The sore muscles delivered to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Tuesday’s early-morning workout at the United States Military Academy will fade quickly. Hopefully, the life lessons that First Sergeant J.B. Spisso delivered along with those fatigued muscles do not fade as fast.
Spisso, the head of Elite Leadership Training LLC and a member of the West Point staff, has been entrusted with putting the Penguins through their physical and mental paces during a four-day stay here. Tuesday marked the first full day of Pittsburgh’s tenure and Spisso kicked things off with a grueling regimen of military physical fitness exercises.
For 60 minutes, as the early-morning sun warmed the turf at legendary Michie Stadium, Spisso worked the Penguins in ways many of these physically fit players have never been worked before, running the team through a series of punishing drills involving the use of a 7-pound rubber rifle designed to simulate one of the assault rifles used by Army soldiers in the War on Terror.
“I look at them as an elite military unit, as far as fitness level,” Spisso said. “It’s the same way I would work out with a Special Forces unit or a Ranger unit in the military, you give these guys the same kind of workout.”
So, the Penguins did a variety of PT exercises – pushups, lunges, crawls and the like, all with the omnipresent rifles – before moving onto other drills designed to develop team concepts and chemistry. The buddy drills – fireman’s carry, the wounded buddy assist carry and others – involved teamwork and trust, along with physical strength, to complete.
John LeClair has been through a Spisso program before and he knew what to expect. He says his Penguin teammates behaved perfectly.
”You don’t want to let your teammates down and the guys really responded,” said LeClair.
Throughout the exercises, Spisso used a bullhorn to enhance an already stern voice, driving home some important points as the Penguin players exerted themselves.
When the team did not respond to one of Spisso’s statements in the appropriate fashion, he barked: “That was weak, down on your faces!” The requisite pushups were pounded out before the drills resumed.
Another time, as the Penguins struggled through a particular drill, Spisso showed his former drill instructor background by picking up the bullhorn and bellowing: “I will never quit, I will always put the mission first and I will never accept defeat.”
The Penguins soldiered on.
During the buddy drills, this simple message was hammered home: “Look to the man on your left and the man on your right. He’s counting on you. Don’t give up on him.”
During the wounded buddy carry, an exercise where two Penguins dragged a third teammate 50 yards, Spisso reminded the draggers to stay low. “There’s a reason you are staying low – you are being fired at. It seems to be, in combat, nobody has a problem doing this. It works, trust me.”
Colby Armstrong, for one, was glad there were no bullets present Tuesday morning.
“It was a real intense workout,” he said. “Thank God no bullets were being fired, it would have looked a little different.”Yes, the Penguins could laugh about it all when it was done. In fact some even laughed when it was going on, having fun at the expense of teammates that showed poor form in some of the more taxing Spisso drills.
The jumping-jack session to end the program was a prime example. The players were in perfect form for the first 20, but by the time Spisso reached 50, chaos was breaking loose in the formation. Sidney Crosby couldn’t help but laugh – until Spisso informed the group that they were only halfway done at 100 jumping jacks.
“It was funny because we were all watching each other and we were perfect for the first 20, myself included, and then after that you don’t jump up as high or out as far,” Crosby said. “Suddenly, everyone’s sliding a bit. Then, when we were at 100 and he said 100 more. You could just see everyone’s head drop.”
Spisso showed some mercy, though, calling a halt to the jumping-jack marathon at a mere 108. Then he delivered a sobering closing message that drove the point of the morning home for many.
“He just put a lot of things in perspective for us,” Crosby said. “You know, he said when you are playing and you have a bad game or a bad day, you can go to bed that night knowing you will see your family and friends and knowing you can come to the rink tomorrow and do things all over again.
“If you’re in battle or in a war, it is not always like that. You are not around family and friends and you might not live to see the next day. I think he just made us realize when things are tough, it is tough for us, but it’s a lot tougher for other people, too. He just made us realize how lucky we are.”
And, that, in the end, was the point of Tuesday’s exercise. It will also be the point of other exercises conducted by Spisso over the next 48 hours.
Dominic Moore, who went through Spisso’s program last year as a member of the New York Rangers, says many of these lessons will sink in during the coming days, or maybe even the coming weeks. But, at some point, the realizations will pay huge dividends for the players lucky enough to endure this West Point experience.
“Everything about this place reminds you, sort of, why you play sports,” Moore said. “It’s about being on a team. When you get down to it, everyone likes to win and make money, but it’s not about that in the end. It’s about the higher things, doing the best you can, constantly striving to be the best you can, always testing yourself. Those are the sorts of qualities that a place like this will remind you of and get you back to. That was what was good for us last year; it reminded us of why we played, why we work so hard. It’s those higher ideals.”
This was an experience members of that Ranger team called upon often as they navigated the treacherous road from also-ran to playoff participant – a road the Penguins are attempting to tackle for themselves this year.
“All year long, we were getting back to West Point,” Moore continued. “For me, it was just what I was talking about, it gets people back to here. You know, you’re tired and you’ve lost a couple of games and then it’s like, all right, let’s get back to what are the concepts that inspired you to play. You can always draw from that.”
Coach Michel Therrien watched the goings-on from the football field stands before putting the team through a high-tempo 90-minute practice of his own at nearby Tate Rink. He liked what he saw from Spisso in the morning, joking that he might look into a bullhorn of his own to run future practices.
“It was exactly what we were looking for,” the coach said. “You can’t ask for a better place for our team to do that team-bonding stuff than West Point. I expect by the end of the week they will become a very close family as a hockey team.”
When that happens for these Penguins, Tuesday’s sore muscles will be nothing more than a pleasant memory.