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Al MacInnis
Al Macinnis' dedicatIon to fitness served him well until eye injuries recently sent him to the injured list.
Mint condition

By Larry Wigge | Impact! columnist

It's early afternoon, the lazy time of day in early June of 2000. Regina Pats defenseman Barret Jackman is in his sweats and getting ready to go down to the lake near his home in Trail, British Columbia and run as part of his personal summer training program.

The phone rings.

Jackman recalls that the ring is quite a bit louder than usual. Rather than let the answering machine pick up the call and go on with his run, Barret reaches for the phone.

''Hello, Barret?''

''Yes, it is.''

''This is Al MacInnis.''

''OK,'' Jackman recalls saying.

Jackman was actually thinking to himself, which one of his friends would be trying to pull a practical joke on me ("One of my friends called the previous week and told my sister he was Chris Pronger," Jackman recalls).

Then, he realizes it really is Al MacInnis, when the St. Louis Blues All-Star defenseman reminds him of a conversation they had about working out at training camp the previous September.

''I hear you had a pretty good season in Regina and turned a few heads at Worcester (the Blues' AHL affiliate) in the playoffs,'' MacInnis says. ''Remember that guy I told you about who has does wonders training me in the off-season? Well, I think you ought to call him.''

Think about it for a minute. MacInnis, who just finished a Norris Trophy-winning season as the NHL's best defenseman is calling you out of the clear blue and telling you, a 19-year-old aspiring defenseman, to go to see this guy in Phoenix to help your career along. Wouldn't you take his advice?

''As soon as I hung up, I called the travel agent and made reservations to Phoenix for the next day,'' Jackman recalls.

Barret Jackman
Barret Jackman took MacInnis' off-season advise and it paid off royally in a monster rookie season for the defenseman.

Everyone talks about the big jump from junior or college to the minor leagues and then the even bigger jump in talent from minors to the NHL. But an even bigger gap on that ladder to really competing in the big leagues is being strong enough to go one-on-one with NHL talent.

Usually it's your first NHL coach or a general manager who says, ''Son, you've got all the talent in the world, but you need to be stronger to play in this League.''

Sometimes, an older player encounters a wise, old veteran who dresses him down about the condition he's in.

Keith Tkachuk was that "older player" at the end of the 2000-01 season, when he completed his first couple months with the Blues after being acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes.

Now, this is a 6-foot-2, 225-pound All-Star left winger who scored 50 and 52 goals with the Winnipeg Jets in 1995-96 and 1996-97. When MacInnis approached, Tkachuk was 29 and coming off a 35-goal season and a trip to the Western Conference Finals where Tkachuk was pretty strong for the Blues. But MacInnis felt the visit to his trainer was important for Tkachuk.

''Al didn't just ask me to call this guy. He told me to call him,'' Tkachuk recalls. ''He told me, 'The older you get, the more you need to look after yourself.'

''Al felt I did all right against Derian Hatcher in our second-round series against Dallas. ... Pushing and working for position with the big boys you know. ... But maybe I used up too much energy against Hatcher and didn't have enough against Adam Foote in the next series against Colorado, when we lost.''

Though MacInnis is currently out of the Blues' lineup following surgery on his left eye and a laser procedure on his right eye, it's clear that Al carries a lot of stature around the Blues locker room. And well he should.

Remember, last season MacInnis, at 40, was the runner-up to Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom for the Norris Trophy.

Keith Tkachuk
Tkachuck didn't bristle at MacInnis' suggestion that getting bigger and stronger would aid in his quest to be an elite power forward.

''This is a tough league to play in. You have to be in the best shape of your life to compete night-in, night-out,'' says Blues center Doug Weight, another of the St. Louis disciples in the work Phoenix-based Charles Poliquin does for professional athletes. ''I remember coming here two years ago with an abdominal injury from my last season in Edmonton. I couldn't shake it. Then I heard Al, Walt (Keith Tkachuk), Dallas Drake and Chris Pronger talking about this guy in Phoenix.

''It was an easy decision for me, because I was hurting and looking for help. It also didn't hurt that I lived in Phoenix in the off-season.''

Weight learned that Poliquin also treats injuries as part of the training -- and that was even more important for Doug than just getting bigger, stronger and quicker.

Conditioning is everything that it takes to make a player more prepared to shine on the ice in the NHL, whether that be weight work, off-ice explosion, reducing body fat, teaching a player to eat right or power skating techniques.

''I remember being back home in Boston in the summer of 1997 when the Bruins picked this guy named Joe Thornton first overall in the draft and they talked about how even though there aren't many players who come right out of the draft and play in the NHL that this guy could do it,'' Tkachuk recalls. ''I thought to myself, 'Nice looking kid. Blond locks. Poster boy for the Bruins, who were struggling and missed the playoffs.' 'But even though he was already 6-4, 200 pounds and giant among boys in junior hockey, I thought, 'Geez, is he ever in for a rude awakening in the NHL.' I thought he was too skinny.''

Three goals. Four assists.

That's what Thornton produced for the Bruins in 55 games in his rookie season.

Tkachuk was right.

It was just another example of that transition of big fish in a little pond in the world of junior hockey to swimming with sharks in the NHL that MacInnis stressed to Jackman.

The next summer Thornton stayed in Boston and bulked up with the aid of Mike Boyle, another of those personal trainers who has done wonders with NHL players.

Doug Weight
Doug Weight used MacInnis' trainer to help kick a troublesome abdominal injury.

''Whether you are in the best shape of your life coming into the NHL, you are still a boy beginning a career with men or a 40-year-old veteran coming into his 23rd NHL season, the fact remains there's always a young kid out there ready to push you, whether it's on your team or an opponent,'' MacInnis says. ''Some of the guys on the Blues kid me, saying that I must get a kickback from Charles for recommending him to so many of our players. But I don't.

''To me, every time you go one-on-one with someone in this game, they can make a fool of you if you aren't in the best shape of your life. I've got enough pride in my game to know that I don't want that happening to me.''

MacInnis smiles. He's clearly an advocate of this conditioning craze.

''Just look at him,'' says Jackman. ''No one beats him to the puck. Few out-muscle him. And look at his stamina. Next to Nicklas Lidstrom, he played more minutes than any other player. And he's 40.''

MacInnis just laughs when he hears Jackman singing his praises.

''Seeing a kid like Barret Jackman come into the NHL and be strong enough and smart enough to dominate the way he did in winning Rookie of the Year last season makes me feel pretty good,'' MacInnis says. ''You know something, I learned a long time ago that there are just too many young kids coming into this League who are big and strong and skilled -- and they can embarrass you if you aren't prepared.''

Then he gives me a wink and says, ''And if you can beat a hotshot kid 20 years younger than you with a pass or shot or defensive play, it shows that these old bones aren't ready to be put out to pasture just yet.''


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