It is the end of summer and about a dozen NHL players have just finished an hour-long skate and are now spending the rest of a Friday morning in August tucked inside a windowless workout room at the back of St. Michael’s College Arena, sweating, shouting and slamming weights.
Two giant fans are set to the highest setting and a door leading outside is propped open, but the room, which is about the size of a master bedroom, is still sticky hot and humid. With a mix of hip-hop and dance music echoing off the walls, it feels like a nightclub. Players are even sipping on pink cocktails — full of protein and vitamins, of course.
“Character is what you do when you think nobody is watching,” is written in big block letters on one of the walls. It is a slogan the players are putting into practice.
In one corner of the room, Montreal Canadiens forward Devante Smith-Pelly is doing jump squats. A few steps to the left, Washington Capitals winger Michael Latta is tacking on as much weight as he can handle for rep after slow rep of deep squats. Beside him, Anaheim Ducks forward Chris Stewart is standing on his tippy toes while balancing a barbell on his shoulders.
Everyone else is either shouting encouragement or catching their breath, waiting for their turn.
“C’mon boys!” shouts BioSteel strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol, a former football player and power lifter who could easily outlift everyone in this room. “Don’t think! Work! Work as hard as you can!”
This is what most hockey fans picture when they imagine off-season training: players pumping iron, pushing themselves to exhaustion. Thanks to Gatorade and Under Armour, hockey players are portrayed in commercials as part-time strong men who, when they are not playing one of the most physically-demanding sports, are spending their off days flipping tires, swinging thick ropes and running with a parachute attached to their back.
That might seem true today. But for most of the summer, you’re more likely to see a hockey player in the downward dog pose than pushing a weighted sled across a football field.
“I bring this upon myself, because we show pictures of guys at BioSteel Camp and their mashing ropes and throwing stuff,” said Nichol, a one-time Toronto Maple Leafs strength and conditioning coach who now trains a stable of players including Mike Cammalleri, Wayne Simmonds and Tyler Seguin. “And kids are like, ‘that’s how I should train for hockey.’ But that’s one snippet of what we do at the very end of the summer. That’s totally not representative of how we train most of the time.
“If you looked at what we do here, 50% is rehab.”
— Matt Nichol (@M_Nichol) August 20, 2015
If you had visited the gym a month ago, you would have seen players performing yoga or pilates or simply lying on their stomachs and getting a massage. You would have left thinking hockey players are either lazy or not that impressive. But the reality is the biggest component of training is rest. And plenty of it.
An NHL schedule consists of 82 gruelling games, not including the playoffs. The sport is highly physical and hell on the body. By the end of the season, players are either hobbling off the ice with an assortment of nagging injuries or just plain drained.
When Phil Kessel told reporters a year ago that he did not skate much in the summer, it was not a sign of lethargy. It was reality.
Forget lifting weights. After getting crosschecked on the back thousands of times, some cannot even lift themselves out of a chair.
“I would say skinny fat is a good description,” said Maple Leafs forward Shawn Matthias, when asked what his body looked like after the season. “You look around the room at training camp and everyone’s big and strong and they’ve got abs. But by the end of the year, you’re so worn out. You definitely don’t have the muscle you once had.
“No matter what you do, you’re just so tired and you’re just trying to maintain.”
Emaciated bodies need recovery time. So players are told to stay out of the gym for the first few weeks and get back to a normal sleep schedule. Eight months of staying up late to play games, traveling at all hours of the night, while eating post-game meals of chicken wings and pizza, not to mention the mental stress of competing at the highest level, takes its toll. The summer is about building the body back up, piece by piece.
“The first half of the summer, we’re just trying to get these guys into alignment,” said Nichol. “For some, training camp hits and they just ditch their strength training and just hold on. A lot of the guys will show up at the end of the season like they haven’t had a solid meal.”
The off-season is split into four parts. The first month involves transition and recovery. Depending on specific diets catered towards the age of the player and how long his season was. Gary Roberts, who trains Steven Stamkos, Mark Scheifele and James Neal, ships in his favourite spring food from Italy and has Nature’s Emporium prepare organic meals for his clients.
“I’m an extremist when it comes this nutrition part and the holistic part and the whole foods part,” said Roberts. “I’m not a big supplement guy. I don’t push four shakes a day, like guys say I did.”
Players usually don’t lift weights for the first month. But they might do gymnastics-based training, like rolling and tumbling and even head to a nearby playground to climb on the monkey bars.
“If you see all these guys in January or February, they’re all walking like ducks, because their IT band is fused. You need to recover from that,” said Beyond The Next Level’s Dan Ninkovich, who trains John Tavares and Sam Gagner. “People used to train for exercise. Now they train for the movement. A healthy player is the best player. Not the player who can squat 500 pounds.”
As the summer progresses, players go from recovery training to building strength, then turning that strength into power and speed. By the end of August, it is about conditioning.
The few weeks before training camp is sort of like the remaining hours before a final exam. Players are cramming for what lies ahead. They want to do well on their team fitness test. But they also want to be sharp for the first day of practices and drills.
Nichol’s camp brought in Steve Spott, an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks, to run an informal practice that included a bag skate. Ninkovich had skills coach Joe Quinn, who invented a stickhandling device called Power Edge Pro, to help the players work on their hand-eye coordination.
Whatever it takes to get ready.
“Everybody’s body is different,” said Cammalleri. “You get to a point where I’m as strong as I need to be. This phase of the summer is where conditioning kicks in and working to fine tune my skills.”
— Gary Roberts (@GaryRobertsHPT) August 27, 2015
GURU WASN’T ALWAYS HOCKEY GUY
Gary Roberts played 21 seasons in the NHL, scoring 910 points in more than 1,200 games. But Matt Nichol likes to joke he was a “terrible skater” who played more road hockey than ice hockey.
So when he was hired as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first proper strength and conditioning coach in 2001, he had some convincing to do.
“Coaches would look at me and say you can’t even skate, how would you know?” said Nichol, a founder of BioSteel sports supplements whose background was in football. “In a way, it helped me because it was never a pissing match with players. I would tell Mats Sundin that ‘I can’t even skate, but I’m telling you your left hip is tight. I can help with that.’ Guys warmed to that.”
While having a hockey background helped Roberts get into training once his career was done, Nichol believes his lack of pedigree was also a positive.
“With football, I did what I did because I was a decent player and good on the testing, so I just assumed that was the way to do it,” said Nichol. “With hockey, I had to analyze every aspect of the game.”
“Matt’s one of these genius types, whose brilliant when it comes to training,” said client Mike Cammalleri. “His understanding of the body encompasses the best of everything.”