What does it take to train the top hockey players in the state — and country?
For decades, off-ice training for hockey players always presented the same drudgery: squats, bench presses, throwing on weight to get as big as you could. “Push-me, pull-me exercises,” sums up Matt Higgins, a 49-year-old South Burlington resident who played as a student at St. Michael’s College and continues to play recreational hockey with a local league. “Then it was back to campus for sprinting, running hills and hitting the weight room again,” he adds.
That boring drill is not the norm anymore, at least not at South Burlington’s Body Resolution, where a revolution of sorts is happening among many Chittenden County hockey players. Gone are the grunting hulks and the barbells clattering to the floor. Instead, there’s a gleaming new 2000-square-foot space upstairs, with hardwood floors, rubber mats and a computer room (more on that later), all designed with hockey teams in mind.
“We’re not your typical trainers,” says Chris Line during a tour of the Williston Road facility, where a smoothie bar and BOSU balls downstairs seem to prove his point. Line has become the go-to guy for everyone from peewees to pros hoping to get an edge on their hockey game — even if that means a bit of pain to begin with.
“His off-ice training is completely unique,” says Williston 17-year-old Teddy Marshall, who plays for the Boston Junior Bruins. “He’s a smart guy, and he knows exactly how to make you hurt.”
Line himself has been playing hockey since he was 3 years old; he played for the Clarkson University Golden Knights before coaching various teams and, two years ago, joining the Body Resolution team as a personal trainer. Now 34 and a resident of Essex, he trains all sorts of clients. But during preseason, 60 to 70 percent of them are hockey players, and he knows just what he’ll find when he conducts their initial evaluations.
“I’m pretty sure 99 percent of the kids we see tomorrow are going to have toes out, knees in, heels rising,” Line says the day before the Green Mountain Glades begin their training. “They’re always trying to get on the inside edge to push out, so their calves are really tight, their butt will stick out and they’ll have an arch in their back.”
Necessary for traction on the ice, maybe, but not so nice for maximal power, injury prevention and longevity in the sport. So Line works on correcting muscle imbalances through myofascial release, static stretches, stability movements and specific strength training. “There’s so much more knowledge now about the kinetic chain and the central nervous system,” he says. “Each year it seems like players are getting stronger, better, faster because of the amount of knowledge there is on what happens off the ice.”
Elite hockey players, too, go back to basics — former University of Vermont star and current National Hockey League center Torrey Mitchell, 27, spent several weeks this summer just doing corrective exercises with Line before moving on to more strength work.
“It’s a little bit challenging,” Line says. “Even the younger guys, they want to get bigger; they want to take their shirts off and look good on the beach, but they need to be functionally strong for the sport, and they need to be playing, not on the sidelines.”
That means surprisingly difficult workouts for young players such as Marshall, who describes an arsenal of one-legged exercises that can last from 20 to 50 minutes. “At the end of each circuit, I walked funnier than I think I have or ever will in my life,” says Marshall of his first go-round with Line. “But after just one summer, I’m overall faster and noticeably stronger on the ice. He also made it much easier for me to stretch and stay loose to prevent injuries.”
Nick Levinsky, 18, who plays for Rice Prep at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, was taken aback to find himself spending so much time doing single-leg and single-arm exercises and undergoing constant form readjustments by Line. But switching from the mentality of “getting so huge you can barely walk out the door,” as he puts it, to focusing on balance and core strength has made him more toned, powerful and confident. “I’m a lot stronger on my feet now,” Levinsky says. “I barely ever get knocked off the puck.”
Exercises can’t protect against another type of injury, though, and that’s where the computer comes in. “It’s tough to prevent a head injury,” says Line, who is putting young players through concussion-impact testing to get a baseline of balance and brain function for each athlete, which is then passed along to the coach. “So if anything should happen during a game or practice, you can go to the hospital or practitioner with the baseline,” he explains, “so that they can gauge the difference. But we’re not, obviously, doctors.”
When it comes to nutrition, Line says he has little control over how well junior players fuel themselves — “McDonald’s is quick,” he notes — but he aims to impart better eating habits to higher-level and adult recreational players. Line will end a training session if an athlete comes in listless because of a poor preworkout meal or no meal at all, observes Marshall. “I’ve realized what food can really do for you,” he adds.
The philosophies shared by Line and Body Resolution have had a trickle-down effect on Higgins and his family members, who also train with Line. Higgins’ daughter is playing varsity field hockey for UVM as a freshman, while one of his sons is excelling on the prep-school rink in Massachusetts. “It was brutal for the first couple of months — I thought of Chris as the Joker, coming up with new ways to torture me,” Higgins says. “But I went the entire winter without getting injured. I could jump into almost anything and not worry that Monday morning I would wake up sore.”
When pro hockey players saunter into the gym, Line says, his other clients don’t bat an eye. They’re too focused on their own, ahem, goals.
“The competitor never leaves people,” says Line. “When you do something, you always want to be pretty good at it — you don’t want to show up to a rink, even if you’re 40 or 50, and be the worst guy on the ice. It’s not like you’re trying to win the Stanley Cup, but you want to be successful,” he adds. “And in this town, hockey is the sport.”