and work in here with the innovative training methods of today's newer athletes and Nick is right at the top of anybody I've ever been around at being able to mesh both those.”


“I have implicit trust in Nick Craven.”

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