Flyers hire Ian McKeown to new VP role overseeing athlete performance and wellness
McKeown, 40, is from Northern Ireland but has spent the past 12 years working in Australia, where he implemented a progressive, all-encompassing training program with Aussie Rules club Port Adelaide.
The 2021-22 season got away from the Flyers quickly, as early-season injuries to players including Kevin Hayes (abdominal), Ryan Ellis (pelvis), and Sean Couturier (back) derailed the momentum generated from an offseason roster overhaul. In all, the Flyers lost over 500 man-games to injury, which contributed significantly to the team’s struggles and prompted general manager Chuck Fletcher to have several conversations with the team’s training and medical staff.
Fletcher and the Flyers ultimately decided that a new voice and new ideas were needed, leading the organization to create a new senior position to oversee matters relating to training, sports medicine, rehabilitation, sports psychology, sports science, nutrition, and more. On Thursday, after an extensive global search process that included the assistance of consulting firm Sportsology, the Flyers unveiled Ian McKeown as their new vice president of athlete performance and wellness.
In this role, McKeown will establish and oversee a health and wellness program for every player in the organization while working closely with the doctors and specialists at Penn Medicine. Fletcher cited England’s Premier League as a sports league that has embraced this synergetic approach to health and wellness in recent years. The New Jersey Devils also have a similar senior position on their staff.
“In order to compete at the highest level in today’s game, our players need and deserve a modern, comprehensive performance and wellness program, and by hiring Ian for this new role, we’re investing in a world-class program that we believe will significantly impact our players and our team,” Fletcher said via the team’s release.
“We are very excited to bring Ian into our group, and his experience in enabling peak athletic performance is unmatched. He will have a direct impact in reshaping and enhancing our players’ abilities to perform at the highest level each day, including in practices and games, and recover on days away from the rink.”
Flyers think outside the box
McKeown, 40, is originally from Northern Ireland and has a Ph.D. in Strength and Conditioning from the University of Canberra in Australia. He has worked with male and female athletes in a wide array of sports, including field hockey, cricket, soccer, rugby, and most recently, with Port Adelaide FC of the Australian Rules Football League (AFL).
While ice hockey may be relatively new to McKeown, Fletcher said he will be surrounded by a large support system of people with extensive experience working with hockey players. Fletcher added that the organization feels that McKeown’s “skill set, education and experience will translate well to the National Hockey League.”
McKeown, who served as Head of High Performance with Port Adelaide, is confident his experience implementing a comprehensive fitness and training program there will prepare him well for a similar challenge with the Flyers.
“I’ve been able to do this 10 years ago at Port Adelaide,” McKeown told The Inquirer over Zoom. “It’s all about creating belief, it’s creating trust, and it’s pushing as well. You’ve got to create standards ... the trust doesn’t just come from doing all the nice stuff, it’s the stuff that needs to be done as well.
“Whether that’s turning up in shape, whether that’s me delivering the program that’s right for them ... we’ve got to do this all together. I see myself being able to drive those standards. ... That’s the bit that I’m looking forward to the most, being able to get my teeth into this and then making some really smart changes as we move along.”
Fletcher noted that McKeown’s experience not only implementing but managing this type of all-encompassing program with Port Adelaide, was one of the factors that made him such an attractive candidate for the Flyers. His arrival will likely lead to some additional hires and new positions within the training staff, although Fletcher acknowledged this will be a long-term process.
“We’re not going to be able to change everything overnight,” Fletcher told The Inquirer via phone. “What we’re asking Ian to do is come in and look at our group and assess what we’re doing well and also look at ways we can improve and then go from there. Certainly, we will do what we have to do to build out the department to make it world-class but the first step is assessing where we’re at.”
Stopping the bleeding
After an injury-marred season, Fletcher vowed to take a long hard look at some of the related departments and their processes to try and get answers. The hiring of McKeown, who has previously worked as a consultant to several North American professional teams, is one of the ways the organization is looking to be proactive when it comes to injury prevention.
On Tuesday, Fletcher echoed that sentiment, saying “It’s not enough to treat the players when they are injured ... we really want to implement an organizational approach to keeping our players mentally and physically healthy so they can avoid injury and play at the top of their game.”
While not an ice hockey expert just yet, McKeown is well-versed in the Flyers’ 2021-22 injury troubles and the role that may have played in his hiring.
“You can’t deny that we had more man-hours lost than is acceptable,” said McKeown. “We need to change that ... and I really like that this is the foundation for what we will start to look at and scrutinize.”
McKeown says developing fitness training and recovery plans is a real strength of his. While adjusting to an 82-game NHL schedule, compared to a 22-game slate in the AFL, will be an adjustment, McKeown says, he believes a lot of the same principles hold true.
“It’s always been about making sure that that we’re two steps ahead of where we’re supposed to be in terms of our capacities,” said McKeown. “Whether that’s from a movement and ability to move and have technique, as well as the ability to express that with force, power, and speed, and [be able to] do it again and again and again.”
Mental health is another area that McKeown believes is critical, particularly in sports, where sometimes it can come with a stigma.
“Whether it’s nutrition, it’s strength training, it’s mental health, if all that’s not right, it can trip us up,” said McKeown. “And sadly, it’s [mental illness] prevailing, all over the world. We’re not living in a bubble. Young men, and older men are all as susceptible as anybody else.
“So I’ve got to make sure that as part of creating a resilient and successful hockey player ... that they’re supported in the right ways to make sure that they’re able to not only selfishly deliver on the ice, but also so that they will come back to me in 20 years time and tell me how much the Flyers influenced their lives. That’s the ultimate success.”
A like mind in Tortorella
One of the things McKeown said he is most excited about is working with new Flyers coach John Tortorella.
“There’s a lot of synergy behind some of our thought processes,” said McKeown.
“His whole career he’s picked up on things before sports science has, like load management and recovery. ... I can back that up, I can support him with the rigor of the program, and [ensure] that we’re getting it right for him, and supporting his message.”
Fletcher noted that McKeown and Tortorella are already building a strong relationship from their limited conversations with one another.
“Ian’s said to me [that he] expects the players to work hard, be in great shape, and be held to incredibly high standards, so clearly they will be aligned,” said Fletcher, before adding that he thinks it will be a “great match.”
McKeown says his plan initially is to mostly observe and listen. Eventually, he, Tortorella, and the other training staff members will help create individual programs and performance systems that will include nutrition, strength training, etc., for each player. Tortorella will have a lot of input into the testing aspect, according to Fletcher.
“Ian is going to work very closely with John to make sure ... everything we do on the ice is aligned with what we’re doing off the ice for the development of each player individually,” Fletcher said.
“John’s, obviously a big believer in conditioning and having players in peak condition ... and that’s where Ian’s expertise will come into play, working across the departments with not just our strength and conditioning coaches, but also our medical people and our analytics department to make sure that John’s ideas are being translated into the best practices on and off the ice for our players.”
McKeown, who is scheduled to move to the Philadelphia area next week or so, is looking forward to beginning his one-on-one conversations with players, coaches, and training staff members as he takes the first steps of this new journey.
“The more I’ve learned about the Flyers, the more I’ve learned about the city, the fans, the way things work, It’s just been very exciting, to be honest.”