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Unmasked: MMA training boosts Canadiens' Condon

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Goalie Mike Condon had to fight hard for everything he's gotten so far in hockey, including his current spot as the Montreal Canadiens' backup, so maybe it shouldn't be surprising to hear he trained for the job with a mixed martial artist.

Near the top of many factors that went into Condon's out-of-nowhere ascension from undrafted, unsigned Princeton graduate to part of the fastest start in Canadiens history is his work with Scott Rehm, an MMA fighter who runs Pro Elite Training Center and Fitness in Cape Cod, Mass.

"I was a fat, out-of-shape, Olympic-lifting goalie coming out of college with an NHL contract and no idea how to prepare for it," Condon told of first seeking out Ream based on "word of mouth" recommendations three years ago. "He pretty much changed everything."

Mike Condon was in net for two games during Montreal's franchise-record nine-game winning streak. (Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI)

Condon wasn't even the starter until his senior season at Princeton, but parlayed a .923 save percentage in that final season into an amateur tryout in the ECHL after it ended. After a .943 save percentage in four games, he got another tryout up in the American Hockey League, where he made enough of an impression to start in the playoffs and earn a contract with Montreal.

Now Condon is the backup to Carey Price, chipping in two wins to the Canadiens' franchise-record nine game winning streak to start the season. But his fast track wasn't an easy one.

It wasn't until after signing the contract that Condon started working with Ream to rebuild a body that already had two surgically repaired hips. They worked six days a week from July 1 through September, with a focus on strengthening Condon's core and his mental game.

"It was a lonely summer, just me and him in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere in Cape Cod," Condon said. "He's not only a strength coach, but he's good mentally. As a goalie it can be hard to take advice from people who haven't played, but there are certain characters you meet that have a lot more credibility in your eyes, who have actually stepped into that proverbial ring. When you talk about stress with him, he has actually had to step into a cage with a guy next to him who can physically kill him. There's a preparation and an intensity there we both have."

Condon isn't training to fight, though they do mix in boxing classes "for fun"; the workouts are designed to mimic a game using interval training and a heart rate monitor.

Condon called it "metabolic conditioning."

"It's almost like getting in fight shape," he said. "On a [penalty kill], your heart rate goes up to 180 and the quicker you can get your heart back down to a comfortable rate around 130, a working heart rate, and still be able to breath and keep your eyes open and react, that's the biggest thing. To be able to react and think when your body is fully stressed, that's what we try to mimic."

Hearing about the work he's put in, maybe it shouldn't be a shock Condon got the backup job in Montreal, even if the decision to send incumbent Dustin Tokarski to the AHL caught most off-guard. It wasn't a surprise to Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Garret Sparks, who ran GGSU goalie camps with Condon and Chicago Blackhawks backup Scott Darling in the summer.

"He told me in June he was making the Canadiens and he committed himself and made it happen," Sparks said. "He is a product of development and pure desire to succeed."

From the outside it was easy to understand the surprise over Condon getting the job. He spent his first season in the Canadiens organization in the ECHL before moving up to the AHL, posting a .921 save percentage last season.

Not only was the 25-year-old short on pro experience, he'd spent most of his career on the bench. Even in prep school, the Needham, Mass., native was a backup until his senior season.

"In my mind it's strictly perseverance," said Brian Daccord, who runs Stop It Goaltending near Boston and has worked with Condon since bantam. "He's had to battle since he was a kid."

All those battles and benches might have helped make Condon a perfect candidate to play behind Price. Sporadic starts are not easy for any goalie, but Condon knows how to manage his well-structured game through long gaps between appearances.

"You can go two, three weeks without a game in college," said Daccord. "But when you get the call you have to be ready to go, no excuses. That's the world he grew up in."

Montreal goalie coach Stephane Waite thinks Condon's style fits the job description. The 6-foot-2 goalie will challenge outside his crease in the right situation, but mostly plays a controlled, contained game that is less reliant on the rhythm of playing a lot.

"He'll be good at it, and he doesn't have to play a lot of games to be good because of the way he plays and the size he's got," Waite said. "It's not like a reactor goalie that has to play a lot to be good. Guys who like to challenge, they have to play a lot of be good. If you play just two or three times a month, that's tough, but that kind of goalie [Condon], I'm not worried for him."

Waite isn't worried about the Condon having the necessary work ethic.

"If you want to stay sharp there's no secret: Do extra every day and I will tell you when it's time to leave the ice," Waite said. "He'll never ask, 'That's enough, no more.' He'll never ask that."

Condon has never had that luxury. Since getting a taste of NHL life when Montreal included him among the Black Aces in the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons, Condon has done everything in his power to become a full-time NHL goalie, even if it's in a part-time role.

"I've been on sleeper buses in the [ECHL]," he said. "I have seen what a privilege this is and I don't want to go backwards so I am going do everything I can to go forward."

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