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Every Prospect Was Kung-Fu Fighting

by John Gibson / Vancouver Canucks
On Tuesday, the twenty players at this week’s Prospects Development Camp left the bowels of GM Place and headed for a much more different type of dryland workout.

The potential Canucks traveled to the “Dynamic Mixed Martial Arts” studio on Cambie and W 42nd to take part in an unexpected and unorthodox form of hockey training.

The goal of the training session wasn’t to pit prospect against prospect in hand-to-hand combat. Rather, the aim was to add more variation to the player’s workouts, keep their muscles guessing, and let them try something new.

The studio, co-owned by Joel Wasel and Cliff Kusch, is dedicated to a diverse range of martial arts forms. Kusch, who is also a member of the Vancouver Police Department, believed that a martial arts workout would still be beneficial to such high-caliber athletes.

“Martial arts as a practice is all encompassing,” Kusch said. “It can improve focus, reaction times, speed, agility, balance, discipline, and mental and physical toughness. And these qualities are pretty beneficial for world-class hockey players.”

The prospects, along with Strength & Conditioning Coach Roger Takahashi, were first taken through the paces by Wasel. And like any Kung-Fu movie, the session began with a group bow. Starting with basic stretches and starting poses, Wasel moved on to punches, kicks, and various incorporations of the two.

Everything was done to music and at a relentless three-minute interval pace, with only a few seconds break before moving on to the next routine. Players like Luc Bourdon and Jannik Hansen were intently concentrating on their form and breathing, as Wasel shouted out combinations for the group to complete.

With the precision and synchronous-coordination of the North Korean army, the two lines of players hit every punch and kick with force. After this strenuous introduction, the prospects partnered up to work on their sparring. Wasel had them complete drills where one player (with a flat-sparring pad over his hand) would yell out the numbers 1-4, while their partner completed the corresponding jab, cross, or uppercut.


Jannik Hansen introduced his fists of fury to his partner Shaun Heshka, while the Vancouver Giants’ Mario Bliznak called out combinations for his partner Juraj Simek to execute. Simek was clearly a standout for the instructors, and was even asked to show the group his excellent technique. The players then announced that his new nickname should be “Muhammad Ali,” perhaps for his ability to float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee. His fancy footwork also garnered him the less-than-enviable nickname of “Twinkle Toes.”

When asked about his natural abilities, Simek explained that this wasn’t his first foray into martial arts. “I did some boxing and stuff like this when I was a bit younger. And last year with my team back home, we did all sorts of training and I really liked it.”
Everyone appeared to be in high spirits, and was drenched in sweat after a few sessions of three-minute sparring. Their smiles disappeared however, when the colourful Wassel jokingly announced, “Now that we’re warmed-up, we can begin.”

Head instructor Adam Ryan then took over to run the prospects through some Mixed Martial Arts and Jiu Jitsu training. Ryan, who has over 17 years of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, judo, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training, likened the natural movements of Mixed Martial Arts to that of hockey, where form and technique are paramount.

“MMA is a thinker’s game, it’s a real science,” Ryan said. “If you dominate your position, you will stay in control and win.” With such transferable advice to hockey, the instructors then went through reverse-holds and choke-holds, and imparted wise adages such as “Choke unto your partner, as he would choke unto you,” and “When you hear the ‘tap tap’ it means stop. It is not applause!”

Perhaps taking this advice to heart, while working on their holds, Luc Bourdon hit partner Charles-Antoine Messier hard against the wall. The loud bang that resulted caused both players to erupt into laughter, and was done with such force that it knocked the picture frames hanging on the other side of the adjoining office clear off the wall. No injuries were caused, but the glass in the frames had seen better days.


Another standout for the instructors was scrappy centre Rick Rypien. “He’s definitely had some fighting experience,” said Kusch. “He looks like a natural.” Rypien, after all, won over the hearts of many a Canuck fan after being told not to fight by Head Coach Alain Vigneault in his first game of the season, but promptly got into, and won, a scrap against Colorado’s Ian Laperriere in his first shift of the game.

Post-workout, Rypien had nothing but positive things to say. “It was a lot of fun. I was looking forward to doing this as soon as I found out it was on the plan for the week. I’d definitely do it again, and maybe even on the side a little bit.” Along with his enthusiasm, Rypien’s aptitude for the day’s training may be found in his genes. “I’ve done some of this stuff before. I know a little bit of the holds that we practiced on the ground, but nothing too crazy. My dad was actually a golden gloves boxer. He’s taught me some things, and I’ve picked lot up from him.”

“It was a great experience,” recent Canucks draftee Dan Gendur said post-workout. “It shows just what sort of excellent condition those athletes are in to be able to do their sport.” When asked if it was as hard as it looked, Gendur let out a laugh. “It was probably harder than that. I think it was harder than a lot of guys expected at least. It was a good workout though.”

Each prospect clearly enjoyed themselves, and continued practicing their moves in the parking lot after the session was over. When asked about the usefulness for hockey, Gendur noted, “The stand-up stuff would be good for balance, but I don’t think we could really choke someone in hockey!”
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