Let's begin with a summer activity comparison:
- Steven Stamkos spent his summer squatting three-hundred and sixty pounds in killer sets of five reps.
I occasionally squatted to pick up the remote if it slipped off the couch.
- Steven Stamkos ate carefully crafted meals consisting of superfoods like quinoa, sprouts, hemp, chia seeds and countless organic vegetables.
I ate Doritos off my naval while lying by the pool.
- On his non-lifting days, Stamkos did intense interval running—600 metres, 800 metres, shorter sprints, sled pulls...over and over and over.
I would nap between walks to the fridge. Which, if you think about it, is kinda like intervals.
* * *
Sure, elite athletes are supposed to train hard in the off-season. But Stamkos and 24 other young hockey players took it to another level this summer. They enrolled in the School of Robs.
"It was tough," says Stamkos. "You had to be totally dedicated to it. Every single day."
You know the Gary Roberts story by heart now. His NHL career was over at 30 after a broken neck. Then he discovered training, and proper eating, and became a physical beast who came back to play another dozen years in the league. His workout regimen and dietary discipline are legendary in Hockeynation.
And now, just a year into retirement, he's found his second calling, playing Mr. Miyagi to young stars like Stamkos.
"Come Steven-son! One more set of deadlifts...drink protein shake...wax on, wax off."
Nineteen young hockey stars practically lived in Roberts' home gym in Uxbridge, Ontario, this summer. There was Stamkos, his Tampa teammate Steve Downie, the Canucks' Cody Hodgson, Florida forward Stephen Weiss, Dallas forward James Neal, Rangers defenceman Michael Del Zotto, Carolina's 7th overall draft pick Jeff Skinner, and a bunch of other top NHL and OHL draft picks.
Six others did the long distance thing, Roberts' "take away" program. He evaluates them, designs a program, but they workout in their own town with another trainer.
"The best thing about Robs is that he knows what each individual needs to work on and he designs a specific program for each person," says Stamkos.
Some needed to get leaner. Some needed to add muscle mass. Some, like Hodgson, needed to get over injuries.
They were all in for a summer they will not soon forget.
I'll spare you the details of the workout regimen, because I lost seven pounds, pulled an oblique muscle, and threw up just trying to type it. Roberts drives the players as hard as he drove himself.
"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done," says Cameron Gaunce, the 2nd round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2008. "Robs is very intense, but it is much more than the workouts. He teaches you an entire lifestyle change. Resting properly, eating the right things at the right times. He teaches you that hockey is a year-round job."
Sure, everybody lifts. Everybody does cardio. But what really sets The School of Robs apart is the attention to diet.
These kids have all heard about when to get their carbs and protein before. But never like this.
"Proper diet is the number one thing NHL players and organizations don't pay enough attention to. It drives me crazy," says Roberts. "When I was in Tampa, we had four dessert options on the airplane! There was the cheesecake tray, the cookie tray, the ice cream tray, the little Smartie-Tootsie Roll tray. I'm thinking, 'Are we actually a professional hockey team?' If you ate all those things, you wouldn't wake up for three days! The biggest thing I'm teaching these guys is that you don't recover without proper nutrition. You will never make the gains you can make if you don't eat right."
So Roberts took his trainees grocery shopping, to a massive organic healthy food market/cafe called Nature's Emporium in Newmarket, Ontario. They went aisle by aisle, learning about foods they'd never heard of, let alone eaten.
Roberts then worked with the chefs at Nature's Emporium to design a full summer menu for his troops. Every meal they ate had to meet his approval.
"It was a big adjustment," says Stamkos. "The first two weeks we started the program, your body is not just used to that type of food. You are used to laying on the mayo, the ranch dressing. It was depressing at first. But once my body got used to it, it was fine. The food was great. I didn't know what some of it was, but it was unbelievable. There was this mango parfait I still crave."
Michael Del Zotto, a good Italian boy used to his lasagna and chicken parm, struggled the most.
"Michael was the pickiest," says Roberts with a chuckle. "He'd text me and say, 'Holy Crap what was that green stuff in my sandwich?'. I said, 'Those are sprouts Michael.' One time I got him excited telling him he was getting spaghetti. I didn't tell him it was actually zucchini, shredded like spaghetti."
Downie loved the food so much, he sent his girlfriend to Nature's Emporium for a two-day training course with the chefs. He wanted her to be able to make it all season in Tampa.
The results, for many, were stunning. Gaunce lost 15 pounds in the first five weeks. When he did his fitness testing at the beginning of training camp in Colorado, his body fat had dropped six percent, and he had added three pounds of muscle mass. He won the Wingate anaerobic test and the long jump. He is, literally, a new man.
"I just feel so much stronger, so much quicker on the ice, it's amazing," says Gaunce.
Ditto for Stamkos, who blew his fellow trainees away with his strength.
"Everyone marks themselves against him," says Roberts. "They all want to know what he is squatting, how high he is jumping. You had guys like Del Zotto and Downie, who are no slouches, watching him, and just looking at each other, going "Holy S---!"
And then there's Hodgson, who seems to have finally overcome those back problems.
"We were very cautious with him until the beginning of August," says Roberts. "He would train all day if I told him to. He's just a wonderful young man who is going to be a great pro."
Now Professor Roberts gets to sit back and watch his first graduating class put their new bodies to work for a full NHL season.
"I have 25 guys that I can't wait to watch play this year," he says. "It would be nice to say every guy I deal with will be a star in the NHL, but I know they all can't light it up. What I try to teach them is that what they learned this summer, they will have for the rest of their lives. Whether that means being a star in the NHL, or being a really healthy fireman. It still means something.
"I was lucky enough to meet four guys along the way who taught me all this. Charles Poliquin, who saved my career in Calgary when I thought I was done, Lorne Goldenberg - who has been my strength coach since I was an Ottawa 67, I just didn't listen to him until I was 30, Matty Nichol - the former Toronto Maple Leafs strength coach, and Andy O'Brien, who has been training Sidney Crosby since he was 14. I took all the information they gave me, and tried to piece it together - what worked and didn't work for me - to help give hockey players the best chance at longevity. Hopefully, I can do for these kids what those guys did for me."
For now, class is dismissed. But careful boys, Big Brother is always watching.
"The other night I was playing in Edmonton and you guys showed me on TSN wolfing down popcorn," says Stamkos. "Right away I get a text from Robs: 'Stammer, lay off the popcorn!' I told him, 'Don't worry, it's organic."
Duthie goes 1-on-1 with Stamkos.
James Duthie's new book of columns, "The Day I Almost Killed Two Gretzkys (And other off-the-wall stories about sports...and life)", is now available. You can order your copy here in the TSN Shop: