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Mike Boyle
Boyle got his start in the training hockey players by working with a number of Boston University stars.
The crux of the matter

By John McGourty | Impact! Magazine

Fitness trainer Mike Boyle's studious nature has helped him stay ahead of the pack when it comes to conditioning athletes. He lives and breathes his subject matter and is a glib and knowledgeable advocate for his programs, especially those that pertain to hockey and NHL players.

A decade ago, Boyle's early products, players like Shawn McEachern, Joe Sacco and now-Boston Bruins coach Mike Sullivan, caught the eye of knowledgeable hockey people with their improved speed and conditioning.

Boyle's Winchester, Mass., facility now hosts up to three dozen NHL players each summer as they prepare for the upcoming season. Boyle's clients became his advocates and his clients' teammates noticed the impact of his training programs, particularly improvements in straight-ahead speed and quickness in lateral movements.

Boyle offers athletes a core program and then designs programs that address each athlete's specific needs.

"There is one basic template that we start with, a basic concept that with most of these NHL guys we are trying to restore their strength, rehabilitate their injuries and get them as fast, hopefully, as they were when they were kids.

"One of the things that we're all losing as we age is lean muscle mass, speed and power. When you see older players losing the ability to play, that comes down to losing the ability to produce force, losing the ability to be fast. So, the basic concepts don't change a lot.

"What does change is, what can't a guy do? The basic template for a healthy guy would be the same as another healthy player. Goalies may be slightly different. For forwards and defensemen, we're going to start out the same. Then, we've got to take that concept and figure out what is his injury history, what is his training history? What do we know about him? Is he overweight? Is he inflexible? Has he had a back problem? Has he had a shoulder problem?

Shawn McEachern
Atlanta Thrashers captain Shawn McEachern maintains his explosive speed through plyometrics.

"That's where the individualization comes into the program. That's where we start to learn that this guy can't do this, that guy can't do that. All of our young, healthy guys are doing very similar programs. Conceptually, from a conditioning standpoint, which is a third of what we're trying to work on, the energetics of the game are very similar for a lot of guys.

"One thing that's different is that some guys play a lot more. If you're looking at a team playing three lines you have a ratio of rest-to-work of approximately 2-to-1, 3-to-1 on a good team that's rolling four lines all the time and playing six defensemen all the time. We make sure the conditioning respects the energetics of the game. I think that's one of the things that we do that a lot of other people don't do. A lot of other places are very concerned with aerobic capacity, they're worried about what's the VO2 Max, the ability to carry oxygen."

From the first prehistoric man to pull an oyster off the ocean floor and ask, "Wonder what this tastes like?" to Galileo to Edison to Scotty Bowman, innovators do things differently and raise the skepticism of others. Eventually, it becomes hard to argue with their success. Soon, the rest of the world starts tinkering with the original, radical concept -- the oysters go well with spinach, a shade makes the light less harsh, someone tries a right-wing lock. Many of Boyle's "radical" ideas now comprise the core of modern athletic training.

"Our philosophy is not built so much around oxygen-carrying capability as it is the ability to play the game, the ability to exist in that rest-to-work ratio that is hockey," he said. "It's an interesting game because it's the only one where people are regularly going from playing to sitting down to playing again within a short period of time. In all the other sports, between plays, guys are standing around or walking. In hockey, they literally go sit down. That's a unique aspect to ice hockey."

Get to the puck first

You didn't hear the word "plyometrics" much before Boyle became one of its most vigorous advocates. Now, they're part of every team's training.

"Plyometrics are jumping and hopping exercises when it comes right down to it," Boyle said. "The simplest way to look at it is that weight-training builds the muscular system while plyometrics trains the nervous system. What we're trying to do is get their brain to get the impulse to the muscle faster. That's what we're talking about in trying to make somebody more explosive. It's one thing to get a muscle to be larger, one thing to get a muscle to be stronger, but to get to that muscle to respond in the appropriate time frame is really the essence of athleticism. That's where plyometric drills come in because we are trying to work on developing the ability to jump, to do things explosively and reactively.

"We work a lot at the beginning in teaching guys to jump and land because trying to be explosive and reactive can be, for some guys, damaging to joints when they have not developed a base ability to just jump and land. We teach them to jump and land, a lot of times on a single leg. A lot of it really falls under the injury-prevention category, then we get to the more explosive stuff."

Cam Neely
At one time, the 220-pound Cam Neely was considered a monstrous power forward. Today, he is dwarved by bigger, and stronger, players.

"Much more of what we're doing is geared toward force production," Boyle said. "The one thing you realize in hockey is it's not about the ability to skate for a long period of time, it's about the ability to get to the puck, to beat someone else to the puck. Historically, when we look at the Boston University guys that we started with, Shawn McEachern, Joe Sacco, Mike Sullivan, and others, a lot of those guys made their living because they were able to beat guys to the puck. They had great speed. We realized that if we could take smaller guys and make them bigger and make them faster simultaneously, we could make NHL players.

"I think that's the template that we've tried to apply to everybody else that's come along. Historically, players have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Now, we have players like Hal Gill, who is 6-foot-6 1/2 and 250 pounds. Ten years ago in the NHL, everybody agreed that there would never be a player as big as (6-foot-9) Zdeno Chara, who has that agility and ability to move. But now there are and there are more of these guys coming. We used to look at forwards like Cam Neely and think they were huge forwards. He played mostly at 212 pounds. I know you probably think he was bigger, but he worked very hard during the summer to be below 220 pounds. His best years were when he was between 212 and 217. Today, there are guys routinely playing in the 230-240 pound range.

Byron Dafoe
Byron Dafoe has seen his flexibility improve considerably, thanks in large part to work he has done with Boyle.

"I remember earlier in their careers when Ted Donato played in the 180s and Steve Heinze was in the low 190s. Guys could play then at that size, but now there may be less than a dozen guys in the whole League under 190 pounds. And most of them are short, guys like Martin St. Louis, Paul Kariya and a few others who are clearly shorter than 5-foot-8. So, you realize that the physics of it mandate that you be strong."

Boyle had had success in returning older goalies to good health after injuries put their careers in jeopardy.

"One of the things that we've noticed with goalies is that the stress is on getting those guys healthy. We've seen more injuries with them because of the extremes of flexibility that they have to get into over and over again," Boyle said. "A lot of them come here with nagging groin problems, nagging hamstring problems. A couple of years ago we had both Garth Snow and Byron Dafoe who were coming off different kinds of strains. With those guys, particularly with the older goalies, it is more rehab-oriented: Trying to get those guys ready to play and sometimes trying to undo the unsound training that these guys have done."

Prove it or lose it

Every exercise and every piece of equipment gets questioned again and again by Boyle, a restless, wiry, professorial-type who doesn't look like a jock, but is, himself, in peak condition. Some of the most fundamental exercises have come under review.

"A lot of guys put a lot of emphasis on riding the bike: 'Hey, I've got to ride the bike to be in shape.' We try to get our guys to not ride the bike. We try to get them to be up on their feet, being more movement-oriented, very dynamically oriented because that's what they're going to do when they go and play," Boyle said.

"The reason goalies and position players often get injured is because they trained one way all summer and then they go out and do something entirely different. We try to make sure that we are mimicking the types of hockey movements. There will be more lateral movement, more balance, for those guys. There will still be the slide boards, but we may change the length of the slide board. We may do more faster side-to-side movements that mimic sliding post-to-post.

"With the goalies, one of the things that we've realized is to train them more like athletes to get them stronger and not be one-dimensional. There is a natural emphasis on being flexible and being in shape because it is a position where natural athleticism has carried these guys. What we're trying to do is make them realize that all that power, speed and explosiveness, all those things that we think are important for guys skating out on the ice are just as important for goalies.

"What we try to tell the goalies is that you really should be the best athlete on the ice. He's the only guy that it really matters when he falls that he gets right up. If a forward or a defenseman falls down, there's a goalie there to back him up. If the goalie doesn't get up, in the NHL, somebody puts it under the crossbar for a goal. Their ability to move and respond and be explosive really makes a difference."

Don Sweeney
Older athletes realize that intensive programs can extend their careers. Don Sweeney, 37, in his 18th NHL season, is a longtime Boyle client.

Older athletes realize that intensive programs can extend their careers. Don Sweeney, 37, in his 18th NHL season, is a longtime Boyle client.

"It's a hockey-specific training schedule that played out from early in the summer, geared towards getting to training camp in peak physical condition, as well as being able to maintain your weight and explosiveness and strength through the course of an 82-game schedule," Sweeney said. "Obviously, you have some maintenance to do during the season. The core requirements that you do here on a daily basis sets you up for a healthy season.

"This program allows your back to be better, your hamstrings to be better and your hip flexors to be better. Those are the things that he's talking about lengthening out from the time you walk through the door at the beginning of the summer.

"You see guys having back problems over the course of their careers. I think that the things we do on a daily basis increase your chances of avoiding those problems. I think he gives you an advantage in that regard."

"Over time, we find our guys almost getting shorter from constantly being bent over," Boyle said. "Their shoulders are rounded and their hips are flexed. We have to correct that in the summer and get them back to full height. If they jump on a bike during the summer, they're spending 12 months in a rounded, bent-over position. Then, they wonder why when they elongate that tissue they get injured. To me, it's almost logical: You would expect them to get hurt from that.

"The aging process causes you to become more flexed. Hockey definitely makes that happen faster. That's why we put so much emphasis on flexibility and lengthening muscles. Then we strengthen those muscles that get long and weak so we get them out of those positions during the summer.

"One of the things that we have found over the last couple of years is that the inflexibility gets you long-term, not short-term," Boyle said. "The athletes need to keep doing these stretches and rehabilitative exercises that we're doing. Then we give them an in-season training program. One of the things most of the trainers and strength coaches in the NHL appreciate is the fact that the guys who work out with us are guys who will be easy to work with during the season. They're guys who are receptive to strength training during the season and maintaining their condition. I've had really good working relationships from the executives, the general managers, right down to the strength and conditioning coaches and the athletic trainers. That's made it a very easy situation for us here."

Boyle built his reputation with sport-specific training programs at Boston University, then parlayed it into a job as the strength and conditioning coach of the Boston Bruins. He left there to build his own company, Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning in Winchester, Mass. His success in training professional and amateur athletes led to the opening of a second facility in Canton, Mass.

Boyle recently received an offer he couldn't refuse and has relocated to Southern California. His partners, Walter Norton, the strength and conditioning coach of the Boston Celtics, and Bob Hanson will continue to offer advanced training programs to athletes.


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