By the time the Blue Jackets hit the ice in October to start the 2017-18 season, players will have invested countless hours of preparation towards being as ready as possible for a successful campaign. One piece of that recipe for success lies in working with the Jackets' director of high performance, Nelson Ayotte.
Since joining the team in the summer of 2016, Ayotte has worked with each of the players in the Jackets organization to develop individual training plans focused on helping each reach his highest level of performance.
"I don't know if it's because I'm Canadian, but I have found hockey players to be some of the most dedicated athletes, and I like the challenge of being with them," Ayotte said. "That being said, training-wise, I don't train hockey players. I train athletes."
Ayotte himself understands what it means to compete at the highest levels of a sport. As a teen, he competed in cross-country skiing and biathlon events. There was no formal path to a career in sports for him when he finished school, so he went into the military, which held the world championships for the biathlon. Ayotte continued to compete and quickly found himself to be the best among his peers.
"They said to me, 'nobody can coach, do you want to coach us?'" Ayotte said. "They started to send me on my coaching courses and I kept going level to level. In 1994, I stopped competing and they offered me (the opportunity) to be a coach fulltime."
Ayotte attended the international coaching school at the University of Victoria. Today, he is one of fewer than 100 people since 1974 to achieve level five certification from the National Canadian Coaching Program.
He had offers to work in football, but relationships with hockey players drew him to that sport and that is where Ayotte has spent the majority of his time since.
Today, Ayotte's approach to working with players is one that is holistic and highly individualized.
"He sees the weaknesses and strengths in different guys and areas that he thinks you can really improve," Jackets forward Boone Jenner said. "He gets to know each of our bodies and puts together a program. We're all similar in that we might all be doing legs on the same day, but the exercises might be different."
And that's part of the core of Ayotte's methodology. It doesn't matter if your skating, skiing or walking. If your main weakness is your back, it will impact your ability to perform the tasks before you. Thus, Ayotte builds his programs around the individual, not the "specificity of the sport."
Ayotte also looks at an athlete's "training age," meaning how long one has been seriously training, as well as all aspects of how a body works.
"There's nothing that works by itself," Ayotte said. "That's why it's so important to be versatile and learn more about the human body as a whole. Nutrition, supplements, lifestyle, sleeping. It's all tied together because it's all tied to performance too."
But designing the program isn't the endgame of Ayotte's work. He remains in close contact with players throughout the execution of their plan.
"I always compare coaching athletes to parenting," Ayotte said. "The goal is to bring them to a place of being self-sufficient at the end. With an athlete who is young, it's a more directive type of coaching. As you grow with the athlete, then it's more suggestive."
For Jenner, who is in his first full off-season under Ayotte's program, the communication has been constant and beneficial.
"I was (in Columbus at the start of the offseason) and I got to know my program for five weeks so I felt comfortable when I got back home," Jenner said. "But I would still text him quite a bit. Sometimes it's questions, or how it is going. I also sent a couple videos back and forth making sure it's all being done right."
It's all about being as prepared as possible heading into training camp and the regular season. Ayotte had players focused on building up aerobic fitness and strength through the summer so they can transition to "maintenance mode" as they face the grueling realities of an 82-game season.
"The off-season is so big nowadays and that's where you can make so many gains," Jenner said. "Endurance-wise, strength-wise, working with (Ayotte) and our other trainers is huge. They know so much and help so much. They are approachable and know so much about the program."
Throughout it all, Ayotte will keep the communication going. It's player feedback about how they feel better in specific game situations that lets him know where to continue to work.
"It's cool how he does (what he does)," Jenner said. "and it's really beneficial for each of us."