- Sure, the NHLers that enter Jorge Blanco's gym learn how to fight. But they also get lessons in moving, breathing, balance...
Like so many other modern relationships, Matt Martin began by reaching out over Instagram. Then playing for the Maple Leafs, the rugged fourth-line winger had grown curious upon noticing a recent trend on his feed: Each summer, an increasing number of fellow NHLers seemed to be posting video clips from boxing rings or wrestling mats, training with a martial arts instructor tagged as @82Spaniard. Wondering what all the fuss was about, Martin fired off a direct message to arrange a meeting. After spending an hour at Jorge Blanco’s gym, he was hooked.
At first blush, the reason seems obvious. Blanco started studying judo at age 4, switched to kickboxing around 13, competed on the Spanish national boxing team, and now counts UFC legend George St-Pierre among his regular clients. Martin, meanwhile, has logged nearly two dozen fights over the past two seasons, dropping gloves with what few heavyweight sluggers remain around the league. Why wouldn’t he seek out an expert for some extra tips on tussling?
And yet viewing Blanco’s methods through such a narrow prism grossly overlooks their true purpose. Consider a sample of those who have sought out Blanco’s services over the years: Dallas’s Tyler Seguin, Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds, Anaheim’s Adam Henrique and Andrew Cogliano, St. Louis’s Robby Fabbri, Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner, Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse, and—maybe you’ve heard of this guy—Sidney Crosby. Not exactly a bunch of brawlers. “All these years I’ve been coaching, it’s a stigma: Oh, these guys are going with the boxing guy,” Blanco says. “Well, the boxing guy isn’t trying to teach them how to box. I’m trying to show them elements that can help them in their field. Yes, I teach them how to execute a proper punch. But there’s so much behind it.”
Take a typical workout. Operating out of OpenMat MMA, located not far from the University of Toronto campus, Blanco opens each session with dynamic warmups and muscle-activation exercises; he is especially fond of hosting Simon Says, punishing disobeyers with burpees. Next the class splits into teams for a competitive game that targets hand-eye coordination, like handball or spikeball, followed by footwork drills focusing on proper striking technique. Only then does everyone actually start hitting. “It’s almost like the last thing he’s teaching is the fight itself,” Martin says, now with the Islanders. “He’s all about finding a sense of calmness in uncomfortable situations.”
As with boxers and mixed martial artists, skaters work in shifts. “It’s that same go-go-go, get the rest and jump back in,” Nurse says. And so, more than anything else, Blanco wants to help them recover faster during those precious moments of rest. “I would like to think I’m not a meathead,” he says. “Yes, fighting is the most primal sport. But I try to look at it without any ego or testosterone-fueled approach. At the end of the day, what can make me a better athlete? Work on your breathing. If you can’t breathe, you can’t be mentally present.”
Devante Smith-Pelly understands. The Capitals right winger has visited Blanco regularly for the past seven or eight offseasons, sometimes as often as twice per week. “It’s taught me a lot about inhaling and exhaling, that to generate power, you don’t need to hold your breath,” Smith-Pelly says. “It’s good for teaching people to relax.” Along with teammate Tom Wilson—another longtime Toronto-area client—Smith-Pelly invited Blanco to the Capitals’ practice facility for a private session during training camp; they were joined by defenseman Michal Kempny and forward Andre Burakovsky, who had previously taken kickboxing lessons in his native Sweden but definitely needed time to pick up the whole jabbing thing. “He’d throw a punch and fall completely off-balance,” Wilson says. “By the end he actually looked really good.”
Raised in Spain, young Jorge knew virtually nothing about hockey beyond its fighting component, which he nonetheless “loved” because of the “freakin’ tough” enforcers. “Being a teenager in a combat sport, I was like, ‘Holy…’” Blanco says, trailing off. But he only admired from a distance. Years passed. Blanco won national competitions and attended law school. Then, nine years ago, he quit a boring corporate gig and went to work for the Spanish general consulate in Toronto. It was there that he met area strength coach Matt Nichol, whose annual summer camp has become a hub for top talent.
“From then on, slowly but surely,” Blanco says, “it was like a ball rolling down the hill.”
Before long, Nichol was sending players to Blanco’s gym every other Friday for extra conditioning. Today Blanco estimates “probably more than 60 NHL guys” attend each summer—some once or twice, others each week—including Montreal’s Max Domi, Pittsburgh’s Jamie Oleksiak, and brothers Ryan and Dylan Strome. “You can do your chin-ups and your bench press and your squats,” Wilson says, “but this gives you an opportunity to get moving, use your hands, breathing, balance … It’s unique. It’s fun. It’s different, which is why I like it a lot.”
“When I used to hit a bag, or go see somebody, it was an hour and then you’re dead and then whatever,” says Martin, who has become so close to Blanco that they spent several days together this summer in Los Angeles, visiting the Wild Card Boxing club and even sparring with legendary trainer Freddie Roach. “He’s big on learning and doing things the right way.”
Indeed, Blanco is a stickler for details. “Doesn’t let you slide with anything,” Nurse says. Most sessions are videotaped on a tripod-mounted cell phone, so he can offer live feedback. Anyone whose movements looks too robotic might get chastised for their “Terminator hips,” in his catchphrase-littered parlance. (Appropriately relaxed sparrers, on the other hand, have “salsa hips.”) Even if players are getting loose by lightly jogging around the wrestling mat, he is reminding them to inhale through the nose and exhale out the mouth. “For any athlete who’s trying to better themselves in any way,” Nurse says, “that’s the type of teacher you want.”
Besides, going five rounds in the ring is miles apart from taking a five-minute major. No skates and no jersey-grabbing, for starters. And so, while some fundamental elements of Blanco’s approach may apply to on-ice scraps—weight balance, body positioning and, yes, punching—he doesn’t feel he has much to offer in that regard anyway. “A lot of people ask me this question: You teach them how to fight?” Blanco says. “F--- no, I just want them to score goals. I believe a lot of guys are out there training boxing, trying to make people boxers. My approach is so different. I just want to make them learn something new, how to use some different body parts and mechanics, so they can become better athletes overall.”