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Hard work paying off for Kassian

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks freelance writer Jeff Angus recently had the opportunity to talk training and Zack Kassian with Dave Orton. Orton, who has been training professional athletes for over a decade, worked with Kassian in the summer of 2012.

Angus: Dave, tell me a bit about your background in fitness and sports training.

Orton: “I played junior hockey and lacrosse, and lucky for me at a young age I was exposed to a really good strength and conditioning coach in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, where I played.

”I was never the guy who made a team because I had any talent.”

It was always the work ethic?

”Yeah. Any team I have ever made was a result of working harder than the guy who didn’t get the spot.

”From an early age I had a lot of respect for having to earn it. And that carried on into my MMA career as well. I was never that talented, but I was stronger and more dedicated than the other guys.”

So with training hockey players – was that something you got into at the outset, or did it come more along the way?

”I was always involved with hockey, and I was always training hockey players, but my biggest break as a trainer was getting [former NHL defenseman] Andy Delmore as a client.

”He was one of the first guys I got years ago. And then it was just the process where you have to build your reputation off of the success of the people you are training.”

Flash forward to present day…

”Marty [client Matt Martin of the New York Islanders] is made out of stone. I couldn’t over train that guy if I tried. The guy is a genetic freak. I wish I could say everything I have done is why he is 220 pounds and in incredible shape.

”Kass [Kassian] on the other hand, has a lot more athleticism and is more powerful naturally. When it comes time to work, there isn’t a guy in the gym who is going to outwork him.

”When he started training with us, everybody thought Marty was the guy to beat in the gym. But as time went on, we started to see that Kass was up there too.

Was 2012 your first summer working with Kassian?

”I was with him the year before briefly. With Kass he had been working with the Windsor Spitfires strength coach previously.”

Kassian had quite a busy summer in 2012. He trained in Vancouver with the Sedins. He went to the Nike Performance Center in Oregon, along with a few other Canucks prospects. What was your level of interaction with him when he was away from Windsor?

”When he went to the Nike Performance Center to train, they were setting up the routines, and they would show him something and he would already know the exercise from working with me.”

It is just the confidence to go in there and know what to do?

”I told him to take a mental note or write stuff down that he did down there that I am not doing with him back in Windsor, as I don’t know everything that is out there. And it’s Nike, they have billions of dollars of research behind them, so if they are doing something different, I want to know about it.

”He said there wasn’t much different down there. And they identified the same corrective problem strategies for Kass that I had identified. When he brought that experience back from Nike, it was reassuring to know that we were on track.”

When you and Zack started training together last summer, did he have any specific goals or things that he wanted to improve on?

”For sure. His shoulder was a big one. He separated it late in the season.

”When he came in to start training, he said he wanted to be leaner, get his shoulder better, and he wanted to get stronger. The Canucks wanted him to come back leaner as well.

The big thing – a lot of players who get leaner lose something from their game, especially someone like Zack who is physical and relies on his size to protect the puck.

”His strength went way up. We were pushing and pulling some big numbers by the end of summer.”

And with regards to getting leaner, how did you do that?

”With the late part of our training, we fully believe in getting our athletes to perform optimally while fatigued. I took a page out of training MMA athletes – to be strong while fatigued.”

Mental conditioning.

”Yeah. A lot of it is mental toughness.

”Conditioning is a kick in the pants. Lifting weights is hard, but conditioning is really tough.”

And that translates over to hockey with regards to being strong at the end of a shift, or battling in the corner or the front of the net.

”And more for a guy like Kass who has to park himself in front of the net. If he is completely gassed and has nothing left in the tank, he is still going to be strong enough to not lose position.”

Canucks GM Mike Gillis has marveled at the effectiveness of the MMA conditioning work you did with Kassian. Do you think it is something that more trainers should use?

”It is something that the guys really enjoy.

”And I also brought in a striking coach from the MMA team that I work with. The guys learned some legitimate boxing from a guy who tailored it to be useful for hockey players.”

Especially if that is their role, it is only going to help them if they ever need to use that skill.

”Exactly. Watching them when they started working with the striking coach, it wasn’t very clean, but then as the summer went on they got good at it, especially Kass and Marty.”

What are your overall thoughts on Kassian?

”Living in Windsor my whole life, he is a big figure down here and everybody loves him.

”Over the last two years that I have known Kass, I have seen him grow up more than anybody I have dealt with in the last 10 years. He loves playing hockey, but he realizes that it is also his job. He really matured a lot from 2011 to 2012. When he is at the gym, he is hard to beat. He comes in, he is ready to work.

”He will stop for any kid that wants an autograph. He’s really respectful, and as a teacher if you earn his respect, you have it. He doesn’t overcomplicate stuff, and that is going to pay dividends for him in the long run.

”He’s more mature than some of the guys who have been in the show for 10 years.”

What about his upside as an NHL player?

”It’s the tip of the iceberg. If you look at tape from his junior days, he has a great set of hands, and he knows where to be out on the ice. He knows when to make the right play, and the more ice time he gets, and the more confidence people show in him, the better he is going to be.

”Kass has a lot of talent, and it is just a matter of learning how to use it. I am glad that he didn’t get painted as the guy who is there to only fight. He can score goals and he can really play hockey.”

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