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The Globe and Mail

Habs already put to the test during ‘worst day of the year’

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Dustin Tokarski goes through his physical exam as the team opens its full training camp in Brossard, Que., on Wednesday


The fringe benefits of playing for an NHL team are innumerable, but no one promised it always had to be fun.

And Day 1 of training camp, fitness testing day, is decidedly a pleasure-free zone.

"The worst day of the year, every year," Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec said.

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"It's awful," teammate Max Pacioretty added.

The Canadiens' state-of-the-art suburban practice facility has a pair of ice sheets in every way identical to the Bell Centre's rink, but that's not where the players went to work Wednesday.

Rather, they were put through a series of exercises on the full-sized indoor soccer pitch that fills out the other half of the training complex.

They ran, jumped and pulled before hitting the gym to measure grip strength, do some bench presses and a 20-minute sprint test on a treadmill-like contraption called a Hi-Trainer, which measures things such as acceleration and watts generated by leg muscles.

Later, they trooped, one at a time, through a series of curtained-off sections where they were photographed in their Habs jersey – even the junior prospects got the star treatment – and filmed for the Bell Centre's pregame scoreboard presentation.

There was also a cognitive test to measure baseline neurological activity.

"It wouldn't be as bad if you didn't sit around for five hours and then have to jump right in to the beep test. Everything in your body is so stiff and sore," Pacioretty said. "It's nice to get it out of the way."

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It could be worse; at least the team has done away with the dreaded Wingate anaerobic stationary bike test – aka the "puke test" – administered to prospects at the annual NHL scouting combine.

Instead, the players had to strap on a heart monitor and do the "beep test" – a series of shuttle-running intervals in which players must sprint when fitness coach Pierre Allard hits a button that emits a loud beep.

Developed by a researcher at the University of Montreal, it's meant to measure aerobic capacity, and while it isn't quite as vomit-inducing as the Wingate, it's no one's idea of a good time.

"It's pretty hard, you range from a 10- to 14-minute run, but we know what to expect. It's not like a math exam where there's a trick question," said former first-round draft pick Louis Leblanc, who knows something about writing exams, having played a year at Harvard University.

Hockey players being competitive types, the testing process also involves a significant amount of razzing and establishing of bragging rights – although it wasn't possible to establish whether any friendly wagering takes place, it wouldn't be a shock if a toonie or two changed hands.

"Sometimes, we tease each other, everybody wants to be better than the other one, but it's in a fun way," Plekanec said.

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Asked how he did, the 30-year-old Czech simply smiled.

"The top."

Pacioretty allowed he cared more about his fitness test results when he first broke into the league than he does now, partly because of the wisdom of advancing age (although he's still just 24) and partly because his objectives have changed.

Power and explosiveness are the order of the day, as is the maintenance of both his weight and strength throughout the season – which the Habs are going to start tracking on a continual basis.

"I felt last year I lost some of my power as the year went on, and I want to maintain that. I spoke briefly with our strength coach, I think we're going to do more of that this year," said Pacioretty, the Habs' leading scorer for the past two seasons.

Testing day is also a chance for fans and Montreal's hockey media to get their first glimpse of the net effects of a summer's worth of training.

Some of the consensus observations: defenceman P.K. Subban looks like he's carved out of marble, Brendan Gallagher's neck is starting to take on NFL linebacker-like proportions, Pacioretty and centre Lars Eller have bulked up noticeably.

While the players will grouse about the drudgery of opening day, it's not like the day presents much of a physical challenge – the days of players working themselves into peak condition in training camp are long gone.

As Leblanc said: "You've got to come here in shape, if not you won't be here long."

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