TORONTO - What Mike Cammalleri lacks in stature, he makes up for in strength.
The five-foot-nine Montreal Canadiens forward pushes himself to a level during gym sessions that few of his peers can match. In fact, Cammalleri's off-season trainer believes he's one of the most powerful players ever to play in the NHL.
"I would say that pound for pound he's definitely one of the strongest guys in the league," Matt Nichol said Tuesday. "And maybe one of the strongest guys in the league ever, pound for pound."
Cammalleri is among 30 players currently participating in the BioSteel strength and conditioning camp under the watchful eye of Nichol and Gary Roberts. The week-long gathering combines on-ice and off-ice sessions and is designed to get players prepared for the start of training camp.
It's still more than three weeks before the Habs players are scheduled to report, but Cammalleri is anxious to get going after an excellent off-season of training.
"It's been good this summer," said Cammalleri. "The last couple years I've had to do a lot of rehab just to correct some chronic stuff and repattern some stuff that was going on in my body. It's been long, tedious work—not getting a chance to really work on my power and speed and strength, which are more fun for me to work on. ...
"Of the last three years, this is the best my body's felt."
Come October, he thinks it will be reflected in his performance.
"I expect this to be my best season ever," said Cammalleri.
The 29-year-old was just a teenager when he first crossed paths with Nichol at a local gym. The trainer can only shake his head in amazement while recounting the type of exercise routines he saw Cammalleri doing at that time.
"I can tell you that 12 years ago when not a lot of guys were doing real true speed training—track training, doing heavy lifting, plyometrics, watching what they eat—he was," said Nichol. "He's absolutely committed and dedicated to it."
Cammalleri got a head start thanks to track coach Charlie Francis, whom he refers to as "one of the greatest power speed minds of our time." As a teenager, he spent time learning from the man who once coached sprinter Ben Johnson and developed a routine that was ahead of its time.
In the years since, Cammalleri has earned a reputation as a fitness nut, but it's not something that bothers him.
"I think it's becoming more the norm," he said. "I just enjoy it, I try and learn as much as I can about it. Like anything you might be passionate about, you probably tend to talk about it more than other things. That's maybe where the reputation comes in."
It also comes from those who have seen him in action.
Anaheim Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano has spent much of the summer working out alongside Cammalleri and describes his demeanour in the gym as being fairly intense.
"He's very fit, he takes it seriously," said Cogliano.
Nichol believes the ability to go from joking around one minute to focusing on an exercise the next one is a key to Cammalleri's success. As a strength coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs years ago, it was the type of thing he saw regularly from Roberts and Mats Sundin.
"As soon as they're under the bar, as soon as they're in the starting position for a sprint, as soon as it's time to get the job done and get to work, they get it done," said Nichol. "It's a whole different kind of focus."
The rewards that come from elite off-ice training aren't just physical.
Despite being one of the shorter players in the NHL, Cammalleri can skate around the ice with confidence knowing that he doesn't give up anything in strength.
"When you see a guy like Mike come in here, (he's) lifting with or sometimes outlifting bigger guys," said Nichol. "That gives him the mental boost that he knows: 'Hey you know what? That guy might be bigger than me but it doesn't mean he has to be stronger than me.'
"Guys like Mike, they take great pride in beating those bigger guys. Theydon't want to keep up with them, they want to beat the big guy. It's a real mindset."
It goes even further than that for Cammalleri. He sees it as a way of life.
"I enjoy learning more about living a healthier lifestyle and feeling good," said Cammalleri. "It brings me some happiness. At the end of the day we're all searching for happiness. ... For me, usually the better I feel, the better I play, the more happy I am, the better I treat people in my life.
"It's all kind of a positive thing."