It was August 2006 and I was driving down the QEW to Hamilton, Ontario to meet Luc Leblanc the Head Athletic Therapist for the Hamilton Bulldogs Hockey Club (the American League Affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens). I had received a phone call from Scott Livingston about a week earlier and he had explained that he had been working for some time to convince the Montreal Canandiens to create a strength and conditioning coach position with the Hamilton Bulldogs. His goal was to implement a seamless developmental system for the Canadiens prospects and he felt having a Strength & Conditioning Coach that was also an Athletic Therapist would help facilitate this. It was also a way to get the benefit of two positions in one hiring. Scott asked if I would be interested in this position. Needless to say, I was very interested! He arranged for me to meet Luc Leblanc at Copps Coliseum (now called First Ontario Centre). I met Luc for lunch and a tour around the facilities. He showed me the dressing room, the arena, and what was the makeshift gym on the main concourse behind the stands (What a site! More on this later…). I had a great time and Luc and I related very well. He said he would get back to me in a few weeks. I was excited about the opportunity, but I did not want to get my hopes up, so I prepared for the season with the Waxers and thought about how the Fall would look for Propulsion. Within a week of rookie camp starting in Montreal I received a phone call from Luc saying I would be offered a contract shortly and if I was still interested in the position I needed to prepare myself to be on a flight to Montreal for training camp. I was over the moon excited and could not wait for what this next chapter of my life would bring. Given I was from Toronto and grew up in a family of staunch Maple Leaf supporters, my family had mixed feelings about me working for the evil empire:)
Arriving for the Montreal Canadiens training camp in September of 2006 was quite surreal. Everything was official when I placed my signature on the 1-year contract beside Bob Gainey's signature (the Canadiens GM at the time). To my knowledge, I now became the first full-time strength and conditioning coach in the American Hockey League (If anybody knows differently please reach out and correct me!) Many teams would contract a coach to run some training during practice days and some would even send their NHL strength & conditioning coach down to spend some time with the AHL team, but hiring a full-time strength and conditioning coach with their AHL affiliate was something new in the early 2000s. Fast forward to 2022 and it is now commonplace to have a full-time strength and conditioning coach at the AHL level.
My first training camp seems like a blur to me now. I did everything I could to learn from Scotty and watch the approach he took working in the gym with the players. I was able to get somewhat accustomed to how things ran in the lower-pressure environment that was rookie camp. This camp gave me a dry run of things like fitness testing and player medicals. It provided me with an idea of how things would run when the main camp started. I built some confidence by running warm-ups and helping with gym sessions. I started to find a bit of a groove. When it was time for the main camp to open, there was a tangible difference in the atmosphere. Everything from player medicals to fitness testing had to work like clockwork as there were limited hours the players were allowed to be at the rink due to the collective bargaining agreement. Any unforeseen delays could cause a big problem. In addition to the time constraints, in Montreal, the media is a complete circus side show when it comes to anything about Canadiens. At this time, the Montreal Canadiens would open the arenas to the public and they would be packed with people. There was no official practice facility at the time and the Bell Centre was often booked for other events which meant on-ice sessions would need to be held at community arenas. The players would get on buses to get to and from these arenas each day. The equipment staff would truck all the players' gear, medical equipment, and any gym equipment we felt we would need there. We would hold our gym sessions in makeshift situations while running warm-ups outside in roped-off areas with security to keep the media and the public back. If it rained outside all the players would be crammed in a hallway of the arena for the warm-up! Thinking of it now it is hard to believe that in 2006 the Montreal Canadiens outsourced their ice time like this and had training camp gyms held in a back room of an arena. Things would drastically change in the coming years and I am blessed to say I was a small part of it. Scotty would often throw me into the fire and ask me to run a team warm-up. Standing outside with the media and public watching while leading the likes Saku Koivu, Andre Markov, and Sheldon Souray who most likely could have taught me a thing or two about warm-ups at the time was fairly intimidating to say the least. It was an anointing by fire. It was a pressure cooker. I responded well to these situations and I knew I was going to love my new role with Hamilton.
The time came for the Hamilton Bulldogs to open their training camp back in Hamilton. The staff and the players that had been released from Montreal packed up and made their way to Hamilton. At this point, I had only been in Copps Coliseum the one time I met with Luc back in August. I had no opportunity to come and set up the gym and prepare for a training camp. The gym was a site for sore eyes. To find the gym you had to exit the dressing room, go up 3 flights of stairs, and enter a creepy part of Copps Coliseum that can only be described as a graveyard of stuff from concerts to various shows that had been held at Copps over the years. It was dark, dusty and home to numerous rats. There was an odd space that had been rented to a “filmmaker” adjacent to the gym. I would later learn the “filmmaker” would like to smoke weed on Friday nights just as the players were warming up! After walking through the mishmash of stuff, a 15 ft fence covered in an orange tarp would appear with a large entrance and a small combination lock on it. Upon fiddling with the lock like you would at your high school locker, the gate would swing open and you would enter the “Hamilton Bulldogs Performance Center”. Scott had done his best in the years before to make sure there were some essential pieces of equipment like a squat rack, dumbbells, and 12 Lifecycle bikes. At the time, the 12 bikes were in a semi-circle around an old couch that had been dragged in from the graveyard outside the fence and were all positioned facing a 20-inch Toshiba television stacked on several old boxes. The garbage from last season was still over the stained blue carpet flooring and the dumbbells were strewn about. All things considered, the footprint that had been allocated for the gym was quite large, I believe it was around 2000sqft, which was unheard of at the time in the AHL. It was quite a bit larger than what even the Montreal Canadiens had at the Bell Centre. So I knew there was lots of potential for the space. At this point, I knew my first job would be to transform this area so that players would enjoy spending time in it and show them that the Montreal Canadiens were serious about the off-ice component of development. This is precisely what I set out to do in my first year. What a wild and crazy ride it was. I can’t wait to tell you all about it in my next blog!