MONTREAL — “Now comes the fun part,” Kris Letang tells me with a smirk.
It is Aug. 11, and I have been working out with the star Penguins defenseman at Adrenaline Performance Center, Letang’s longtime gym back in his hometown, for only 15 minutes. I have already burned 180 calories. My thighs are throbbing. Both my t-shirt and my trusty notepad are significantly saturated.
As I attempt to catch my breath, I watch Letang and longtime trainer Jon Chaimberg start stacking 60-pound bags onto a weight sled. It is at this moment that I begin to second-guess my decision to pitch this foolish plan to Letang.
Letang, even at 36, remains one of the NHL’s most relentless players. Last season alone, he overcame another stroke, the death of his father and a fractured foot to skate in his 1,000th career game. Letang logged more than 30 minutes of ice time that night — the 42nd time he had surpassed that tiresome total.
He is a sublime skater, with puck skills that allowed him to become the top-scoring defenseman in team history and an underappreciated defensive game. But the two characteristics that define him are his conditioning and his drive.
To better understand what separates Letang from most of his peers, I approached Letang and the Penguins with a proposal. What if an average beer league hockey player (yours truly) tried to complete one of his legendary workouts?
Surprisingly, Letang was game. But first he shared a cautionary tale. He had just trained with a young pro who couldn’t make it through without puking.
With that in mind, I packed my gym clothes and boarded a plane to Montreal.
Just getting warmed up
It is mid-morning when my Uber driver drops me off at a nondescript strip mall a few miles west of downtown. Between a home décor store and a Sherwin-Williams paint shop sits Chaimberg’s gym, Adrenaline Performance Center.
The narrow parking lot is packed with Range Rovers, a Porsche coupe and other luxury cars. But through the doors, the gym has a gritty, industrial feel.
When I walk in, the first words I see, in big bold letters up on the wall, are: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.”
Near the coffee bar hang pictures of elite athletes trained by Chaimberg, once a competitive wrestler himself. UFC icon Georges St-Pierre. Wrestlers and marathon runners. Several NHLers, including new Penguins center Lars Eller.
There is a photo of a young Letang, skating with the puck in black and gold, signed, “Thanks for making me better, stronger and best sled pusher.”
When Letang arrives, I am — like the middle-aged dad that I am — bobbing my head to the Notorious B.I.G. playlist bumping over the sound system. Letang is wearing a backward hat, a T-shirt and shorts with bright yellow sneakers. He finishes his phone call then welcomes me with a smile and a handshake.
Letang leads me out into the wide-open workout space inside the gym, bustling with activity. Chaimberg is waiting there to meet me. He eyes me up.
“You’re going to have a good time,” the trainer tells me, quite unconvincingly.
Letang, laughing, grabs a foam roller to begin his muscle activation. Moments later, he is bounding across the synthetic turf while Chaimberg explains why he believes that Letang, “even at his age,” is one of the league’s fittest players.
“He self-motivates himself, so his work ethic is second to none,” he says. “I have a few guys who work really hard. But he won’t miss workouts. Even if something happens with his family and he can’t make it to a workout, Kris will ask me to send him a workout, and then he’ll do it at home or at another gym.”
In 2010, a year removed from his first Stanley Cup, Letang was looking for a new trainer. He routinely played big minutes in junior hockey, largely because of a wide gap in terms of talent and skating ability between the average player and him, he says. But in his first few years in the NHL, he had limitations.
“I was really powerful. My first few steps on the ice were fast, strong, explosive. But I couldn’t keep it up. There would be one, two, three shifts during the game when I was coasting and trying to get my energy back or maintaining,” he recalls. “I wanted to be able to play 25 minutes with the same intensity.”
He was 213 pounds entering the NHL, having bulked up because he was told he needed more muscle on his 6-foot frame to make it. Now he wanted to max out his endurance while still preserving his power and explosiveness.
His agent lined up meetings with several trainers. One was Chaimberg, who at the time was working with St-Pierre. Letang admired St-Pierre, noting that he seemed to never tire inside the Octagon, and was intrigued by Chaimberg.
But Letang had to prove himself before he became the first active NHL player to train with Chaimberg, then go on to finish top 10 in Norris Trophy voting eight times in the next 11 years. Chaimberg offered him only a three-day trial.
“The first day, he really smoked me,” he said. “I’ve never been dead like this.”
Letang pushed himself so hard he passed out. Chaimberg let him lay there for 45 minutes then woke him with a swift kick to say, “Same time tomorrow.”
“I came back,” Letang said, proudly telling the tale. “And after that, it was on.”
Today, they are incredibly close. “Like this,” Letang said, crossing his fingers.
The making of a madman
I finish my sorry attempt at a warm-up — some stationary stretching, a brief ride on an exercise bike, then waddling aimlessly with a rubber band around my ankles. Chaimberg calls me over and, grinning, asks what I had for breakfast.
“I think we may find that out here in a little while,” Letang playfully interjects.
Letang, who trains here each weekday, begins each workout with exercises that emphasize power — plyometrics, medicine balls and core strengthening. He also does prehab work on his groin, neck and shoulders in the hopes that it will keep him healthy through 82 games and another deep playoff run.
On this morning, Letang and I grab a dumbbell in each hand and jump straight up from a standing position. He launches himself more than 2 feet off the ground. His hat flies off at one point, freeing his signature long, black locks.
From there, we head to the bungee cords to perform more explosive leaps. Then we grab heavy medicine balls and hurl them at the cinder-block wall over and over and over again. The thuds from Letang’s throws sound like thunder.
After 20 tosses, we hustle to do core work from something called the “dead bug” position. We finish with a stretch, allegedly “easy,” to loosen our hips.
Gee, that wasn’t so bad, I think. Hang on, I’m being told I must do it all again.
We run through that circuit three more times. It has been just 15 minutes and my clothes are soaked with sweat. Letang sidles up to me and smiles. He can see that I’m already getting gassed. Apparently, we are just getting started.
Letang has relished moments like this ever since he was an early adolescent.
He remembers being 10 or 11 and doing the “beep test,” the fitness exam where kids shuttle back and forth between two lines. Trying to psych out his classmates, he kept a straight face to show them he was unbothered by fatigue.
“Just to make people feel weaker,” he says. “For me, it was always a game.”
Back then, Letang kept track of his individual workouts in a notebook just like mine. (His notebook was presumably not as sweaty.) He charted his daily runs, sit-ups, bicep curls, chin-ups, etc. Each day, he tried to increase his totals.
His parents, Christiane and the late Claude, provided constant support and car rides to go play hockey all over Quebec. But Letang says they were not the ones who pushed him to train like a madman. He chose that for himself.
“I was already liking the workouts, seeing the change in my body,” he says.
Now 36, Letang must bust his butt just to ensure his body remains the same.
“You’re not going to see a 40-year-old man that had a 32-inch vertical in his prime suddenly have a 35-inch vertical at 40. It’s not going to happen,” he says. “At my age, what’s important is being able to take what I built and keep it.”
He has an inner circle of consultants to aid in that endeavor, including a soft-tissue expert, a chiropractor and the dude currently standing over at the sled.
Chaimberg — wearing a black shirt that says “Be Humble” — is ready for the second phase of our workout. Normally, it is a set of lifting exercises, with a little more core work mixed in. Because Letang relies on his legs more than his upper body, those are the priority. That’s why we are doing a series of sled pulls.
“Sometimes, we load up the sled with every [expletive] bag,” Letang tells me.
Wait, is today going to be one of those mornings? I sure [expletive] hope not.
Pushing through the pain
Chaimberg instructs me to warm up — yes, just warm up — by doing 20 lunges while holding a 30-pound dumbbell in each hand. Letang hoists heavier ones.
Up next is a station where we use bungee cords to do inverted row exercises.
When we are done with those, we have to hurry to the sleds. Mine weighs only 150 pounds. The objective is to move it across the turf section of the gym, down to an orange cone and back. That cone is probably 20 yards away. But once I start pushing, it feels like I have to travel the length of a football field.
I make it back, do 15 squats while holding a dumbbell and the circuit is done.
“It’s not just the weight. It’s also about the sequence of exercises,” Chaimberg says as I silently take stock of sore muscles, some I didn’t even know existed.
Gasping for air, I glance down at my Apple Watch. My heart rate is up above 140 beats per minute. Chaimberg is already barking at me to do it all again.
“He was pretty gentle today,” Letang insists later. “You heard a little bit of his voice. But usually it is way louder than this. He kind of restrained himself.”
Letang powers through the taxing circuit five more times. I somehow survive.
Mercifully, I am granted a reprieve to go refill my water bottle. When I return, Letang is chitchatting with a gym goer. He is popular here. He made small talk with a few members and told maybe a dozen others to have a great weekend.
Letang seems to be in a good place physically, mentally and emotionally after his nightmarish campaign — with Claude’s death, the second stroke of his life and the Penguins missing the playoffs for the first time in his 17-year career.
“I tried to tell myself that it was just a bad year. Life sometimes hits you like that. Sometimes it rewards you. Last year was a tough one, mentally and physically. For the family, it was hard,” he says. “So, I just tried to clear my head and come back with an empty mind and start back where I left off a year ago.”
One week after returning to Montreal, Letang was back at Adrenaline Performance Center. Chaimberg could sense that his good friend would want to get right back at it. Letang has taken off only two weeks since then — a trip to a wellness center in Turks and Caicos and his recent vacation to the Hamptons.
He doesn’t weigh himself, so he has “no idea” how close he is to his playing weight of 195-200 pounds. He doesn’t count calories or track sleep. He doesn’t need a dietitian because his mom instilled healthy eating habits. He listens closely to his body, like he did when he self-reported his mild stroke last fall.
Letang says he will know when he is ready to rock. It sure looks so to me.
Oh, God. Chaimberg is back by the sleds. This time, he holds a stopwatch.
We are an hour in and I am not sure how much more I can endure. The good news is we have reached the grand finale. The bad news is it is the conditioning part of the workout, when Letang often makes other elite athletes tap out.
This right here is what allowed Letang to keep his legs churning in Game 1 of the 2022 playoffs, when he logged nearly 47 minutes in a triple-overtime win.
“I want to be fighting to be good even if I’m tired or my legs are not there or I’m trying to push through things,” he says. “That’s why I’m able to play 25 minutes a night and [plan to] do it until I’m 41 years old. Yes, it burns. Yes, it hurts. But to me, it’s just the preparation for what’s going to come in the season.”
Looking to finish strong
Before we begin the timed weight sled races, Chaimberg politely points to the back door of the building. That’s where I will need to go if I have to throw up.
Mike Matheson, the former Penguins defenseman who is among the best skaters in the NHL, trains with Letang regularly. He can beat Letang in the first race and sometimes the second. But the more repetitions they do, Matheson will slow down and often head out that back door. Letang’s times remain flat.
Letang believes his incredible conditioning gives him a mental edge — both in the gym and late in games. Opponents tire, but Letang just keeps coming.
His son, Alex, often asks him about his path to the pros. As an early teen, Letang was not as talented as his peers, not as skilled as a skater. But he says his drive and sky-high fitness level propelled him to NHL stardom.
My mind drifts to those words I saw when I first walked into Chaimberg’s gym.
Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.
My will? Definitely domitable. But I’ll try to keep up with Letang as long as I can.
Letang craves competition, so Chaimberg makes this a game. He loads double the weight onto the sled of Letang, who goes first. He is down and back in 14 seconds flat. As I approach my sled, Letang gives me that unbothered look.
“Go!” demands Chaimberg and I slowly push toward the orange cone. I get there, briefly question recent life choices, then steer the sled back. Twenty-four seconds. As I lean against the wall, I am quite dizzy, feeling like I might pass out. Chaimberg tells me that if I match that time in my second rep, I’m done.
Already tasting my sweet celebratory poutine, I cruise to the cone in decent time. I’ve got this. But as I push the sled back, my exhausted legs nearly grind to a halt. I think about quitting. My body might make that decision for me. Eventually, I nudge the sled to the finish line. My time is more than 40 seconds.
I intentionally collapse to the turf, sucking air. About 30 seconds later, I sit up and see that my heart rate spiked to 171 bpm. Meanwhile, Letang — that showoff — is nonchalantly pushing four times as much weight in half the time.
I have no recollection of completing this arduous task a third time. I later learn that Chaimberg took off a couple bags while I was sprawled on the ground.
Five days from now, my hamstrings will still be sore. My abs ache when I cough. I can’t touch my toes. My wife is curious when I plan to stop being a baby.
But, improbably, I finished the 70-minute workout, earning Letang’s respect.
“I thought you were going to quit,” he says after. “He removed the weight and you kept doing it. A lot of people would have quit there. So I was impressed.”
When he is done in the gym, Letang typically hops into his car and heads to the rink for a practice with his personal skill coach and a skating coach. Four days a week, he does drills alone or with a few fellow pros for about an hour.
But on this Friday, there is no practice. Letang asks me if I like espresso, then ducks behind Adrenaline Performance Center’s coffee bar to brew up two.
Sipping his espresso, Letang is clearly excited for the new season. He plans to get back to the level he was two years ago, when he was seventh in Norris voting. He is pumped that the Penguins picked up Erik Karlsson. He is confident he can still win another Cup alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The countless hours Letang has spent here with Chaimberg has him pounding on the door to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But he insists individual accomplishments mean little to him. To him, hard work and winning will be his legacy.
“The only thing I worry about is that I’m not going to get one last Cup,” he says. “At the end of my career, I’m going to sit at home and I will be remembered as being part of a core group that won, hopefully, four Stanley Cups. That’s what I want, to be part of a group that did something that people remember.”
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