In the summer of 2002, when Maple Leafs coach and general manager Pat Quinn hired Matt Nichol as the club’s strength and conditioning coach, it’s fair to say the importance of off-ice fitness training was still met with skepticism among those who controlled the budget of Canada’s richest hockey club.
In taking the job, Nichol wasn’t even replacing anybody; the post had been dormant for most of the previous two seasons. And perhaps it showed. By Nichol’s best recollection, the gym at the Leafs’ Etobicoke practice facility measured about 300 square feet, a space largely occupied by about a dozen Monarch-brand stationary bikes, a scattering of weight machines and a rack of dumbbells, none of which weighed more than 40 pounds — a grossly inadequate collection when you consider that a typical three-star hotel stocks its fitness room with dumbbells up to 50 pounds.
Not that things wouldn’t eventually change. About a year later the Leafs would buy an adjacent bingo club to use as an expanded workout facility. (“The gym smelled like cigarette smoke for about a year,” Nichol said). And by 2009 they’d move up the road to posher digs at their current practice facility.
But until then, while the Leafs boasted a roster rife with future Hall of Famers who’d just come off a lucrative run to the Eastern Conference final that previous spring, the team still conducted pre-practice warm-ups in a hallway at Lakeshore Lions Arena, where Nichol remembers the likes of Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts occasionally having to turn sideways to avoid colliding with the stream of men’s leaguers exiting their dressing rooms en route to their day jobs.
“When the weather was good, we went out on the soccer field on the playground of an elementary school. Anyone could have walked into the middle of our workout. It was bizarre,” Nichol said.
The strength-and-conditioning business has come a long way since, of course. And so, too, has Nichol.
Though he was fired by the Leafs in 2009, he has long since thrived as one of the most highly regarded performance optimizers in North American sports. Perhaps best known as a founder and original formulator of the now-ubiquitous BioSteel brand — a concoction he originally devised to give health-conscious Leafs an alternative to sugary sports drinks — he’s made it his bread and butter to spend summers training a group of elite hockey players that has included Wayne Simmonds, Tom Wilson and Tyler Seguin among many others.
But hockey, if it’s his business’s foundation, is far from his only passion.
As an Ottawa-raised football player and power lifter by background, he’s worked with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and currently, among his many hats, oversees the strength-and-conditioning department for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
And he’s also worked with a long list of Olympic gold medallists, from bobsledder Heather Moyse to freestyle skier Dara Howell to sprinting savant Andre De Grasse. When De Grasse suffered a devastating hamstring injury that took him off the global track-and-field circuit a few years back, his camp pegged Nichol to preside over the sprinter’s rehab, an assignment Nichol describes now as “scary.”
“If you help a hockey player with a hamstring rehab, it’s a little bit different than helping an Olympic sprinter with a hamstring rehab. There’s no margin for error. You either did it perfectly or you didn’t, because (De Grasse) is going to drive the machine to the full capacity of the hamstring,” Nichol said. “To see whether or not your theory and your methodology actually work, that was a little nerve-racking. But if feels nice at the end when you can see that it’s held up …
“For me, that’s the most rewarding stuff I do, because it’s not just about fixing the shoulder or the hamstring or the knee or whatever. A lot of the time, it’s about giving these athletes their identity back or their life back. That’s the fun part. To see a guy on top of the world with that million-dollar smile of his, that’s pretty cool.”
Perhaps in a nod to the makeshift charm of his days with the Leafs, up until this summer Nichol had mostly conducted his business out of a modest gym he’d sometimes refer to as “the little dungeon.” It was a converted storage room at the back of midtown Toronto’s storied St. Michael’s College School Arena that measured about 900 square feet.
“It was a closet, but it was our closet. It wasn’t about the space. It was about the people in the space,” said Anthony Stewart, the former NHLer and longtime Nichol client turned Sportsnet analyst. “The work that was done in that little gym, the watts that were burned — they could light up the CN Tower.”
In an era in which social distancing has been a priority, Nichol decided he needed a bigger space. And after last summer saw him put clients through their paces at a formerly abandoned warehouse in Etobicoke — a facility that could have credibly stood in for the set of a horror movie — he’s spent the past handful of months at a more appealing locale.
With NHL training camps only days away from commencing, Nichol just wrapped up his first hockey off-season based out of a 6,000-square-foot corner of a converted airplane hangar at Downsview Park. Though he doesn’t do much advertising beyond presiding over a website (MattNichol.com) and a social-media presence (@matt_nichol on Instagram), he said the new space — which mixed high-ceilinged, well-ventilated airiness with an undeniable junkyard grittiness — allows him the possibility of finally expanding his roster of clients.
“Previously for every client we accepted, we turned four away. It wasn’t because we were trying to be exclusive. We just physically couldn’t accommodate everybody,” Nichol said. “We’re never going to turn it into a huge-volume business. But before, if we had an NBA client in the gym, like Joel Anthony, he physically took up half my gym with his wingspan … All the pro athletes were raving about (the Downsview facility) in the summer. They said they loved the little dungeon, but there were some days when it was like, ‘It’s romantic, but this is getting a little ridiculous.’ Doing chin-ups on a rusty water pipe — it’s fun to tell the stories. But it’s nice to finally have enough space to actually turn around and not bump into somebody.”
Earlier this month, Nichol had a moment of pause when the hockey world commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl airplane tragedy. It was a little more than 10 years earlier, after all, that Nichol was offered a lucrative job by the KHL club — a job he’d seriously considered taking, only to ultimately decide that it wouldn’t jibe with the demands of his off-season training business.
“I can remember at the time being really upset and pissed off and wondering if I’d made the wrong decision,” Nichol said. “And then something so horrific happens” — 44 of the 45 people on the plane bound for Yaroslavl’s season opener in Minsk were killed in a crash shortly after takeoff — “and, as cliché as it sounds, you realize how fleeting life is, how one simple decision one way or another can alter your life so dramatically. But it’s a moment when you have such mixed emotions. Obviously gratitude for it not being you on the plane, but also an empty, bizarre feeling to think about all the other people who lost their lives and all the families that were impacted.”
Nichol, it turned out, had been recommended for the Yaroslavl job by Roberts, the ex-Leaf turned strength-and-conditioning guru who’s been widely credited with helping to normalize the once-scoffed-at notion that NHL teams ought to invest in the health and wellness of their players. Still, when Nichol took over the Leafs job 19 years ago this summer — this after Roberts had just led the team in post-season scoring at age 36 — Nichol remembers bringing along some of his own equipment to the practice facility. Suddenly, Leafs who’d built their workouts around the club’s 40-pound dumbbells were pleasantly surprised with the progress they made using Nichol’s 50- and 60-pounders. And Nichol, too, remembers having to make a case, now seen as a no-brainer, that a mega-rich franchise spending tens of millions on talent would be purchasing a form of insurance by spending mere thousands optimizing player fitness and nutrition.
“I fought to get breakfasts provided for the players. I fought to have healthier lunches. I fought to get better equipment in the gym. All those battles, I was successful and in large part because of Gary,” Nichol said. “I would go back and forth with the guys upstairs in finance about the budget, and then I would sit down with someone and say, ‘Gary and Mats are pretty pissed off we don’t have better weights in the gym.’ And then all of a sudden we would find some more money in the budget … It’s crazy when you think about it, how much things have changed.”
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