Upon leaving Montreal and arriving in Hamilton, I embarked on my very first training camp as the Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. No longer was I in the shadow of an experienced S&C coach. It was my show now and I felt an internal pressure to deliver results. On top of this internal pressure, there were external pressures that I was dealing with. The gym space in Hamilton was in disarray and I had 2 weeks to find a place to live. I was in uncharted waters, no one had held this position before and I was hired only a few weeks before arriving in Hamilton. Initially, The front office staff in Hamilton had no idea who I was. I had no keys, codes, emails, or even a desk to work on. For the first month, I worked off of a ping pong table that was in the back corner of the gym. I laid out programs, created team circuits, and laid out my yearly plan on that ping pong table during many evening hours. I eventually got a small desk and I was able to salvage an old chair from the junkyard of stuff that was just outside the gym. One of its armrests was duct-taped together and it had several tears in it, but all things considered, it was a comfortable chair. I was the new guy and the last thing I wanted to do was constantly be asking for something. So, I made do with what I had and only asked for the things I felt were necessary. Funny enough, I grew to like that chair and ended up keeping it for the entire time I worked with the Bulldogs!
During training camp in Hamilton, all of our on-ice sessions were held on “Hamilton Mountain '' at Dave Andreychuck arena instead of at Copps Coliseum because the ice was not ready yet. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The gym at Copps was nowhere near ready to have players train in it, so setting up some team training circuits and warm-ups in empty dressing rooms did not seem to bother me too much. I also had become quite accustomed to running warm-ups and workouts in ad hoc situations while in Montreal and during my previous days with the Markham Waxers. At the end of the day, I would go back to Copps Coliseum and continue to clean and reorganize the gym space. Within a week and many hours of preparing I had it looking like a respectable training space and ready for the players to train in it.
Over my years with the Bulldogs, Montreal invested heavily in improving the space and equipment provided to their players at the AHL level. At the time, Bob Gainey was our official general manager, however, he had more or less delegated Julien Brisbois as our unofficial general manager. Julien’s official title was the Assistant General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens. Julien was ultimately who would approve my expenses and would become my biggest advocate for investing in the off-ice development of the Canadiens' prospects. Julien would often travel to Hamilton to watch the prospects play. While he was in town he would almost always train in our gym himself. While he was in town, he would make a point of asking me what I felt I needed to help make the players better. He always challenged me on my requests and made me answer why I felt it was important. I don’t think he ever said no to one of my requests…I am not sure if I just answered his questions adequately or if he wanted new equipment for himself to train! Like I said earlier I did not ask for anything that I did not feel was necessary. That first year I only asked for smaller supplemental items like medicine balls, plyo boxes, tubing bands, etc. Julien approved all of these items without hesitation, but was also adamant we install a sound system in the gym. I remember thinking of equipment pieces that I thought were more important, but looking back now, I think I missed the value that the sound system had. The sound system turned the gym space into a place where players enjoyed gathering. Team playlists were created and I began to see the potential the gym offered for team bonding. I noticed players started to willingly complete their pregame warm-ups and post-game cool-downs in the gym. That sound system taught me that a gym space was more than just a place to get physically better.
Back to my first season with the Bulldogs! Training camp went off without any catastrophes and I was able to rent a basement apartment 10 minutes from the rink. I felt I was finding a bit of a groove when I was presented with two tests in the early days of my career. First, I was tasked with overseeing and implementing the entire rehabilitation for a player who had undergone ACL surgery during training camp in Montreal. This was something that most likely would have been contracted out to a therapy clinic before my position was created, but now that I was on staff this was something that the organization wanted me to handle. I was excited about the challenge, but also somewhat intimidated. At the time, I had never taken an athlete from early rehab to skating on the ice and returning to play after an ACL surgery. A young Montreal Canadiens prospect’s future was now in my hands. The second test happened simultaneously with the first. There was a talented player who was extremely out of shape. On fitness testing day in Montreal, he had to get off the treadmill shortly after beginning his Vo2 max test. He was clearly out of shape. Upper management had decided that until his fitness objectively improved he would not be allowed on the ice in Hamilton. Not only was he not permitted to be on the ice, but he was not allowed to be around any of the players at the rink. This meant I had to schedule times before or after the rest of the team would arrive or leave to work with him. Looking back on these two tests they very much foreshadowed where my career would go in the years to follow. More on this in my next blog….
I was extremely fortunate in my first season. The coaching staff with Don Lever and Ron Wilson gave me a lot of latitude when it came to off-ice training. They were fully supportive of what I was trying to do and showed the confidence in me that I needed in that first year. Luc Leblanc had worked in pro hockey for several years and he was another great sounding board. The goal in my first year was to keep my therapy roll to a minimum to allow me to build the strength and conditioning side of things. The only time my therapy background was put on display in my first season was when Luc Leblanc’s first daughter was born. The team was to be on the road and obviously, Luc wanted to be at home with his wife. This gave me my first opportunity to travel and work a pro game as an Athletic Therapist. Some players were confused because they did not know I was also an Athletic Therapist. There were two games in two nights. The first game took place in Philadelphia against the Phantoms at the old Spectrum Arena where the Flyers used to play. It was a pretty special night and I knew I had earned the players' respect when Corey Locke, one of our veteran AHL players got the game puck and brought it to me after the game.
Other than this one road trip I did not travel nor was I on the bench for home games. Rather I would work in the gym with healthy scratches or injured players doing exercise rehab during the game. When the team would go on the road I stayed at home with players that were hurt. I would do their rehab, train them and even go on the ice with them depending on what stage they were at in their recovery. My role evolved over the years and encompassed quite a bit of on-ice work and I would often put my goalie equipment on to help make skates with 1 or 2 players a little more interesting. Despite growing up playing the game I was not overly comfortable planning on-ice drills and on-ice rehabs for professional hockey players. In those early days, I relied heavily on Rollie Molensan who was the Montreal Canadiens goalie coach who would spend quite a bit of time in Hamilton. He had some great ideas when it came to drills with individual players and small groups of players on the ice. I would pick his brain often as well as our assistant coach Ron Wilson. I started to look at different drills and created progressions for those drills for players coming back from injuries. This became an area I enjoyed and am proud to say I believe I got quite good at.
My first season with the Hamilton Bulldogs was off to a great start and I was more than motivated to use this blank canvas that had been offered to me. In the coming months, I would be challenged in all sorts of ways and I would find myself on one of the wildest rides of my life. Can’t wait to tell you all about it in my next blog!