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DOWN TO A SCIENCE

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

You simply don't, for example, put pay-at-the-pump cheap Octane 87 into a $4.5 million Lamborghini Veneno Roadster and expect it to reach 60 mph in 6.9 seconds.

"These guys today," marvels Ryan van Asten, "are so finely-tuned, in such extraordinary shape.

"They know what to eat, how to work out, how to take care of themselves. They're very aware.

"It's no secret that nutrition, along with the strength and conditioning aspects, are vitally important in today's game. The differences between winning and losing can depend on them, and the margins of difference are so small.

"Everything is done to maximize performance.

"That's our job.

"Look at a guy like Mark Giordano. The ultimate, to me. We've all heard the stories a million times: In the gym every day, fittest guy on the team every year, even now, mid-30s.

"Does everything right. Doesn't compromise. Works as hard as he possibly can in continuing to be an elite player.

"And there he is - right at the top. Still.

"We couldn't select a better example for the rest of the players."

Ryan van Asten, or simply RvA to anyone around the rink, is the man in charge of strength and conditioning for the Flames.

Now in his fifth season in charge of fitness down at the Scotiabank Saddledome, he'll happily concede that the ever-evolving nature of the job can be both compelling and exhausting.

"Alan (Selby), my assistant strength coach, and I spend so much time reading, keeping up with new advancements," says van Asten. "I don't want to necessarily say there's false information out there, but information that can be interpreted incorrectly by people without qualifications.

"I just think it's important to be careful, especially when reading the popular press. Because it is hard, especially for an athlete, to decipher what is right and what is wrong.

"I tell our guys, and they're pretty good about this: Any questions, come to us. And if we don't know the answer, we'll find it. There's so much material out there today, it's difficult for the guys to figure out.

"We've got to make sure we've got the most up-to-date information so we can provide science-based recommendations, not fad-based, for players. It's not glamorous, it's not sexy, like some of the gurus would like you to believe.

"Everything we do here is science-based."

The technological side of the conditioning aspect takes quite some keeping up with, as well.

"Used to be monitoring consisted of: 'So, how do you feel on a scale of 1-10?' A subjective questionnaire kind of thing," said van Asten. "Whereas now, we monitor them on the ice, in the weight room, use different devices to obtain actual objective information.

"Some of it's been around for a while but is relatively new in the NHL."

A sports nut growing up, van Asten played hockey all the way to the university level at Queen's.

Always interested in training aspects, as well as biology and physiology ("My best subjects in school"), he graduated from the U of C with a Master of Science degree in Neuromuscular Physiology, also earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Life Sciences and a Bachelor of Physical and Health Education from Queen's.

"With the Olympic Oval and all the facilities close by I had a ton of access to elite athletes, saw them training and said to myself: 'Hey, maybe I can do this side of sport as a career.'

"When I was growing up, that was an option that had never even existed."

As luck would have it, he ended up doing an internship in Pensacola, Fla., at Athletes Performance, where he worked with NFL players, the main clientele of the program, such as Marcus Washington and Cornelius Griffin.

"It was that time I realized this was the direction I wanted to go."

Jumping at an opening posted by the Canadian Sports Institute, van Asten had the opportunity to work with the national luge team, Hockey Canada and other national sport teams.

Through those connections at Athletes Performance, which has outlets in various U.S. cities, he landed an interview with the L.A. Kings, spending three seasons in SoCal and being a part of two Stanley Cup winners, in 2012 and '14, before returning back to Calgary to join the Flames.

"This is a great group to work with," says van Asten. "Since I've been here we've always had a really, really good group. There's a spectrum for sure. If Mark Giordano's on one end, there's someone else on the other end. But the training culture here, since before I arrived, you could tell was really strong. I have no complaints."

NHLers, of course, are highly-paid professionals trying to parlay a relatively short career life into the most, both competitively and financially.

Therefore, unshakable belief in the advice or information you're being given is nothing short of paramount.

"Trust," agrees van Asten, "can be the biggest component. At the end of the day, you could have the greatest nutrition program but if the players don't trust you and don't do what you're recommending, it's not going to work anyway.

"We have an open-door policy. Have a question? Ask. I'm certainly open to suggestions. If someone like Gio, for instance, with his experience in the league and attention to this side of it, wants to discuss something, I'm all ears.

"And the reality we all have to understand is, everyone's different. So you have to look at the individual. What might be appropriate for one guy, isn't for another.

"Not that long ago, the blanket-type thinking was: Everybody needs to be doing this, this and this. No variance. This is the program.

"Nowadays, we do things like monitor blood level, for vitamins, minerals and hormones and say: 'OK, this guy is deficient in vitamin D so we need to increase his intake of that.' Whereas others might be deficient in X, Y or Z.

"You do, in a sense, have to customize the programs for each player."

Not that he pretends to have each and every answer.

"I'm not going to sit here and say my way is the only way. My view has been shaped by my experiences throughout my career. Another strength/conditioning coach could have a completely different take, maybe one of the guys players use during summers back home, but as long as we're reaching the same goal, I'm completely okay with that.

"At the same time, it might help me learn. Because when you're here, in it, you're almost in a bubble. Alan and I are like-minded, confirming each other's opinions all the time. So it's hard to get other perspectives, from other people, and that's when you're challenged, when you learn the most."

Over the course of his career, van Asten's worked alongside any number of both professional and high performance amateurs, a few of whom are, simply, special.

"There are some people who are gifted. They certainly can be but they're not necessarily the fittest guy or the guy who spends the most time in the gym. From a strictly pure-athlete standpoint, Drew Doughty stands out. He's just able to do things other can't, and it came naturally. He didn't think about what he was doing. He just did it.

"A guy on our team who's like that is Johnny Gaudreau. People might not think that because of his size, but he's an outstanding, outstanding natural athlete."

Coach, trainer, fitness guru, the end game is the same.

"At the end of the day, it's the performance of the players on the ice that matters,'' van Asten emphasizes. "Bottom line.

"When we're not playing well or are suffering injuries, I take it extremely personal, and end up re-evaluating everything I do. That's probably the hardest thing, to step back, re-evaluate and learn from mistakes.

"But when guys succeed …

"Obviously being in L.A. and winning a couple of championships, to watch guys you work day-in and day-out with reach the pinnacle, it's … well, hard to describe.

"To see a guy like Robyn Regehr finally get the chance to lift the Cup, so great. When he got to L.A., we hit it off right away, Calgary connection and all that. Loved Reggie's style. He injured himself second round that year, hurt his knee. But he's a worker, like Gio, fought so hard to come back. It's tough, though, we were winning.

"But just to be able to see him hoist the Cup, the second guy I believe to get it, Dustin Brown passing it to him, well, you could see Reg tearing up a little.

"That, to me, is what this is all about.

"To feel you had some small part in helping these guys achieve their ultimate goal, well, there's no better feeling in the world.

"And that's what we all want to experience together here."

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