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Neal the Burn

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Here is a look at Penguins forward James Neal during his offseason workouts. Watch as he spends the summer with former Pen Gary Roberts getting ready for the 2011-12 season. The full show will be available on in late September.

At the beginning of summer, Penguins forward James Neal wanted to start an intense and productive workout regime. Enter Gary Roberts.

Neal spent the offseason training with the former Penguin, who’s built a reputation as one of the most respected trainers in the business with his intense nutrition and fitness programs that have reaped colossal benefits for those who partake in them.

What makes Roberts so credible is how he was able to resurrect his own career using a radical diet and exercise program after a serious neck injury forced him to retire at age 30. He went on to play 11 more seasons, retiring on his own terms two years ago.

Neal watched this incredible story unfold while growing up in Whitby, Ontario – the same town Roberts is from.

“We’re both from Whitby, so he was a guy I always looked up to,” Neal said, calling Roberts his role model. “We’ve had a great relationship ever since I started training with him. He keeps me focused on the task at hand. He wants the best for me. He’s great.”

Neal, 23, trained with Roberts for three summers as a teenager before their careers took them their separate ways. The two then reconnected last year after Roberts joined the Dallas Stars organization as their Player Development Consultant.

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“He’s just a guy who knows the game so well,” Neal said of Roberts, who also trained Penguins center Jordan Staal this summer. “He knows what the everyday regimen of an NHL player is and he knows what it takes in the summers and during the year. It’s great. He gives us the rest we need, then he pushes us at the pace we need to be pushed at to give us the ability to be strong throughout the whole season.”

This summer marked the opening of the Gary Roberts High Performance Centre at the Fitness Institute in Toronto, where Neal spent six days a week working on building his strength and quickness.

“My training is focused on what I need to improve in on the ice,” Neal said. “Everyone wants to get faster. A big part of playing my game is skating and speed. You always try to strengthen your legs and get faster on the ice. At the same time, when you play a physical game and you’re in the corners and battling in front, you’ve got to have the strength to do that.”

While Roberts helped keep Neal focused during the week, what also kept the Penguins forward motivated were the talented crop of players he trains alongside.

Their group included Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, who’s scored 96 goals over the last two seasons, and Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner, last year’s Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s top rookie.

“We get a good group of guys that train together,” Neal said. “It’s just a good atmosphere in the gym. When you’re there every day pushing yourself, it’s good to have these guys around.”

What also motivated Neal is training alongside his younger brother Mike, Dalla’s fifth-round pick (149th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

The brothers, who share a home in Whitby during the offseason, kept each other on track with the nutritional aspect of their training by ordering their weekly meals from Nature’s Emporium, a holistic food market that has partnered with Roberts.

“We live together and train together,” Neal said of Mike, 22.  “We’re close in age. We push each other in the gym and on the ice, so it’s perfect the way it works out.”

Now that Neal is officially back in Pittsburgh after a productive summer of training, he’s ready to get a fresh start.

“I just feel so much more comfortable here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to being settled and being focused on just hockey. I’ll just be ready to go.”

Neal at the Fitness Institute with Steven Stamkos, Adam Hall and Gary Roberts.
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