How Matt Nichol became hockey’s best trainer

SInce leaving the Leafs, Matt Nichol has become one of hockey's most innovative trainers.

Wayne Simmonds flies up the wing with the puck. He stops on a dime, cuts and fires the puck past a stationary defender. Ten other NHLers just watch in awe. They’re going through the grind of a two-hour on-ice session, but can’t help but notice Simmonds. Behind the boards, Matt Nichol stares on. Running drills aren’t his thing. He spends most of the time in the gym. First hand, Nichol is witnessing Simmonds’s speed and power. Everything Nichol does has a purpose and it’s translating onto the ice.

There’s a running joke in hockey that careers take off after leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs. Just ask Steve Sullivan. The same rings true for Nichol, who since leaving the Maple Leafs has established himself as one of the most prominent trainers in the sport. “We believe in him,” says Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Jay Harrison, who has worked closely with Nichol for more than 12 years. “He’s so well researched. He’s so confident. His results speak for themselves.”

Nichol, 39, is the founding partner and chief formulator of BioSteel Sports Supplements. He began working with professional hockey players when the Leafs hired him to be the team’s strength and conditioning coach and team nutritionist in 2002. “It was intimidating,” Nichol says. “It was with the most high-profile and most storied franchise in hockey. I felt a ton of pressure.”

It didn’t take long for veteran team leaders such as Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, and Bryan McCabe to become enamoured with Nichol’s work. According to Harrison, they had respect for his work ethic and extensive knowledge of training. He proved capable at a very young age. “Those guys were super accommodating and really helpful,” Nichol says. “I was very lucky to be in a great situation as a young guy.”

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Nichol didn’t think he had all the answers. He always asked questions, wanting to learn more. A constant search for knowledge. “He’s always evolving and always adapting,” says Harrison. “He never rests, and that’s a huge key to success.”

That much was evident when the NHL installed new drug testing rules in 2004. At that time, Nichol was displeased with the quality of the supplements players were using. In his mind, they were overpriced (some over-the-counter products cost $50 per bottle) and ineffective. Worse, some of them were potentially harmful. When the league unveiled its anti-doping laws, Nichol couldn’t find a single company that could verify the supplements he’d previously provided. So he took matters into his own hands. Nichol used a team of scientists along with his extensive background in sports nutrition to develop a product that used the best possible ingredients. He needed to ensure his players weren’t using anything illegal.

That’s when the BioSteel formula—a powder mixed with water—was developed. “We manufactured [our own products] and got them third-party drug tested,” Nichol explains. “I bought all the raw materials and I had it blended and we sent it off for drug testing. At least they knew [the products] they were using would be safe.”

Nichol stayed on with the Leafs until 2009, when then GM Brian Burke came in and cleaned house. The change didn’t slow down Nichol, though. If anything, that’s when his career grew exponentially. His goal: to provide athletes with the healthiest, safest and highest-quality supplement on the market.

Instead of trying to catch on with another NHL team, Nichol saw great value in the private sector. He could train anyone he wanted and work with a larger variety of players. Bonus: There were no team protocols to worry about. As soon as he began working privately, players flocked. It started by word of mouth and grew from there. Now, he trains athletes from the NHL, NCAA, NFL, CFL and Athletics Canada.

Nichol didn’t need to do much self-promoting. He never played hockey at a high level, but he held the reputation of one of the hardest workers in the industry along with an innovative training approach. His years with the Leafs gave him the credibility he needed. “I’m in my gym from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day,” he says. “So it’s in my best interest to tell you it’s all about what happens in here, but that’s not true. Even if you went to the gym seven days a week for two hours a day, that still leaves 22 hours a day that you have to figure out how to live your life and how to sleep. What to eat and what you drink is just as important than what we do in the gym.”

Nichol, who is as physically imposing as some of the players he trains, found a big advocate in Mike Cammalleri. The two grew close when Nichol ran summer skates for Toronto-based NHLers in 2004. Cammalerri stayed in touch even when he was playing in Los Angeles. He championed the pink drink and helped set Nichol up with John Celenza, a friend with a sports marketing background who later came up with the BioSteel name.

Cammalleri was one of 16 NHLers who trained with Nichol when he began the BioSteel camp five years ago. He used the camp in part to prepare players for the upcoming season but also to spread the word about his supplements. Now it’s held annually at St. Michael’s Arena in Toronto has taken on a life of its own. Superstars such as P.K. Subban, Tyler Seguin and Mark Giordano are regular attendees, while bright young prospects such as Josh Ho-Sang, Michael Dal Colle, Max Domi, and Darnell Nurse have followed suit. “When guys with high-end talent believe in him and go to him to get the intangibles,” says Harrison, “that goes a long way for reputation and the young guys follow because they want to train with the best.”

The pink drink is everywhere. Steven Stamkos raves about it. Same with Gary Roberts, who first endorsed the product during the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2010.

It’s not just hockey, either. Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant and Minnesota Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins have signed on with BioSteel—a Wiggins promo video was released this week. It’s become the most prominent sports drink on the market, outside of Gatorade. And so much of that success has to do with the genius of Nichol.

“You can just tell the knowledge he has,” says Giordano. “He’s very technical. There’s a lot of science behind what he does. All the great players come out here so you can tell he’s doing something right.”

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