The successful ice hockey player will possess a diverse array of physical skills. It is impossible to succeed in this sport as a specialist in only one of its dimensions; the sport demands a measure of ability in each of its fundamental aspects: skating, puck handling, and playmaking, passing, shooting, and the physical side of the game, the delivering and the absorbing of a body check.
Ice hockey is much like basketball, soccer, and rugby in the sense that its elite-level players are rarely one dimensional. A comprehensive ice hockey training program must address each of these components of the game. Strength and training will be divided between on ice drills, which are focused in season or in the preparatory preseason, and off ice, called dry land training. Such training divisions form a part of the "periodization" of training.
Skating ability is the single greatest distinguishing factor between the elite-level international competitors and those who are merely talented ice hockey players. The pace of the game is so swift, with tactical decisions and physical contact occurring with such regularity, speed is essential. Skating ability is a balance between technique, for a smoother and more effortless stride and explosive leg strength, to provide both acceleration and an ability to remain balanced when struck by an opponent. As the action in ice hockey is divided into shifts of one minute or less, the anaerobic lactic energy system of the body will be relied on to provide the necessary energy for play; training will be employed to build this system.
Skating speed is developed through ice drills that emphasize interval sprints, especially those that mimic the types of movements, over the corresponding distances required of players in games. Skating seemingly endless circuits of an ice surface are sometimes employed to build aerobic fitness, which is useful in developing recovery time between shifts for the athlete, but most aerobic fitness occurs in the dry land phase of training. It is the nature of ice hockey that skating skills are built upon through every form of on-ice activity. All drills that center on the tactical aspects of the game, such as passing, playmaking, and defensive techniques, require attention to be paid to skating and footwork. At times in the competitive season, even the most adept skaters will practice maneuvers involving full-speed sprints, using pylons or stationary objects around which they must move.
The dry land training aimed at improving skating ability will include work in the following areas: stretching and flexibility exercises (skating places significant stresses on the upper leg muscles, the hamstrings and the Achilles tendons, and the groin muscles); weight training exercises (these assist in generating power, both in the leg muscles themselves and in the core of the body for balance and agility during skating; leg presses, various forms of squats and lunges, and rowing machine routines also help; cycling (either on a stationary bicycle or out of doors or on the various types of stationary exercise machines, will assist the ice hockey player in cross training the muscles of the legs.
Ice hockey requires a significant degree of physical strength; some players will be more inclined to deliver the hard, crunching body check than others, but all players must be resilient when faced with long seasons in which such contact occurs game to game. The typical National Hockey League (NHL) player weighs over 210 lb (95 kg); high-speed collisions with athletes of that size pose risks of injury unless precautions are taken through increased muscular fitness. Well-developed muscles are both protection to the musculoskeletal system from injury as well as the means to provide an emphatic physical response to an opponent. The development of the core strength, with emphasis on the abdomen, shoulders, and lower back of the athlete is a primary feature of ice hockey dry land training.
Variations on the standard circuit training routines are often employed by ice hockey players seeking greater overall upper body strength. Chest exercises such as the bench press and the inclined press, shoulder presses, as well as dip and chin-up exercises, are usually a part of such a program. Pure arm strength, while useful to the ice hockey player, particularly in the delivery of a hard shot, as well as being able to battle for position in front of the goal, or along the boards of the playing surface, is less important than the development of a solid, balanced upper body.
Many of the athletic skills that are a part of the successful ice hockey repertoire are those of hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Many hockey players play other sports for both recreation and as a method of keeping such faculties sharp; sports such as golf, tennis, and racquetball are common examples. Soccer has been a well-known cross training device for European ice hockey players since the rise of the former Soviet Union to world-class status in the 1950s and 1960s; many Canadian players have also played the sport of box lacrosse during their ice hockey off-season, which, like hockey, is a sport that involves both intense physical play and the development of manual dexterity in the use of a stick.
The one specialist on an ice hockey team is the goaltender. This player will train far differently than his teammates, as goaltending success is entirely dependent on a combination of very quick reflexes and coordination, coupled with a strong understanding of shooting angles, positional play, and a relentless mental approach. Much of the strength and training exercises for an ice hockey goaltender focus on the enhancement of the goaltender's flexibility; stopping the puck requires the goaltender to often perform as a contortionist, moving up, down, and from side to side wearing over 30 lb (13 kg) of equipment. Groin pulls, low back muscles strains, and hamstring pulls are an occupational hazard of this position, and all goaltenders work diligently on various routines to stretch these parts of the body.