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Derrell Levy, founder of In-Tech, trains 15-year old Zaccharya Wisdom in Toronto on Feb. 20, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Bobby Smith’s story says a lot about how much elite hockey has changed.

A junior star for the Ottawa 67s, Smith was the Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year in 1978, and a No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft that same season. After a career that included winning a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, he is now the majority owner of the Halifax Mooseheads, an organization that has produced two first- overall NHL picks.

Smith, who was born in Nova Scotia but grew up in Ottawa, didn’t start lifting weights until the leadup to his first NHL season. He never set foot in a weight room while dominating the juniors.

“When we got on the bus, there were two adults: our coach ... and our trainer,” he recalls. “No other coaches, no goalie coach, no defence coach. That’s it.”

He doesn’t quite laugh at the suggestion of specialized skills coaches – now considered a normal part of the training regimen of every elite hockey player – but he might as well. The difference from his era is that pronounced.

An entire industry has popped up to prepare players for high-level performance. Every NHL player and most junior competitors have an extensive off-season training program. Not long after a minor hockey player shows signs of elite potential, they will be directed toward a fitness trainer and often a skills coach.

“If you don’t put the work in, you can’t catch up,” says Derrell Levy, founder of Toronto-based In-Tech, a high-performance training operation.

Standing about five metres away from Smith at a recent media event in Montreal to promote the 2020 NHL Draft was Alexis Lafreniere, a Montreal-area native and Rimouski Oceanic forward who is the consensus No. 1 prospect this June. Like Smith, Lafreniere has won the CHL’s Player of the Year award, in 2019, and is the favourite to win it again in May.

Lafreniere led Team Canada to a World Juniors gold medal in January in the Czech Republic. He trains extensively every off-season to improve his overall skill level, a regimen that includes on- and off-ice work under the tutelage of former NHL defenceman Joel Bouchard.

“I go pretty big in the gym and two or three times a week on the ice,” Lafreniere says. “We work really hard in the summer. It’s a big part of improving, it’s when you gain the most and it’s important to work hard [in the off-season].”

Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid first started training with father-and-son tandem Joe and Nick Quinn when he was about 11 years old. Joe Quinn invented and patented the Power Edge Pro. It’s a device-and-training system that engages players’ motor skills to improve their decision making. It also gives them the know-how to act on those decisions and execute skills at high speed.

“We make it pretty hard on them,” says Nick Quinn of his sessions, which include other NHLers such as brothers Jack and Quinn Hughes, who play for the New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks, respectively, and Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings.

“It drives me crazy to see players being taught just one skill at a time. The way the game is played now, if you can create space, go to open space, and keep your feet moving, you have a huge advantage,” he says.

“You can’t do that by just taking power skating.”

Levy’s stable of athletes are based primarily near Toronto and include Trevor Daley of the Detroit Red Wings, Andrew Mangiapane of the Calgary Flames and Joseph Blandisi of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

One of the aspects of his training regime is to try to push the lactic threshold of his players’ muscles, which ultimately makes their skating more effortless. He also tries to get them to a level of fitness where they can react more effectively at the end of a shift.

“In hockey, you can’t really control when you need to make the most important play,” he says. “It could happen any time in a shift, so reacting [appropriately] is very important.”

A few years ago, Levy helped Blandisi through a debilitating physical condition that remains undiagnosed, though it was a suspected viral infection. Blandisi, then property of the Colorado Avalanche, was left unsigned in part because he was in no shape to play.

By using lasers that “forced his brain to work overtime,” Levy says Blandisi overcame the condition, which at one time had compromised his ability to even skate properly. The next season he finished second to McDavid in Ontario Hockey League Player of the Year voting and has since been in 80 NHL games with New Jersey, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Hockey’s evolution into a more free-flowing, faster sport with less emphasis on size, brute strength and close contact has created a need for all players to keep up. Even role players further down lineups now move at blinding speed.

That evolution is also allowing smaller players such as Power Edge Pro student Quinn Hughes to become leading contributors and blossom into their roles faster.

“Quinn Hughes is already one of the best defencemen in the NHL [despite a lack of size],” says Nick Quinn of the player who is considered a leading contender for the league’s top rookie award this season.

“Ten years ago, would a player like [him] be where he is? Forget it."

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