It takes expert knowledge to create finely tuned NHL machines. Here are six of the best builders in the business.
Big Clients: Tyler Seguin, Mike Cammalleri, Wayne Simmonds There’s a lot of noise in the training world, and for an experienced vet such as Nichol, it’s important to straddle the line between innovation and data clutter. “Everything has been about analytics lately, and that has trickled down to sport science and guys like me,” he said. “But the fundamentals are still really important. That has been my revelation.” Nichol’s first concern when the summer arrives is to make sure his client-athletes are actually ready to perform. He does this through musculoskeletal assessments. Players may come into Nichol’s care with a specific off-season goal – gain five pounds of muscle, increase their explosiveness – but it becomes irrelevant if the client isn’t ready. A bad knee, poor sleep patterns or nutrition and movement issues are barriers that must be dealt with first. So Nichol deals with them, ensuring he is working with “healthy, happy human beings.”
Another crucial aspect of Nichol’s philosophy is hockey-specific: generating power and skating effectively. “No one cares how much you bench if you can’t skate,” he said. Along with his on-the-ground work with NHLers and future stars such as Arizona’s Dylan Strome, Nichol is known for BioSteel, the line of products he created to supplement his clients’ healthy diets. “Drink the Pink” is the company’s well-known slogan. And while Nichol teased that some new products are coming down the pipeline, he didn’t want to play spoiler for his own company. He did note, however, that his goals with BioSteel are rooted in a staunch philosophy. “We’re not going to have vitamins A to Z, or fat burners,” he said. “I want my athletes eating real food. BioSteel supplements that.” And with the knowledge his clients are healthy and getting the right nutrients, then it’s time to put in the work.
Big Clients: Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid, James Neal The Roberts story is well known. With his NHL career virtually over due to a neck injury, he began building himself back up with the help of mentor Lorne Goldenberg. Roberts has gone on to become one of the premier off-season trainers in the sport. But his vision goes beyond weights and sprints. Promoting a lifestyle that introduced many NHLers to quinoa and, in the case of Michael Del Zotto, sprouts, Roberts is known as a no-nonsense guru who gets results, even if the meals he prescribes don’t have a lot of zing to them. It’s more important for him that the food be organic. His reputation has grown to the point that Roberts was named sports performance director for the brand-new UPMC Sports Performance Complex outside Pittsburgh (Mario Lemieux’s name is on the complex that houses it). He was also a consultant for the Dallas Stars when old buddy and former teammate Joe Nieuwendyk was GM, but it’s Roberts’ rigorous summer training that really gets the accolades.
Big Clients: Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Auston Matthews Belfry has been a skills coach for elite players since 2003, with Nathan Horton as his first big client. Since then, his cast of NHLers has exploded, and some of the most talented players in the sport work with him in the summer. Belfry attacks the game from a research perspective, using video to track game habits and skill execution to answer the question: what does a player do the most and how successful is he in those situations? Belfry also looks at less efficient areas of a player’s game and problem-solves with him to build a new skill or evolve his game. Metaphorically, it’s like adding a room to a house. “Every drill, every shot, every movement of my skates is geared toward improving my game personally,” Kane said. “That goes a long way.” Belfry’s 1-on-1 training with players includes having a TV monitor on the ice for instant feedback, and his methods have been so effective he was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as the franchise’s skill development consultant two years ago, though he’s still allowed to work with clients from other teams.
Big Clients: Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene There’s no better endorsement of O’Brien’s work than Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup win this past season. O’Brien, who has long worked with Sidney Crosby, was hired as the Penguins’ director of sport science and performance in the summer of 2015 and victory followed immediately. Sure, he wasn’t the only reason – coach Mike Sullivan’s mid-season takeover was huge – but the speed with which the Penguins burned teams in the post-season came from a combination of natural ability and conditioning. O’Brien was the strength and conditioning coach for the Florida Panthers from 2005 to 2009 but is most famous for his work with Crosby, MacKinnon and crew in the summer. Managing energy late in the season is something O’Brien tries to instill in his charges and, on the flip side, making sure they come to training camp prepared in the fall. Otherwise, there is an adjustment period for the player, who likely will end up overtraining for the first month. That leads to difficult adaptation, and then the player is always trying to play catch-up.
Big Clients: Jonathan Quick, Max Pacioretty, James van Riemsdyk Prentiss, based in Connecticut, is closing in on two decades of work with NHLers, starting with Jason Arnott. That hook-up came from Charles Poliquin, the trainer who gave Prentiss his big break. He still keeps those early lessons in mind. “He taught me the values of tempo,” Prentiss said. “How you control the (weight) bar. You don’t just pick it up and go up and down.” The idea of pausing at the bottom of a rep to get a different result is an overlooked one, but there are many things that still excite Prentiss, despite his years of experience. Inertia-based systems, for example, overload the E-centric parts of the body. That means lowering a dumbbell slowly during a bicep curl, for example. In velocity-based training, Prentiss can measure power in watts, force in neutrons and bar height in millimeters, getting important data from his athletes in the process. There’s also the popular notion of pairing exercises for maximum effect. Doing chin-ups after a bench press is one example of an agonist/antagonist combination. But ultimately, Prentiss has one goal: take the 12 to 14 weeks he has in the summer with his clients and whip them into shape. That “toxic, skinny-fat” form that comes from a season filled with battering is transformed into an elite athlete ready to take on a new chapter by the end. As for the current state of the game, Prentiss gets weary when a team tells a player they don’t need to get stronger or faster, especially in today’s speedy climate. “They don’t understand biomechanics,” he said. “There’s no such thing as being ‘strong enough’ or ‘fast enough.’ One leads to another. And if you’re slow, you’re in trouble.”
Big Clients: Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Mikael Backlund Emanuelsson began as a player in Sweden before jumping to the training side. He’s been a university physical education teacher, a hockey coach and worked with Sweden’s World Junior Championship team. In 1998, he started the Sweden Hockey Institute. His work with players such as the Sedins, Mikael Backlund and Jacob Josefson includes both on-ice and off-ice sessions, and he breaks training down into four categories: mental, tactical, technical and physical. It’s all about how to get input to the brain. For iconic players like the Sedins, these days the work is about finishing touches. “They are so close to the optimal,” Emanuelsson said. “It’s about small, small parts now. The older they get, the more they need to be free. It’s the mental approach, because they need energy when they’re out there.” Core work is very important, as that can be a weakness between the upper and lower bodies. With that in mind, you can find the trainer’s clients skating up the ice with parachutes flying out of their backs in the summer, providing a great deal of resistance to their stride. Emanuelsson is also a big believer in skating technique. For him, it’s a matter of marrying power and frequency (the speed between the skate blade leaving and returning to the ice). But on top of everything, the purpose of training needs to be strong. “It’s more about how to filter out what to do,” he said. “If you do too much, you do less.” Goalies can also find help at the Institute, with one fun drill called “desperation saves,” where the netminder has to touch the back boards before scrambling back to the crease to make a stop.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the August 15 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.