HALIFAX - A small crowd of excited fans waited outside Halifax's Civic Center today, hoping for a glimpse of one or more of their favourite players. Inside the arena, in front of about 200 fans who felt like they had just won a lottery, a pick-up game of hockey was taking place, much like any other winter day in Halifax. Except it's not winter and this was no ordinary crowd of players with patched sweaters and mismatched laces.
This was like the best pick-up game, ever.
Sidney Crosby's summer conditioning coach, Gaetan Tremblay, the owner of Elilte Sports Care in Halifax and a Trainer and Equipment Manager for St. Mary's University's Hockey Team, known for his dedication to two sports (lacrosse and hockey) and the local people who play them, was present, as was Andy O'Brien, of the Edge School, Crosby's longtime Fitness Trainer. But there were no eyes on those two distinguished gentlemen. All eyes were on the players on the ice, looking something like an NHL merchandise store exploded on it, with practice jerseys from such teams as Winnipeg Jets, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, Colorado Avanlanche and New York Islanders represented.
It was not quite a pick up game. It was even better.
Yes, that was John Tavares passing to ... wait ... Sidney Crosby. Yes, that's the Bruins' Brad Marchand saying something not nasty to the Jets' Andrew Gordon. If you're a hockey fan, it was a little like you ate too much chocolate before you went to sleep and had this crazy dream.
The players, while showing the competitive edge one expects to see in elite athletes, were nonetheless clearly enjoying themselves. Laughter rung out often and good natured teasing could be heard drifting through the air amidst the sounds of blades cutting ice and sticks slapping against it. Every now and again, Crosby's trademark laugh, extraordinarily unaffected and gleeful, hung over the ice and the fans, especially the young ones, looked at each other as if to say "pinch me".
"Was that Crosby?" one young man in a Flyers jersey asked his seat-mate, a young man in a Maple Leafs jersey.
A wide-eyed nod was all he got back as the boy in the Leaf's jersey tried to hold his phone steady enough to get a short video.
O'Brien, based in Calgary, boasts a client list that reads like a Who's Who of hockey and "his guys" were gathered in force today under the balmy skies of the second smallest province in Canada. Amongst the names on that client list are Daniel Cleary, Nathan MacKinnon, Andrew Gordon , Sam Gagner, Jason Spezza, Brad Marchand, Shawn Horcoff, Andrew Bodnarchuk, Matt Duchene, James Sheppard, Andrew Cogliano, Hunter Shinkaruk, and Alex Grant who were all present on the ice today.
It seems that "the guys" are turning it into something of a summer camp-slash-road trip adventure as several of them headed out this evening to Cape Breton to visit the Cabot Trail and get some golf in, maybe at Cabot Links, a world class golf resort and Canada's highest ranking course (ranked #82 by Golf magazine), or Fox Harb'r, another world class course located close by. Not to play favortism in the tour of the Maritimes, O'Brien, Nathan MacKinnon and Crosby spent some time in early July in the smallest province when they worked out in the sand at Brackley Beach in Prince Edward Island with O'Brien tweeting about the "killer dunes".
O'Brien, who has been training Crosby since he was thirteen, packed up his guys and brought them all to Halifax, one of three Canadian cities he uses for his summer camps, for this year's sessions, much to the delight of the appreciative hockey fans who live in Halifax and don't often get to see NHL stars except on television - and certainly never this many at once ... this close up. While the residents of the other two cities that O'Brien uses, Calgary and Toronto, would not be nearly as impressed as the residents of Halifax, given that they both have NHL teams, it must be a treat for any young hockey fan to have the opportunity to see "behind the scenes".
Getting a glimpse of the action today gave me two primary takeaways. One, hockey is a fraternity and no matter what the jersey says on the front and what the stats behind the face indicate, they're all just hockey players trying to be better at their game. On an ice surface full of stars, there were no superstars, just guys, working at their craft, improving their skills.
The Civic Center, a small rink with bleacher seating for around 800 (most of it taped off today), attached to the Forum in downtown Halifax, had the feel of a collegiate practice with all the requisite near-collisions, ragged lines and the occasional bit of friendly showboating. The second takeaway is more subtle, but nonetheless important; getting to the top is one thing, staying there is another and if you want to stay at the top, you have to be prepared to work at it. And I mean, work at it.
You have to always want to be better. Maybe that's the most simple summation of an elite athlete.
"His vision is very special, specifically his ability to track moving objects, but I think the characteristic that stands out the most is his lack of complacency," O'Brien says about Crosby.
While the occasional bit of laughter could be heard, and they were having some fun, there was an intensity to it that made you aware, even in the small-town rink atmosphere of the Civic Center, that these were no ordinary hockey players. You didn't need to see the jerseys to know it. You knew it because when two of them were headed towards the goalie with the puck, they weren't fooling around. There was a competitive edge, a good natured one, but one all the same, that lent a strange and added excitement to the spectacle. Who has never wondered whether so and so could beat so and so on an unimpeded rush with nobody else to come in and hook or trip or slash or check?
I'll say this: there can't be too many players who can skate as fast as John Tavares and there can't be too many players harder to get off the puck than Sidney Crosby. And another thing: Sidney Crosby and Brad Marchand would make wicked linemates. If they had an Olympic event for wrist shots, I might lay money on Spezza. I learned more important things about those players today than I could have from watching a hundred games or reading every stat ever compiled about them.
Crosby has long been famous for his summer training regimen, always arriving at the Pens' pre-season training camp in peak condition and, notably, much better at something than he was the year before. The most memorable example is probably the year he decided to get better at faceoffs and improved his win percentage dramatically, what was 45% in 2005 was 54% last season. That doesn't happen while you're spending July and August sun tanning on the beach or drinking beer and eating pizza at midnight. It happens when you're on the ice on August 1st, running agility drills or tromping across sand dunes in July.
"He was a guy that identified early in his career that he wanted to work on speed and I had a bit of an identity as somebody who knew a lot about speed training, specifically for hockey players, and it ended up being a really good fit," O'Brien said in a 2012 interview with fellow fitness trainer, Jeff Angus. This takes on a larger significance when you realize that O'Brien was talking about when he first met Crosby, and his comments are about a young boy who had yet to play a single moment of professional hockey. Sidney Crosby has been getting ready to be Sidney Crosby for more than a decade and Andy O'Brien has been helping him.
O'Brien clearly has an immense respect for Crosby and, by all accounts, the feeling is mutual with O'Brien sometimes travelling with Crosby or coming to where Crosby needs him to be. In this case, Crosby had some things to do at home this year, according to Tremblay, and so O'Brien and "his guys" came to Halifax. To Crosby.
"In 12 year of working with him, he's never missed a workout, and he's never given anything less than his best effort. He has a remarkable way of bringing his "A" game on a daily basis, which requires tremendous focus, determination, and mental toughness. He's extremely bright and very serious about his performance. He's also a fierce competitor, and takes advantage of his ability to intimidate his competition," said O'Brien.
Crosby seems to inspire dedication and loyalty in all of his professional relationships. Tremblay, a fixture in Halifax sports who has worked with a lot of hockey players over the years, said in an interview last January, "Sidney is the hardest working hockey player I've seen."
Tremblay, who helped out with Crosby's condition over the duration of the lockout last season is more than just a conditioning coach. Speaking with TSN's CTV Correspondent, Paul Hollingsworth, he said, "I manage his equipment. I take care of the security around him. If he needs help in the off-ice, I go in with him and help him out. Whatever he needs done."
Crosby wasn't the only player that drew broad attention from the gathered faithful, a group that ranged from business-suited guys to a pair of young boys sitting on the laps of their baseball-capped father and Penguins jersey clad mother. Even boys who might otherwise find themselves too "cool" to engage in hero worship, were held in rapt attention, elbowing each other and engaging in involuntary and yet synchronized intakes of breath and head shakes.
In the melee outside the rink, when the session was over and the crowd was waiting for the players to emerge, there were a number of people holding jerseys from different teams, looking for the signature or just wanting to put their treasured replica jersey in the same air space as the player who wore the real one.
"Tavares is really fast, but Crosby is sneaky," nine year old Mathew E. of Sackville, a suburb of Halifax, said with a little giggle, pushing his wire frame glasses up his freckled nose and smiling as he thumbed the screen of his phone like mad, afraid I might leave before he found what he was looking for.
I chuckled and waited for him as he frantically searched through his images, his face contorting in frustration before he found the one he wanted to show me, "I got a picture! See! That's Sidney Crosby right there."
And then for emphasis, he waggled the phone in my direction, his voice taking on a bit of a dreamy quality as if he was just realizing the enormity of his possession. Almost like he was afraid I might take it, he pulled it close to his chest protectively and said, "Sidney Crosby! On my mom's phone!"
It's Happening All Over The World
It's not just this group of guys in Halifax paying the endless dues, NHL players all over the globe are working hard to improve their skills, increase their strength and conditioning, this summer. It's a serious business to stay at the top of the business and those who neglect off-season training are the guys chasing the play in October, wishing they'd spent more time in the gym over the summer. This isn't Mario Lemieux' NHL anymore and you can't smoke half a pack a day, eschew strength and conditioning training and keep up with the herd. Natural talent is only the beginning. Long gone are the days that you hear Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe talk about, which seem almost rock-starish in comparison.
You can't be a hard living, hard drinking, hard smoking athlete anymore or the guys like those on the ice in Halifax today will chew you up and spit you out. The only sort of smoke that comes out of their mouths is the kind dragons exhale.
All this effort is not undertaken solely to play better, but to play longer and more injury free. O'Brien worked with Colarado's Matt Duchene (also present in Halifax this year) last summer and their efforts stressed nutrition and other non traditional conditioning aimed at improving the injured player's ability to overcome the effects of those injuries. But it's not just about healing, it's about avoiding injuries. Being less breakable. "Our number one goal was trying to build some functional stability and improve range of motion, to allow him to be more durable this upcoming year. We also did quite a bit of work on nutrition and recovery which I believe believe plays an equally important role in that process," O'Brien said about his time with Duchene.
O'Brien was a big part of Crosby's recovery from his bout with concussions and undertook his own rigorous training program to learn as much as he could about the condition. He then developed a specialized program to aid Crosby in regaining his form and recovering those abilities damaged by concussion. His work with Crosby and the rest of "his guys" came to the attention of Hockey Canada where he now serves as a consultant on issues of fitness, conditioning and injury recovery. It started with his own talent, of course, but the Sidney Crosby who steps on the ice to play a real game of hockey is the product of careful, deliberate and consistent training which has been aided and augmented by the man with the friendly, open face, Tony Robbins-esque smile and devoted clients.
They give each other credit, which is a credit to both of them. But clearly they are a good team.
While we didn't seen Jarome Iginla or Alex Ovechkin in the rink today, they shared their own efforts with the twitterverse, one from British Columbia and the other from Moscow. While Iginla's work out has the overtones of an ad for In Shape and which seems like something O'Brien would approve, Ovechkin's is decidedly low-tech (but his tweet includes his trademark "hahaha" so we know it's the real Ovie) but, I am sure, just as effective. The Russian Machine never breaks, so he must be onto something.
Good day on the court!! Nothing gonna hold me back this year!!!hahaha
— Alex Ovechkin (@ovi8) August 1, 2013
Previously on Sidelines:
Sidney Crosby Passes to Brad Marchand and Brad Marchand Passes Everyone Else
Next on Sidelines:
Shutting Up Wyshynski - Repeat After Me, There Is No Anti-Canada Bias