Paul Ranger is sitting comfortably amid a row of stalls in the back-half of an empty Marlies dressing room when a smile pierces his face.
"Hell yeah," he says, grinning fiercely. "Hell yeah. It's been great."
Ranger is of course, referring to his unsuspecting return to hockey, this after quietly and mysteriously exiting the game three years ago. The 28-year-old is nearly two months into his comeback, a comeback that began in earnest in a gym with a trainer he's known since his days in junior with the Oshawa Generals.
"I worked my butt off," said Ranger. "I worked my butt off."
In rather stunning fashion, it was he, a defenceman who hadn't played a professional game since October 2009, finishing atop a group of 34 players in fitness testing results conducted during the opening days of training camp.
"That was the most surprising," he said. "I didn't expect to be in that good of a shape compared to my teammates."
Right up until his leave from the game – for reasons that will remain unexplained for the time being – Ranger had done nearly all of his training with a fellow Whitby native and now the Marlies strength and conditioning coach, Mark Fitzgerald. The two go way back to Oshawa where Ranger was drafted into the OHL and where Fitzgerald worked, continuing the partnership as Ranger ascended to the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I know what works for him, how to get him back pretty fast," said Fitzgerald, who continues to work with the Generals in addition to the Marlies, "and with him being pretty blessed genetically and athletically, it doesn't take long.
"…even when he was with Tampa, his testing was in the top three all the time."
Training began in early July after Ranger had fully committed himself toward a return to the game this season. First designing a program suited to his needs with the help of Fitzgerald, Ranger would train 5-6 days every week, starting "with the basics, basic building blocks of strength, cardio and quickness, agility, power and continue to build off those in more complex ways". The shock to his body after a lengthy stint of relative dormancy – as far as the intense training for professional sports is concerned – was immediate. Ranger could feel the sting in his legs during an early round of squats.
"Once I was past the first couple weeks or whatever and it started to come back, I could feel it coming back more and more and more every time," he said of the training, which also included time on the ice with a batch of current AHL and NHL pros. "Training was always a really important part for me as far as playing at the level that I played at in previous years and I knew that when I started again this summer."
Standing side-by-side with the physical work was nutrition.
"Constantly eating right," said Ranger, vigilant in his attention to detail with respect to diet, even using food journals from time to time. "There might be one meal every week or two, three weeks I'll go get a burger and fries or something. Everything else, we find ways to make the healthy food taste really good.
"It's just taking advantage of every piece of knowledge that we have for our bodies scientifically in order to accelerate the process. If you're training and then you're eating say half-good and half-crappy, you're gaining 40% or 60% of what you could be. If you're dedicated nutritionally as much as you are training-wise in the gym you're going to double your speed of results I find."
After only a few weeks, Fitzgerald could see the old Ranger beginning to surface, but he remained unsurprised by the results, even leading up to the first-rate fitness scores.
"You know what, I wasn't [surprised]," said Fitzgerald of Ranger's success. "I knew what he's capable of, I know what he's capable of. I don't even think he knows. He's a pretty special guy to work with and he makes me look good, can't take all the credit. He works extremely hard, diligently with nutrition and training and buys in."
Considerably trickier than fitness or nutrition in a return to the ice was just that, the ice itself or more specifically the precise timing and precision required in a split-second game. Most around the sport, including Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, will tell you that missing training camp is an almost certain barrier to a successful individual season. Miss nearly three years worth of actual game action and the eight-ball is akin to a full table's length away.
"I think it's just adjusting more and more to the speed of the game; the next level in the NHL is a much faster game and everything happens much quicker, faster, harder and then you adjust to the new level. That's the way it works," said Ranger, who has shied away from declaring a return to the NHL as the ultimate goal in his comeback.
Not unusually, Ranger, who has a goal, five assists and a plus-7 rating, has taken to analyzing his performance after games this season and often finds at least one sequence in which he should have made a different play or read it more astutely. At first glance, he might have seen a two-on-two rush only to realize a moment too late that his side was actually outnumbered.
The progression in his play though has been steady.
"Well he just keeps getting better and better," said Eakins, who has been consistent in his praise of Ranger. "From the start of the road trip until now – if you take out the Hamilton game – he's been our best defenceman every night. And he keeps getting better. It's a great story for me. For a guy that was off that long to come in day one of training camp and set the tone with his fitness level and then for him to pick up his game this fast, it shows not only his hockey ability but his mental fortitude to work through a number of things."
As to which is more impressive, the stunning fitness results or the rapid reintegration into the game, neither answer satisfies. "I can't pick one or the other," offered Eakins. "I think they're both amazing feats so far."
For his part, Ranger hasn't yet reached the desired level for his overall game. How will he know when he's there?
"You know what, that's an interesting question," he said, studying the query. "In one respect, regardless, no I'm not, I'm not there yet. I have a lot more."