Following his first season as a pro hockey player, Pittsburgh Penguins defensive prospect Reid McNeill came into the 2013 off-season with the goal of putting himself in as good of a position to succeed as humanly possible. So he took an off-season training route that is increasingly popular among NHL players, namely training with former NHL forward Gary Roberts.
"Talking with [Penguins] management at the end of last season, they knew how good he was and I wanted to put myself in a good position," McNeill said. "I was thinking about it and they really jumped on it and said it's a great idea."
Roberts, a veteran of 21 NHL seasons, made a name for himself as a ferocious power forward. He was also known for his legendary off-season training, and since he retired in 2009, Roberts has been on the cutting edge of high performance athletic training.
"He's unbelievable," said McNeill. "He definitely knows how to train you in a way that will prolong your career. It's not so much a sprint, it's more a marathon."
For a player like McNeill, whose game is predicated around being big, mobile, and physical, the approach Roberts took towards conditioning, diet, injury prevention, and physical maintenance was especially beneficial.
"You build and maintain throughout the season, you build for the next summer," McNeill said. "It's not so much a long road but they don't rush you. That's how injuries can happen and they do a lot of training to prevent injuries, [like] flexibility and mobility. He puts you in exercises where you didn't even know you had muscles that pulled that way."
Prior to training with Roberts, McNeill had been working out in his hometown of London, Ontario.
"I was with a football trainer before…he was a football player but he trained a lot of hockey players. Nazem Kadri (TOR), Matt Hackett (BUF), and some other guys. That was great [for gaining] footspeed. I think he really developed my mobility from a young age. Now going to Gary, it’s just prolonging my strength and toning [my body] to a more hockey-sensible direction."
Kadri trained with Roberts in the 2012 off-season and followed that with the best season of his young career in the lockout abbreviated 2012-13 season. Along with Kadri, Roberts has worked with other young players such as Brayden Schenn (PHI), Brett Connolly (TB), and Christian Thomas (MTL).
Bill Guerin, the Penguins Player Development Coach, and a former NHL player himself, was the one who helped facilitate the meeting between Roberts and McNeill.
"Gary has had a lot of success with current NHL'ers like James Neal (PIT) and Steve Stamkos (TB)." Guerin said. "Reid is one of those guys who is very dedicated, very committed to giving himself a chance to play in the NHL and he'll do whatever it takes. So we got together and Gary was definitely the best. Reid moved to Toronto. He wanted to do this full out and that's what he's doing."
The results of McNeill's time with Roberts were almost immediate. Aside from the visibly obvious physical transformation he has made since last year, McNeill came into the Penguins 2013 prospect development camp and posted the best scores of his four years with the organization.
"[Roberts] knows the organization, the testing," McNeill said. "He knew everything that (Strength and Conditioning Coach) Mike Kadar did. So it's definitely been a big help and it's going to be a big factor in my future seasons."
A big issue for McNeill, who stands at 6'4" and over 200 pounds, is getting stronger without adding too much weight as he is already at a good playing weight.
"[There is] a lot more focus on the legs and the core. You see Crosby walking around," McNeill said, referring to the exceptionally wide gait of the Penguins captain.
"But at the same time you don't want to be bulky when you're heavy, so the game has definitely changed, but you guys saw [Roberts] play. He was a pretty thick guy but he knew what he was doing."
At his peak, Roberts was considered among the most intimidating power forwards in the NHL. He displayed an uncanny level of intensity, even for a professional athlete, which allowed him to gain near cult status in his one-and-a-half seasons in Pittsburgh. Having trained with him, McNeill can see why.
"He still works out with us in the gym. He'll get his workout in first then train all of us. But if we're at the track or something, he's running right in the pack," McNeill said.
"You can still see the competitiveness in him, and the drive, and he wants to be the best at what he does. I think he's really proven that he is the best at what he does. I can see why he's a legend in Pittsburgh."
Though the 2013-14 hockey season has yet to start, McNeill's off-season with Roberts has already made a good impression with the Penguins coaching staff.
"This guy is on the right path," said Penguins AHL assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, "He looks big. He plays big. He came up with us in Wilkes-Barre last year and did a really good job. He's going to have a bigger role this year. [The 2013-14] season is going to be crucial for him. He's one of those guys that, when you look at the results from the physical testing we had, made an impression."
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