By JOANNE RICHARD
SPECIAL TO THE TORONTO SUN ... April 12, 2004

THE NHL playoffs -- grueling, demanding and brutalizing. It's our professional athletes as modern-day Gladiators, say sports trainers.

"The warriors are going into battle," says Dr. Anthony Galea, of the Institute of Sports Medicine in Etobicoke.

"These hockey players are high-performance warrior machines and this is the time the true warrior stands out."

Professional trainers agree the merciless physical and mental pounding that players will endure -- some until June -- makes hockey like no other sport.

"The game keeps getting rougher, tougher, meaner and faster. The players have to be a lot more fit, faster, bigger, stronger and hit harder than ever before," says Galea.

And don't forget quick reaction time, explosive power, endurance, stamina, agility, flexibility, balance and quick recovery time -- all on skates.

"It's not unusual for hockey players to lose five to eight pounds in a game depending on ice time and intensity, says Galea. And the physical is only part of the punishing playoffs.

"Although it can be easier to get up mentally because you're so pumped, there's a feeling of desperation because there could be no tomorrow -- and this can be draining," ays Galea, who specializes in high-performance training and conditioning of professional athletes.

He says stress produces cortisol, which breaks down the tissue and can negatively impact the body and performance.

According to Barrie Shepley, "the number of games and the number of nights in the playoffs make it humanly impossible not to have a down night -- it's not like they just came off two months of rest.

"For the last seven months they've been busting their chops to get into the playoffs and now they've got to step it up another notch -- the expectations are higher, the psychological stress dramatic, the physical demands unrelenting and the cost of making an error tremendous.

"You're under a microscope and only remembered for your mistakes."

INCREDIBLE ENERGY

Unlike football and the Super Bowl, "players have to give it their all for 28 to 30 games, played in 60 days," says Shepley, a high-performance coach.

"There's physical abuse at that weight, strength and power, incredible energy requirements, dehydration, muscle breakdown, contusions, bruises, stress -- and this is going to happen almost daily.

"These guys have smashed and bashed each other to make the team, killed each other for 80 games and now the playoffs, where it really counts," says Shepley, a former Olympic coach and president of Personal Best Health & Performance Inc.

By now, "they virtually all have injuries, and they'll be hiding new ones," he says.

"The injury rehab people will be working 10 to12 hours a day on these guys -- high-performance sports is not pretty on the other side of the door.

He adds: "The smartest team is the one who gets into the playoffs as healthy as possible."

Besides minor to moderate injuries, some are fatigued or simply rundown, says Dr. Sender Deutsch, director of SHAPE Health and Wellness Centre.

"However, those who are well conditioned strive at this time of year and have worked hard all year both on and off the ice to be able to peak at this time of year.

"The most important thing they can do now is eat healthy, get lots of sleep, warm-up well prior to the game and cool-down and stretch for 15 to 30 minutes post game," says

Duetsch, a high-performance trainer, adding that tissue regeneration and massage therapy treatments are excellent to enhance muscle recovery.

Recovery is the name of the game. Shepley says the Leafs are back in training just minutes after every game.

"There's a 30-minute window of opportunity to replenish the muscle cells and repair some of the muscle tears and damage that's been done."

They also spend 15 to 20 minutes on a stationary bicycle post game in order to cool down and flush out the negative by-products resulting from the intense 30 to 60 second shifts.

The playoffs are all about energy management, injury management, nutrition and the medical team.

Fitness levels can't be improved upon this time of year, but "optimal nutrition can dramatically impact the performance of the athletes.

"You don't race a high-performance Ferrari on a track with cheap fuel -- you need high octane fuel, and so do the athletes," says Shepley.