Joe Corvo was just killing time, really. On the road with the Ottawa Senators during the final season of his NHL career, a healthy scratch most nights, he'd get back from the morning skate, get on his phone and find the nearest CrossFit gym. Then he'd go in and destroy the workout of the day, blowing the best time out of the water.
“Every city he went. Every place he went,” said Erik Cole, Corvo's close friend and former Carolina Hurricanes teammate. “There would be names in the rafters or on the wall, CrossFit guys, CrossFit champions. Joe would be doing a workout, and people would come up to him and say, 'Are you this guy? Is this you?' ”
Corvo, then, was just a tourist — supremely fit, even by NHL standards — as his hockey career was winding down. Now, at 41, four years since retiring, living outside Chicago not far from where he grew up, he's on the verge of actually becoming the CrossFit champion people once thought he was.
“It was just something for me to keep me busy,” Corvo said. “I didn't know what else I was going to do. There was a transition period after hockey where I kind of let things happen in terms of what I wanted to do. As I did CrossFit, it became something where I realized I could actually compete in this and get to where I wanted doing it.”
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What started as a hobby became a second career for Corvo, who was one of only 20 qualifiers in his age group for the national CrossFit Games next month in Madison, Wis., a tremendous achievement in this rapidly growing sport that tries to measure overall fitness and determine a true fitness champion.
Competitors in open and age-group divisions complete specified routines for time or repetitions and are scored against each other. Gym workouts typically include weightlifting and jumping and pullups; competitions add running, swimming, cycling and everything from throwing softballs to dragging weighted sleds. In competition, workouts aren't disclosed until the last minute, so there's no way to prepare for one specific event, making it a mental test as much as a physical one.
"It's been keeping me up nights, trying to figure out stuff for this guy to do," said Angelo Sisco, Corvo's trainer and the owner of O'Hare CrossFit in Franklin Park, Ill. "You have to throw as many unknown elements and combinations at him as you can. That's my job right now. It's not about making him more fit."
One of Corvo's qualifying workouts included a series of “thrusters,” lifting 135 pounds from a squat to overhead position, and a 15-foot rope climb, repeated three times with increasing reps in each set. Corvo finished that in 1 minute, 47 seconds — the eighth-best time in his age group.
He's currently ranked 31st in the world among men in the 40-44 division — a higher standard than he ever reached as a NHL player, and he played more than 700 games in the NHL.
Corvo put enough money away during his career that he didn't ever have to work again, which allowed him to devote himself to coaching his kids' baseball and hockey teams, but he also knew himself well enough to know he needed something to occupy his time.
His crossover into CrossFit started during his days with the Hurricanes, where he played in three separate stints between 2008 and 2013. He was always a workout freak, different than Rod Brind'Amour, but in a similar vein — burly where Brind'Amour was sinewy. His summer workouts with Cole would turn into feats of one-upmanship.
“We'd have eight plates on both sides of the leg press,” Cole said. “We're going and stealing them from other racks at the gym. They're just like, 'What are these animals doing?' ”
During that final run with the Canes, Corvo wandered into Sua Sponte, a CrossFit gym on Falls of Neuse. He went through the workout of the day, tweaked his wrist and didn't go back. But the owner, John Dill, reached out to ask why. Corvo told him he couldn't risk his career getting hurt. Dill offered to make sure that wouldn't happen. Corvo was hooked, quickly.
The competitive nature of CrossFit meshed with Corvo's workout mania, and he took that with him to Ottawa. When the Senators sent him to the minors, he negotiated an assignment back home to Chicago instead of Binghamton, N.Y., for the final months of his career. He found a CrossFit gym eight minutes from his house and made a pledge: He was too old to compete against younger men in the open category, but he had more than three years to prepare for the masters division. (CrossFit would later add a 35-39 age group, too late for Corvo.)
Working with Sisco, Corvo formulated a plan to hone his strengths, address his weaknesses and put him in the position he's in now. To qualify for the national CrossFit Games, he had to record himself going through four workouts and finish in the top 20 nationally. A year ago, on his first try at age 40, he finished 22nd. This year, redoing one workout trying for a better time, he struggled to complete the final lift, his hands bleeding, and assumed it had cost him his spot again. He actually qualified comfortably, 11th.
"Many people who go into CrossFit have a background in weightlifting or gymnastics, something that translates into an aspect of CrossFit. Or they're an endurance athlete," Sisco said. "So it was interesting to get Joe, who had a hockey background, and there isn't much crossover from hockey to CrossFit except for maybe high intensity. It took three years of work, and at his age, to be able to do that and take care of his body, it's pretty amazing."
Corvo's height — at 6-foot-1, he's a few inches taller than most CrossFit athletes — gives him an advantage when running and jumping, but can be a negative in some of the gymnastics-type events. Still, competitive CrossFit is a discipline where you don't have to be great at everything, you just can't be bad at anything. (Corvo was 23rd, 30th and 45th in his three other qualifying workouts, all commendable rankings.)
“His abs have abs,” Cole said. “He's honestly insane, just how fit he is and just how muscular he is right now.”
Corvo has competed in regional events, but nationals will be an entirely different thing entirely. The crowds are massive, because it's a convention as much as a competition, with tens of thousands of devotees taking over Madison from Aug. 1-5. His goal is to stick as close as he can to the acknowledged top three in his division, hoping his experience performing in front of an audience will be the difference, as well as his versatility.
“They're going to mix it up and that's going to play into my hands,” Corvo said. “I adapt pretty well. Swimming does kind of scare me. I've been swimming like crazy for the last year to get better. But I've played in front of such big crowds, it's kind of like no big deal to go out there and be on the competition floor. It doesn't really bug me.
“I've done much bigger things than this. I've played in the Stanley Cup Finals. And there's kind of some crossover there, where you're stuck out on the ice for over a minute doing everything you can to not let the other team score. That's like a lot of situations in CrossFit where you're dead tired and just have to finish.”
Corvo has never attended the CrossFit Games. Like touching the Stanley Cup without winning it, it's something he wouldn't do until he earned it. He now has a chance to compete for a championship in something other than hockey. It just turned out to be a good fit.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock