If you’re going to be a trainer in a sport as physically demanding as ice hockey, you better be able to keep up.
And it starts by maintaining a high level of fitness yourself. A player is more likely to take training/medical advice from someone who stays in shape.
Which could explain why Flyers assistant athletic trainer Sal Raffa has an easy rapport with everyone on the team. He not only speaks the part, he looks it as well.
Chalk a lot of that up to running. Raffa, who resides in Warrington with his wife, Holly, and their two children, often takes long runs in Peace Valley Park, Doylestown’s Central Park and trails along the Neshaminy Creek.
It’s a way not only to maintain his stamina but give him time to mentally review everything that’s going on down at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees, N.J. and over at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
This is Raffa’s 17th season working with Jim McCrossin, Flyers’ director of sports medicine, and each day seems to bring a new challenge. It’s all about not only trying to keep players fit but also recover as quickly as possible from injury when the situation arises.
“It (personal fitness) helps for sure,’’ Raffa said in a recent interview at the FTC. “With therapy and rehab, you have to explain things a lot to athletes. If you can’t do it yourself, how are you going to teach someone else? Like with rehab, you kind of have to practice what you preach. To teach a squat, you have to be able to squat. To do a single-leg exercise, you have to be able to do it yourself. A lot of times, you have to know what it feels like, both mentally and physically.
“As an athletic trainer, you have to have a broad sense of everything. Because someone is going to come to you and ask you a question and we always say if we don’t know the answer, we’re going to find it for you. Luckily, I’m surrounded by great physicians, not only here but throughout the country.’’
Raffa grew up in Norristown and took to running at an early age. It brought out the competitive side of him and he enjoyed racing, which has carried over into his adult life. He’s competed in a number of Broad Street 10-Mile Runs and has a brisk 1:17 best to his credit.
While there has been a perceived decline in offseason running programs in favor of more skating drills around the NHL, Raffa still sees the benefits of running for players, whether in or out of season.
Gone are the days and McCrossin and Raffa once tested players on a high school track (Eastern Regional in Voorhees) to determine their level of fitness.
“We used to take them to the track and we would do 100— and 200-meter sprints, 300s and 400s,’’ the 43-year-old Raffa said. “In July we knew when they came in, it would foreshadow where they needed to be VO2 max-wise (oxygen uptake) just by their time. Not all hockey players are good runners but there’s that window we would look for, like the 300-meter run, we would like to see 52 seconds. I still do that personally on my own.’’
Now, in 2021, things have changed a bit.
“Everybody has their own individualized trainer now, it’s different than what it used to be,’’ Raffa said. “We used to have guys who stayed here and trained in the summer. We still have guys who train here. Jim and I always had the mentality of if you could train in 90 degrees, 90-percent humidity, no one is going to beat us on the ice in the third period or going into an overtime. But I think we’re starting to get back into that mentality again. We’re going back to where we were and that’s exciting.’’
McCrossin and Raffa work to make sure an athlete has all the body parts moving in the right direction to be at his best.
They’re in constant communication with head strength and condioning coach Chris Osmand and his assistant Dan Warnke, along with a team nutritionist to provide up-to-date information.
“We do functional movement screens before the season to get a basis on the balance of their body,’’ Raffa said. “Where they are symmetry- wise. Make sure their strength is equal. Everything starts from the medical side and filters from there.’’
The main idea is to keep everything personalized
“At this level, everybody should have some sort of individualized plan,’’ Raffa said. “We work with strength and conditioning guys – why it’s so important to have an individualized plan and individual needs. Claude Giroux is going to have different needs than a goaltender.’’
In addition to running, Raffa played soccer and baseball at the former Kennedy Kenrick High School in Norristown. Later, he worked at a student-trainer at Temple University with football and basketball players.
He worked for one year as head trainer of the UHL’s Rockford IceHogs in Illinois, served one year as head trainer of the Phantoms and then joined the Flyers.
Running has helped him with endurance to work long hours.
“As an adult, it was a way to keep your body weight at a healthy level,’’ he said. “When you’re out running, sometimes you come up with your best ideas. Something may enlighten you when you’re running. It’s kind of like my meditation, living in the moment. It can get my mind off work, or stresses of life. That’s my therapy.’’
When Holly isn’t home tending to her family (sons Max and Sal), she works as a cardiac nurse at Doylestown Hospital. Husband and wife both working in the general field of medicine? Bet there are some lively conversations there.
Both can agree Bucks County is a cool area to call home.
“We love the history, the beautiful bridges, Peddler’s Village,’’ Raffa said. “It’s a great place to live.’’
And working with hockey players is a great vocation.
“They’re so humble, so down to earth,’’ he said. “I’ve worked with athletes in all sports and hockey players are the best.’’
Mitzvah Circle 10K/5K/1-Miler, 9 a.m., Delaware Valley University, Doylestown. Contact www.runsignup.com