Best of the Books: Biggest fitness freak

Matt Larkin
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Martin Gelinas went through a lot in his 19-year NHL career. He was one of the pieces the Los Angeles Kings traded for Wayne Gretzky and later played in two Stanley Cup finals, winning once. His greatest challenge, however, may have been working out alongside Rod Brind’Amour.

One summer in the early 2000s, when the two were with the Carolina Hurricanes, team trainer Pete Friesen invited Gelinas to join Brind’Amour as he put him through a workout. On the agenda: running up and down the stairs at the then-RBC Center.

“I thought I was in pretty good shape, so I’m doing stairs. I’m getting on top of the stairs and I’m barely breathing,” Gelinas said. “And then you’ve got Rod, doing the same thing with a 50-pound vest on him. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

The neat thing about Rod ‘The Bod’ Brind’Amour: he’s been that kind of guy as long as he’s played hockey. Sure, he was chiselled like a Greek god late in his career, winning both of his Frank Selke Trophies and his Cup after turning 35. But he isn’t one of those players who coasted on raw talent in his teens and 20s before awakening to fitness.

For Brind’Amour, it started early and, well, early. He was 12 years old and he was watching his dad rise day after day at 6:00 a.m. to work as a pipe fitter at a mill.

“He would get up and go and I remember him telling me, ‘You don’t want this job,’ ” Brind’Amour said with a laugh. “He said, ‘You’re going to have to do something different than any other kid to not be this. Every other kid sleeps in, every other kid’s going to practice at the regular times. What are you going to do that separates you?’

“It sunk in for me: ‘I better start lifting weights.’ ”

Brind’Amour didn’t exactly ease himself into the lifestyle. He’d lift whenever his dad left for work in the morning and repeat the program after school. He was already a fitness fanatic, far ahead of his competition, when he played minor and junior hockey in his teen years and especially when he suited up for the Michigan State Spartans in college. As the urban legend goes, the Spartans’ coaching staff had to lock Brind’Amour out of the gym some days so he would stop training so hard. Today, he confirms that the rumor, though exaggerated, is true. Michigan State always played Fridays and Saturdays at the time, with Sundays off. But he’d work out on Sundays, too.

“They just found a way for me to not be able to get into the building on those days,” Brind’Amour said. “But it wasn’t so much that (the workouts) were hurting me. They just thought I needed the rest. I understand that now, and obviously over the years – that you need rest as well. But when you’re 18 years old and you want to get to the NHL, I figured I could rest later.”

Brind’Amour remained a fitness fanatic during his NHL career and if it seemed he was in better shape every year, it’s because he was. Brind’Amour never stopped adding to his routines. With Carolina, he’d get a manual of exercises from Friesen and would add his own on top of the program, whether it was extra lifting, stairs, skating or even Pilates.

“I always had to be the hardest-working guy,” Brind’Amour said. “Or at least no one was going to work harder. So I had no excuses when I hit the ice. It wasn’t, ‘Oh man, I didn’t come in good enough shape.’ ”

Occasionally, he looks back and can’t believe what he was capable of. On some days, he’d complete an “insane” track workout, then lift weights at the rink, then hit the ice. His philosophy: set the bar so high that you’re ahead of the pack even if you fall short.

“We figured if we could do half of what he did, we would be in good shape,” Gelinas said. “Rod is his own man. He kept pushing himself. He always did a lot more than everybody else and that’s why he’ll be remembered as the legend he is right now.”

Now retired and an assistant coach with the Hurricanes, Brind’Amour’s specialty is – surprise surprise – conditioning. He believes kids and their teams make one key mistake today: not customizing their workouts. Teams often give the same program to every player when certain kinds – say, a bruising power forward versus a slick-skating offensive defenseman – require different types of physical attributes. Brind’Amour also believes that, though independent trainers can work wonders, players should consult with their team trainers first, as their own teams know them inside and out.

“We’ll send a kid to whoever, but say, ‘You’ve got to come back in better shape conditioning-wise. You’ve got to be able to go up and down the ice for 35 seconds and not tire out,’ ” Brind’Amour said. “‘We don’t need you to bench-press a car.’ ”

An ironic statement coming from someone more likely than any other NHL player to accomplish that feat.

This is an excerpt from THN’s book, Biggest of Everything in Hockey.