Matt Nichol: A Walk Down Memory Lane

Interview by Owen Durkin
NHL athletes put their careers on the line every time they hit the ice, in both practice and game environments.

One awkward collision, a spine-jarring hit, or tough landing could be catastrophic for a young man who has trained his entire life for a shot at success, and the road to rehab is often a long, arduous one. While the cheers, jeers, rewards and rebuke all come part-and-parcel with the job for any pro athlete, their success can often be directly attributed to the preventive maintenance work they put in with strength, conditioning and nutrition experts working in supportive roles to keep them performing at high levels. Top players readily acknowledge that they aren’t the only ones laying it all on the line in the name of athletic excellence, and are often quick to sing the praises of the unsung heroes toiling behind the scenes, who help them maintain optimum performance.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol has matched the passion and the dedication of a long list of players who have benefited from his vast experience, comprehensive knowledge, and effective training practices for well over a decade.

In the following piece, Matt gives Leaf fans a rare glimpse into the perils, pitfalls, and challenges of the demanding, high-tempo life of an NHL’er, some of the training trends embraced by the best in the game, as well as a very personal, heartfelt recollection of his days with the Blue and White. Have a look:

The North American sports nutrition market is becoming an increasingly crowded, often confusing place, with tubs and tubes of various products forming an endless line across shelving racks in private gyms, pharmacies, “boutique” nutrition retailers and even the “big-box” stores around the continent. Television, print media, radio and the internet are all littered with big-name energy-elixir and sports-beverage advertisers making lofty claims, offering temporary relief from performance-inhibiting energy-ebbs, as well as momentary flows of “mental clarity”. What isn’t widely advertised is the potential damage to internal organs due to sustained use, the number or amount of potentially banned substances and sugars they contain, or the inevitable “crash” that often follows when their affects wear off.

To this end, Nichol, with a verified professional background in sports nutrition, set out to create a solution that he could put his personal stamp of approval on:
“I think the problem for me, and I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but the majority of sports drinks on the market are just simple sugars and artificial colours and flavours, and there’s absolutely no performance benefits to them… athletes now know that. They’ve become wise to it. Guys were looking for drinks, products or supplements that would give them some sort of performance enhancing benefit. The problem is, a lot of those products contain substances that are banned, and even the ones that don’t, there’s that element of lack of safety and assurance - that not really knowing what you’re taking. In 2003, we didn’t have any drug testing. So, when they decided to start implementing it in 2004, the players were immediately exposed to a lot of risk, but I was also exposed to that same risk, as the guy who was dealing with these players - I was working in the NHL at the time – so, if I’m the guy that’s shaking up those drinks, handing out the pills, powders, lotions and potions, whatever it is, I’ve got huge liability now as well, so I needed to know what was in these products. I wanted my athletes to have access to products that were both safe and effective, and when I did my research, none of the companies out there in the market could provide me with any certification that what they had was safe, so the only thing that was available at the time was to create a product, and that’s something I have a background in.”

Here’s where Matt’s extensive background in the science of nutrition came into play:
…“I was working in that industry even before I was coaching. So I was pretty familiar with the entire process, from the procurement of raw materials straight through to the manufacturing process. So I was able to make my own products for my players, and have them (the products) tested… I knew for a fact, I had the peace of mind knowing that whether you choose to use it or not … I know that what I’m giving you is safe and effective; if you choose to use anything else above and beyond that, that’s on you, but I know that I can provide you with a safe alternative”.

This is certainly the information age, and as a result, the glut of information available can be overwhelming. Still, players today are more pro-active than ever when it comes to awareness concerning all elements of their training, and the science of good nutrition is certainly no different:
…“yeah, hockey’s a great example, because the margin, or the difference between a 4th line NHL player and a top-line AHL player is pretty minimal now, and we can see that for the last 20-30 years there has been a trend of the average of NHL’ers being around mid-to-late twenties. That trend is actually changing; it’s getting a little younger now as players are coming into the league more game-ready, so now you got kids 18, 19 and 20, ready to step into the league, and that makes it a more competitive environment, so everybody’s looking for an edge. They either want to get into the game, or they want to keep and maintain their place once they’re in there already, so they don’t want to leave any stone unturned… so nutrition becomes as important, if not more important, than a lot of the other things they’re doing.”

Pro sports teams will employ specific trainers and performance coaches of their choosing, whether for reasons of similarities in training philosophy, professional recommendation, or varying degrees of both. Often, the coach will want a certain guy on board due to past success, as was the case when Coaching great Patt Quinn had Matt on board during the 2004 World Cup, a year when Canada emerged victorious with an overwhelming record of success (they remained undefeated throughout the tourney), culminating in a win versus Finland for the championship. I had the good fortune of being invited into the Team Canada dressing room after the win, and recall the message on the white board: “practice cancelled tomorrow- No-one left to beat”, followed by: “Quinn is the man”!

Clearly, the former Leaf bench boss and interim GM had the respect of his charges, and likewise, Matt had the respect of the team coach, on both international and NHL stages:
…“I was part of the old era, I was part of the Patt Quinn days, he’s the one who hired me and I really, really loved working for him… we won a lot of hockey games and we had a lot of fun. We set a franchise record for wins, points in a season and all kinds of stuff like that. I was a young guy when I took the job, and I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do it. Game days were long days – you’d literally work 18 hours; that was pretty routine - but I’d bounce out of bed in the morning and I couldn’t wait to get to work, so that was a little different then; those were sort of the glory days for a while there. I mean, the guys on the team - we had 7 or 8 guys on that team that could have left and been a captain on any other team - guys like Dougie Gilmour, Gary, Joey Nieuwendyk, Mats Sundin, you know, Bryan McCabe… I mean all great, great guys, great players…

Now plying his expertise as one of the most respected private trainers across the pro sports arena including baseball and football as well as hockey, Matt appreciates the need for good communication between player, team trainer, and his own staff:

…“I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve been a team guy, and I know that’s a challenging job because you’ve got 22 players and at the end of the season they all go here, there and everywhere. It’s tough to keep track, so I empathize with them, and I try to stay in communication with them, and now as a private guy, I think at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, you just want your players and clients to be successful, happy, and healthy… so the best way to do that is to make sure everybody’s on the same page. Around the league, I’ve got guys I have great relationships with and there’s also some new guys - I’m getting older, and there’s been some turnover around the league so there are new guys I’m still getting to know - but any time you can have that team approach and getting everyone all working on the same page, all working towards that common goal, it’s obviously better.”

No two clients are completely alike in the pro sports training game. While many pro hockey players will gladly shell out for the opportunity to train intensively with the best coaches and players during the entire summer, others might simply prefer a tweak or a tune-up via shorter programs like the BioSteel camp. Other clients come seeking intensive therapy and rehab, either during, or after the season. Matt and his staff are uniquely qualified to manage any eventuality:

…“It’s become a big part of my business. I’ve sort of gained a reputation for that, which is nice from a business standpoint because throughout the winter I have some teams now who will outsource that kind of work to me, as someone who can spend more time doing more intricate, long-term rehab kind of stuff. I’ve had some baseball guys, and some NFL guys like that as well. With hockey, with most of those guys, I’d say it’s a mix. To be honest, what most people don’t understand is that at the end of the season, even though guys were playing in the games, they come battered and bruised; I mean it’s a grind and even if they are, you know, quote-unquote healthy, these guys all suffer from sub-par sleep, flying around on planes, and it’s a physical sport, so we spend a lot of time at the start of the summer doing rehab with everybody…I have some guys here for the whole summer doing rehab, so it’s a nice mix, and I enjoy both scenarios”.

As a private consultant, it’s critical to Matt that the level of care be as individual as possible, and structured on a per-client basis:

…“I try to customize everyone’s program, but at the end of the day, the guys are all going out to play hockey, so you’re training these guys specifically for hockey… but each guy has individual needs. I’ve got clients that are 6’7, and I’ve got clients that are 5’7, clients that need to drop weight and clients that need to beef-up, and guys that have had obscure, whacky and wild injuries and surgeries, as well guys that are healthy, so it’s a real mixed bag, and they’ve all got unique goals and needs”.

Matt is the first certified “Metabolic Typing” consultant in the industry. He explained a little about the science behind this element of his program:

…“Metabolic typing is more specific to nutrition. Even there, there’s individual typing and specific workouts. Some guys respond better to heavy weight, lower reps, some guys do better with lower weight and higher reps. That’s the one misnomer; it’s a speed-power sport, and for a lot of years, they were trying to turn these guys into aerobic bunnies, and a lot of guys who didn’t respond well to that. There’s a guy named Mike Boyle, the new strength coach for the Boston Red Sox, who worked for a number of years in hockey (Boston Bruins, 1991-1999), and he believes a lot of these guys actually trained themselves out of the NHL, you know, they trained themselves in such a way that it becomes detrimental to what they actually need on the ice. Eventually, they just give up, saying: “these kids are just so young and fast, I’m just getting too old”. Well, maybe you didn’t get old; maybe it was all down to sub-par training and under-utilizing what you could have done”.

Matt continues:
“…(at BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp) I have guys that needed to lose weight, some guys that needed to gain weight, and some guys that are maybe happy with their body weight, but need to get stronger, and some guys that need to improve their endurance. Everyone has individual needs… and the other thing is that people run on different types of fuel. My brother and I - same parents, same gene pool if you like - but he’s tall and lean, he likes to run marathons, and for me, anything over 25 yards is what I consider long distance (chuckles).”

“I can eat peanuts all day long, and if he has a peanut, he’s gonna be choking out, and dropping on the floor.”

“You’ve got some people, you give them a brand or a dose of a certain anesthetic, and you could go ahead and remove a vital organ, where the same anesthetic won’t do anything for someone else, so is it really that crazy to think that two people don’t need exactly the same things in their diet?”

In the player’s prep-area amidst the work benches, skate sharpeners and tools for tweaking their sticks, there’s a table full of personalized brown paper bags with prepared meals inside, indicative of the highly-personalized nature of each attendee’s monitored meal-plan:

…“Yeah, absolutely, that’s definitely part of what we do; I mean, there’s certain things that hold true for everyone; we all need protein, everyone needs healthy fats in their diet, but some guys do better with higher levels of carbs than others. We’ve got guys here who don’t do well with meat, guys that don’t do well with gluten, some guys don’t do well eating dairy, so it’s never perfect, but you try to customize it for the player as much as possible”.

Despite being in reasonably close proximity to MLSE headquarters, no current member of the Toronto Maple Leafs could be seen in attendance, although both Nazem Kadri and Spencer Abbott appeared on the roster as part of the BioSteel media kits we received. On a personal note, with much being made of Leaf Coach Randy Carlyle’s dissatisfaction with his player’s practice habits and conditioning, Matteo and I weren’t the only ones in the media section pondering and pontificating over the obvious elephant in the arena, so to speak. It certainly begs the question: what preferred alternative to working out with the likes of Seguin, Stamkos, Skinner, Cammy, Simmonds, Galchenyuk and Yakupov does MLSE have Kessel, Colborne, JVR, Dion, Gardiner, and others involved in this summer? Matt remained diplomatic and professional, but straight-forward on the subject:

…”As far as training Leaf players, this might not be great for your readers or your blog, but, I’m sort of “persona non grata” down there (at ACC), but I get a lot of those guys once they leave the Leafs and sometimes move on to greener pastures, so Nazem actually training with Gary is a bit of a coup, and I don’t know exactly how the training went, but Gary’s awesome, so I’m sure it will be good for that kid… I’ve got 20 NHL’ers that spend the summer with me, but none of them are from the Leafs”.

…ouch. There, I said it, and we were all thinking it, let’s not kid ourselves. While not to be taken as a shot across the bow at MLSE (off season training is an individual choice and personal expense), it behooves us to ask such questions, especially when the team appeared to be completely gassed by the time golf season, which is also called the playoffs, rolled around. Propensity for unwanted politics not-withstanding, that Kadri obliged after Roberts laid down the gauntlet via Twitter certainly speaks to the young man’s pugnacity and willingness to do whatever it takes to finally break through and be an NHL player in the season to come. MLSE doesn’t cover the costs for Kadri to enlist this type of off-season expertise; that’s on the player, personally, so again, kudos to Nazem for taking the initiative.

On the issue of toughness, something I addressed with a previous WWAC article entitled “The Other Side of Truculence”, Matt had some poignant thoughts to share with you, the readers:

…“Depends on what you mean by tough. I mean, obviously, Tie (Domi) is the first guy that comes to mind… there are different kinds of tough. Matt Stajan is tough. He gets knocked to the ice more than anybody I know (chuckles), but he always gets right up, never complains, or misses a game due to injury. Nik Antropov is tough. I know he gets knocked about all the injuries, but to think that he’s still going with the number and severity of injuries he’s had, it’s amazing.”

Antropov, among other former Leafs including Kaberle, attended the camp, and looked anything but injury-ravaged:

“I’ll tell you this: in my first year with the Leafs, we were having meetings talking about “how can we get rid of this guy?” you heard things like: “this guy can’t play, he’s a wimp, he’s always hurt”, now look at him eleven years later and he’s still going, that’s tough as well… but Wade (Belak, RIP) was my guy.”

Clearly, Matt shared a special bond with Wade:

“If I gotta give you a guy, there’s my guy, if you wanna talk about tough. I mean, that Cam Jannsen fight , that’s one I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. You know, anything else could have happened that season, we could have lost every game and not scored a f%&*king goal, but if he got beat in that fight, that’s the end of our season right there.”

With the tragic and untimely passing of the towering, tattooed fan favourite with the impish grin and the heart of a hockey warrior, much has been speculated regarding his use of performance enhancers. Matt sets the record straight:

“First of all, I can tell you Wade was clean, I know that for a fact, because outside of him being a client, before and after the Leafs, he was a guy I worked with. He was clean.

“I mean, at least Tie’s playing every night. He’s a star, and you got Wade spending half the time in the gym with me, and he never once bitched or complained about it, always had a smile on his face and made everybody laugh, even when he’s probably pissed off and just wants to get out and wishes he could play”…

Hall-of-famers Eddie Belfour and Joe Nieuwendyk both battled chronic injury as Leafs. That they were as competitive as they were is testament to both Matt’s ability to treat and manage their ailments effectively, as well as their individual levels of toughness to play through the pain at a high level:

“Look at Eddie Belfour, I mean, his back was made out of, I dunno, paper mache, man, like his back was screwed… Joe Nieuwendyk, that last year he was with us, he could barely walk into the rink, so there are all kinds of tough. There’s tough by beating the shit out of people, there’s tough in giving it out, and there’s tough in taking it”.

I’m not going to lie… chatting with some of the game’s greats during BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp was pretty cool. But for me, the highlight of the day was spending time with BioSteel founder and former Leaf strength and conditioning guru Matt Nichol, enjoying a walk down memory lane as he shared his thoughts on a number of your favourite Leaf personalities from days gone by.

Thanks to Matt and the BioSteel team for the opportunity to attend BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp.