For Buffalo Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner, the best part about using mixed martial arts training to get ready for the NHL season was the possibility of getting punched in the head.
Lehner, 25, said MMA training not only provided a more-engaging full-body workout than any of the traditional offseason exercises he has done in the past, but the threat of an opponent looking to land punches and kicks added the incentive to be spot-on with the reactive element with his hands, as well as the need to make the quick and accurate reads he relies on as a goaltender.
"You can do a lot of goalie drills on and off the ice, but it tends to be pretty one-dimensional," Lehner said. "When you are in the gym and spar with a coach or other fighters you have to read off a live human being, and if you don't do it right you get punished, you get a punch in the face. It's a little bit like being a goalie; if you don't do the right thing, the puck goes in the net."
The biggest difference between the two pursuits is trying to move out of the way of punches in MMA, instead of moving into the path of pucks in hockey, but Lehner sees similarities there.
"We also have good reflexes of getting hit in the right areas," he said. "If a puck comes at your face, you put your forehead out; you don't put your chin out."
Over the summer, Lehner sought out Corey Webster, who runs WNY MMA & Fitness in Buffalo. Along with having a passion for the sport, Lehner believed MMA skills mimicked the read-and-react elements important to being an NHL goaltender.
"I feel like it correlates a lot to what I do on the ice, moving with my feet at the same time as being able to move my arms and have my focus on something with my eyes," Lehner said. "At the same time, you build explosiveness. I feel like it is one of the most complete workouts you can do, because you connect all the muscles in your body and you also have coordination and timing and reads; exactly what we do on a day-to-day basis as a goalie."
Webster said he didn't know a lot about hockey before meeting Lehner. He also didn't recognize Lehner when the Swedish goalie first walked into the gym with a friend in a search of a more interesting, engaging workout.
But as Webster got to know more about Lehner, he saw similarities that went beyond strength and fitness.
Listening to Webster discuss Lehner's training, it sounds a lot like Henrik Lundqvist, the No. 1 goalie for the New York Rangers, talk about the work done to find a state of relaxed intensity. That work was done with Lehner's father, Michael, a goalie coach in Sweden.
"We were able to work more on keeping [Lehner] calm and loose and reactive-type training," said Webster, who has trained World Kickboxing Association world champion Amer Abdallah, among others. "If you are tense, you are going to be a little slower, not going to be as quick to move. You want to be loose and real fluid, and that was one of the things with the defensive motions [Lehner] picked up really well."
For Lehner, the attraction to MMA also was part of a desire to improve his fitness after being slowed by injuries during the past two seasons. He had a concussion during the 2014-15 season with the Ottawa Senators and played in 25 games. Last season, his first in Buffalo, was derailed in his first game when he injured his ankle. The corrective surgery left him with four pins in his right leg and limited him to 21 games.
To be ready for this season, Lehner decided to stay in Buffalo with his family to train, doing two workouts a day, five or six days a week, starting with 90 minutes with Webster in the morning.
Video: BUF@VAN: Lehner robs Sutter with strong save
"Everyone is different, but I feel going into the gym is pretty boring if you do cardio on a bike," Lehner said. "A 30-minute bike ride feels like an hour to me. But when you are in with a good trainer, you do boxing, you do sparring and you go for two hours and it doesn't feel like that long. You get a lot out of your workouts, you are totally soaked afterward, you build up your cardio, you burn fat [at] the same time as you move. I think it's a good combination."
Lehner said he's down to 235 pounds from "around 250" going into the summer. The 6-foot-4 goalie, who insists he has played well at heavier weights, says he can feel the difference in practices, and knows it will ease the stress on his body.
Some of the changes were obvious in Lehner's first four starts this season, but he has been sidelined since Oct. 20 because of illness.
Lehner believes slight alterations in his playing style being implemented through Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen also will be beneficial this season.
"Just moving less, smaller movements, a lot more small shuffles," Lehner said. "I feel like I can let pucks come to me more, but I still read and react a lot in my game and he lets me. He doesn't want to take that away from me."
Given how well Lehner read and reacted in Webster's gym, why would he?
"If he wanted to be a professional fighter, he could do that," Webster said. "His right hand has some wicked power; I would not want to be on the receiving end of that."
For now, Lehner is content to use that powerful right hand to steer pucks away with his blocker, at least until it's time to for some off-ice training again next summer.