It is a statistic that often gets overlooked, but the Capitals finished the 2013-14 regular season with seven players who played in all 82 games. No NHL team had more.
Caps strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish would like to take full credit for his team’s durability last season, but he won’t.
“I didn’t even know that, to tell you the truth,” he said. “It’s great we had it that way and I think some of that is due to some of the things we’re doing to prevent some of the strains of the groin and lower abdominal areas.
“But on the other end of it, you can also say we got lucky. I take it with a grain of salt.”
Nemish, 49, is entering his eighth season as the Caps’ strength and conditioning coach, a job that has evolved into a 12-month, 24/7, all-inclusive profession that, in the summer months, entails coordinating strength and rehab programs with as many as 50 different personal trainers.
“It’s all about communicating,” Nemish said. “Everybody’s got great intentions. Everybody wants to kind of put their stamp on them, so when you approach their summer conditioning coaches you try to meld your minds together to get the athlete in the best shape possible.”
Those summer workouts are constantly evolving, Nemish said. What works for 20-year-old rookie defenseman Connor Carrick might not work for veteran blue liners Brooks Orpik or John Erskine. And what worked for Erskine five years ago might not work for him now.
“When you get to the variety of players, from 18-year-olds to mid and upper 30-year-olds, you realize how different their bodies are,” Nemish said.
“A late 30-year-old has had so much wear and tear and so many injuries that your methods switch. There are some bodies that are really messed up that can’t do the things you wanted them to do earlier in their careers. Knowing the body and how it works helps you un-mess those things up, for lack of a better term.”
In the case of Brooks Laich, who missed 70 of the Caps’ 130 games with various groin and lower abdominal issues, Nemish has had to come up with an entirely different summer workout routine for the 31-year-old forward.
“You deal with some mysterious injuries and you get a better working knowledge of the human body and how all the parts are connected,” Nemish said. “Instead of loading up the bar with squats you’re doing something that looks very simple but is very finite in dealing with a certain issue.”
Nemish grew up playing hockey in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with an education degree. After a few years of teaching, he followed his passion of becoming a strength and conditioning coach, earning his Masters in Exercise Science from the University of North Dakota in 1996.
Nemish went on to become a strength coach at the University of Richmond, Middle Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt University in Nashville before taking his first NHL job with the expansion Nashville Predators in 1998, before the team had even conducted its expansion draft.
“I just kind of knocked on [Predators general manager] David Poile’s door, met with him and the coaching staff and got the job,” he said.
Nemish said he enjoyed meeting and working with a coaching staff that included new Caps head coach Barry Trotz and goaltending coach Mitch Korn.
“The cool thing about those first years with the Preds is that we all kind of grew up together,” Nemish said. “It was Barry’s first year as a head coach behind the bench in the NHL and for a couple of his assistants.
“The equipment staff and medical staff, we all kind of grew up together, so that was a really cool part. David Poile has a family-oriented policy, so we were all pretty tight in terms of hockey operations and get-togethers. We have a real good history between us.”
Nemish spent six seasons with the Predators before returning to Virginia, where he opened Dynamic Sports Performance training center in Ashburn. Three years later he was hired by the Capitals as their strength and conditioning coach.
With four different coaches in the past three years, Nemish said he is now getting reacquainted with Trotz and the demands he will place on his players, including a fitness test at training camp.
“He’s very straight up and straight forward,” Nemish said. “And he’s impeccably organized.”
Nemish said he believes the emphasis on improved off-ice work habits -- a topic brought up by new Caps general manager Brian MacLellan during his introductory news conference -- is a team-wide initiative.
“A comment such as that I think was pointed more at the entire organization and also directly pointed at the players,” Nemish said. “We’re going to be in the best shape possible and we have a coach coming in who’s going to demand fitness on a different level than maybe has been in the past and everybody better beware.
“It think that was more the message, but having said that, everybody’s got to look in the mirror and say, ‘OK, what do I need to do as a coach or a player to get that to happen?’”
With seven weeks to go before the start of training camp, Nemish said he has already seen players trickling into Kettler Capitals Iceplex, including 22-year-old Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and 23-year-old defenseman Dmitry Orlov.
Nemish said Kuznetsov expressed a desire to train with him when he first signed with the Caps on March 8.
“When he first came to D.C., before he even played his first game, I was with him on the ice,” Nemish said. “And one of the first things he said was, ‘I want to come here in the summertime with my wife and I want to train and get in the best shape possible.’
“Right from Day 1 he’s had a great level of commitment to the team in getting himself in the best shape possible for this upcoming season.”