Defenseman Jordan Subban, a Canucks prospect, flips the puck into the corner to a waiting player and begins to spin—almost pirouetting—from the blue line to the goal. As he nears the net—tended by his Bruins prospect brother, Malcolm—the puck is flipped high in the air from the corner. Jordan, still spinning in tight circles, whacks the it out of mid-air, past the bewildered goalie, and into the net.
Everyone in the arena—other than Malcolm, of course—cheers loudly for the tally.
The shootout display—and you've probably seen the equally dazzling moves by Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang—is just one eye-catching byproduct of the BioSteel hockey camp, an annual four-day training session in Toronto in late August that some of the league's best players and top prospects eagerly attend in order to prepare for the opening of their teams' training camps.
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The camp is the brain child Matt Nichol, a former strength coach for the Maple Leafs who is now a well-known trainer and nutritionist in the pro hockey world, and Gary Roberts, the former NHLer who became a widely respected conditioning guru for stars such as Steven Stamkos and Jeff Skinner. In 2004, when the NHL first began drug testing, Nichol was tasked with making sure that supplements the players were taking met the league's legal criteria. However, there was a problem: Many of the companies that made the supplements didn't have proper documentation or couldn't prove that what was on the label was actually in the product itself. With a background in supplement formulation, Nichol set out to make his own product. BioSteel, a distinctive pink drink was born, and five years later the company was created. It was around that time that Nichol and Roberts brought their stables of Toronto-area players together to form a super camp.
"It became very popular," said BioSteel's President John Celenza. "It's great training right before you head back to your teams. You're working hard all summer long and it gives you that week to really test yourself against the other top athletes and see where you are in comparison going into the season. It's a lot of fun, too."
Players who use BioSteel supplements top the guest list, but the company does not pay its spokespersons. The main attraction is the competition.
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"We had [
Stamkos] in our camp before he was 'Stammer,'"
Celenza said. "We had [Stars center Tyler] Seguin right out of (OHL) Plymouth. A couple of years ago, we had [Oilers’ forward Nail]
Yakupov and [Canadiens winger Alex]
Galchenyuk, and this year we had Josh Ho-Sang, [Senators prospect] Nick Paul, [Coyotes draft pick] Max
Subban has been there for two years and [Ducks draftee] Nick Ritchie and [2013 Oilers first-round draft pick] Darnell Nurse were our token young guys that we're bringing up in our system. Guys call Matt early in the summer, 'Hey, can you make sure you have me at the
BioSteel camp, make sure you get me a spot.’ Guys come out from all over to be there."
The ones that make the trek are sold on the camp, and after seeing the results, it's not hard to see why. Take Seguin, for instance.
"We have footage of Tyler Seguin as a skinny kid with no tattoos and not able to grow facial hair," Celenza said. "You look at him today, I mean, he's a man. He's a big and strong man. And I told him, we're going to put out a video with you in it in the next couple of months showing you from your first BioSteel camp when you looked like a skinny little kid, and he was dying laughing—but it's really how the players have evolved over the years, how we've seen their work off the ice benefit them over the years, and that's really what it's all about."
The players are put through the wringer in off-ice sessions that focus on speed and power, and then they take things up a notch with the on-ice training. Four captains—this year’s were Seguin, Cammalleri, Wayne Simmonds, and Michael Del Zotto—draft teams for a four-on-four, non-contact tournament for the right to he hoist the BioSteel Cup.
Much about the camp, from its flashy, high-profile players to their on-ice garb—jerseys emblazoned with #CAMP (due to the NHLPA's deal with Gatorade, the apparel the players wear cannot use BioSteel branding)—is ready-made for social media, which the BioSteel people welcome for its ability to raise the company's profile.
"With the athletes we have in camp, we're very fortunate that a lot of them have serious followings, and they're passionate about the brand," Celenza said. It helps that video from the camp almost assuredly goes viral with behind-the-scenes footage of the players training before they take the ice to show off their slick skills in a laid-back setting.
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"It kind of happened organically," Celenza said of the popular video clips. "At our very first camp, it was actually my cousin who had received a camcorder for Christmas. I said to him, 'Why don't you come down and put some videos together of the guys working out and skating and we'll chop 'em up and put them online and see how they do.'"
They were an immediate smash and they led to BioSteel hiring video editing and social media teams.
The biggest hit this year appears to be the shootout competition—inspired by the NBA's Slam Dunk Contest—between the World Junior eligible players. With Jordan Subban, Nick Paul and Josh Ho-Sang on hand, there were plenty of creative, never-before-seen moves when the shackles came off. And that's just what Celenza, Nichols, Roberts and company, along with throngs of hockey fans, want to see.
"Obviously people are starting to want their hockey time of year," Celenza said. "With the season right around the corner, it's a good time to have some fun."
Just ask Malcolm Subban, who got the last laugh of this year's camp after posting three straight shutouts to backstop Team Seguin to the BioSteel Cup, earning him bragging rights until next summer.