Jeff Skinner, the Carolina Hurricanes' first-round draft pick this year, has spent much of the last three months training with Gary Roberts, a former NHL player and fitness freak.
"I want to get stronger, more powerful, more explosive," Skinner said. "At 18, I guess you could say I'm a boy trying to become a man."
If that's the case, Roberts is the right man to sweat and grunt for. Roberts worked with Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning last summer and is credited with helping Stamkos blossom into a 51-goal scorer in his second NHL season.
But Roberts said Skinner reminds him of another NHL star and former workout partner: Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"The first time I saw Jeff I said, 'Holy smoke, he looks just like Sidney Crosby,' " Roberts said. "It's freaky how comparable they are. Jeff has the same frame as Sidney.
"Sidney Crosby is more explosive. But Jeff will get there. I think he's going to be a really, really good player for the Hurricanes for a long time."
Roberts said his devotion to better conditioning and proper nutrition helped him stay and play in the league until 2009, when he retired at age 43 after 21 seasons. The hard-charging forward spent three of those seasons with the Hurricanes after he returned from a serious neck injury that threatened to end his career.
"A big part of that was I changed my life, really changed my lifestyle, when I was with the Hurricanes," Roberts said. "That kept me in the NHL."
In the last few years, Roberts' personal gym at his Uxbridge, Ontario, mansion outside Toronto has become something of a conditioning mecca for young hockey players. Roberts played and roomed with Stamkos in Tampa Bay during the 2008-2009 season, Stamkos' rookie year, so their offseason connection was easily arranged. Stamkos has returned for more with Roberts this summer along with Skinner and 15 or 16 others.
"It's something I have a passion for," Roberts said. "It keeps me close to the game. And these young guys are all very receptive."
Skinner, 18, said he began working with Roberts in May, soon after scoring 70 goals in 84 regular-season and playoff games for the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League. While home, the Markham, Ontario, native has spent four days a week at Roberts' gym and another two days on his own performing various running drills.
"For me, it has been really huge to be around someone with so much professionalism," said Skinner, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. "You don't meet many people as devoted to what they do."
Roberts, in turn, said he quickly was impressed with Skinner, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound center who was referred and recommended to Roberts by weight-training coach Lorne Goldenberg.
"From the start, he was the leanest of all the guys," Roberts said. "That told me he doesn't just train right but also eats right, which is rare for someone 18.
"He pays close attention to detail. He's very humble and quietly confident. You try to get him a little riled up and he just cracks a little smile."
Roberts said his weight-lifting sessions last about 90 minutes, and that he doesn't want to over-train. Two days are spent on upper-body training and two on the lower body.
"At 18, Jeff's strength is incredible," Roberts said. "What we want to do is increase his speed and explosiveness.
"Sidney Crosby can open those hips up and really accelerate around you. Jeff, who skates like Sidney, should be able to do that, too."
Roberts said 195 pounds was a good weight for Skinner. Asked about Skinner's body-fat percentage, Roberts laughed.
"On most scales, it might be 6 or 7 [percent]," he said. "On my scale, an 11-site formula, it's a 10.
"He's as lean as you can be, but you don't want to be too lean, like bodybuilders. You need enough fat to protect yourself and give you that energy late in games."
All in all, it has been a busy but productive summer for Skinner. He was drafted by the Canes in late June and then attended the team's rookie conditioning camp in July, getting a taste for Canes trainer Pete Friesen. This past week he was at Canada's national junior team evaluation camp in St. John's, Newfoundland, as Team Canada prepares for the 2011 World Junior Championship this fall.
But there has been one common thread through it all: those sessions in Camp Roberts.
"We have complete trust in Gary," Friesen said. "We know Jeff is in good hands there."
A year ago, Stamkos was asked to rate Roberts' workout intensity on a scale of 1 to 10. Stamkos said a 9 or 9.5.
"Wow, I don't know about that," Skinner said.
And his Roberts rating?
"I'd give him a 10," Skinner said.
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