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Reshaping the Future

Strength and conditioning coordinator Marcus Kinney is playing a significant role in the rebuilding program undertaken by the Red Wings.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

When people talk about sports performance as it relates to hockey, it’s not just what a player on skates can do with a stick and a puck.

Marcus Kinney, strength and conditioning coordinator for the Griffins, will gladly talk about the building blocks that are necessary to construct the finely tuned, highly efficient muscle mass that athletes know acutely as their bodies.

In essence, he’s talking about “sports science,” two words that a generation ago might have been viewed as an oxymoron – a compelling contradiction of terms that had no application in the real world.

Years ago, even the very assignment of an athletic trainer was seen as an anathema by coaches who viewed the egg-headed activities of these specialists as ancillary to the on-field performance of their teams.

“In the old days, if you had an athletic training degree, coaches didn’t really want you around,” said Kinney, who received a bachelor’s degree in sports medicine and athletic training from Wilmington College in 1996 and a master’s degree in athletic coaching education from West Virginia University in 1997.

“Coaches didn’t like the idea of someone telling them that they had to keep players off the field. Science to them was a four-letter word. It was like Frankenstein and fire. It was something to fear.”

Times, of course, change.

Today, Kinney is in his seventh season with the Griffins organization, although it’s his first as the Grand Rapids director of operations and head strength coach for Barwis Methods, the fitness organization with the new responsibility of rebuilding the Red Wings, physically speaking.

It’s an assignment that Kinney relishes.

“I enjoy that every day is different,” Kinney said. “I remember my mom telling me to find something that I enjoyed because you’ll be doing it for the rest of your life. When I discovered I could actually make a living in a weight room, that was fantastic.”

Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, Kinney wasn’t particularly driven to pursue athletics outside of BMX racing, pushing the pedals of his off-road bicycle to impressive speeds to the point where he became a formidable force on the national scene during his preteen years.

His first exposure to hockey came as a young fan attending IHL games of the hometown Dayton Gems when they were playing the Saginaw Gears, Kalamazoo Wings or Grand Rapids Owls during the late 1970s. “It was all blue-collar back in those days,” he recalled. “Fans would travel with their teams and sometimes there were more fights in the stands than on the ice.”

When his dad remarried, Kinney said his motocross racing travels came to a screeching halt. After drifting through high school, he tried college for a year, only to learn that higher education wasn’t a good fit for him at the time.

“So I went into the Army for four years to straighten my life out,” he said. “The Army helped give me direction and discipline. When I went in, I figured I would either love it and make a career out of it or I would take advantage of the GI Bill and eventually go back to school.”

In between a couple of stints at Fort Bragg, Kinney did a tour of South Korea, serving as a communications specialist attached to military intelligence units.

“Out of a 12-month deployment, I probably spent nine months in the woods, playing cat-and-mouse games,” he said. “We’d hop along the wire, searching for radar signature patterns, trying to figure out where the (North Koreans) were and what they were doing.”

It was 1988, the same year as the Summer Olympics in Seoul. “I never got to see any of the games, but I have an old VHS tape somewhere where you can see when the Olympic torch came by outside of our base.”

The Army helped shape Kinney in more ways than one. It was during his time in service that he started lifting weights, the better to stay in the peak physical condition necessary for combat jumping. He estimates he did more than 100 jumps, as his back and hips would now surely (and sorely) attest.

“With your chute deployed, your rate of descent was still 22 feet a second,” he recalled. “You’re coming down hard, so depending on the way the wind was blowing and the way you were drifting, you were taught how to roll with your landing.”

Kinney mastered what paratroopers call the parachute landing fall, or PLF, a safety technique designed to displace the energy of the body contacting the earth at high velocity.

“Basically, you stay limp and loose until the balls of your feet hit the ground, then you try to roll through the side of your calf, thigh and hip until your legs flip over – boom! Grab your gear and go.”

After the military, Kinney elected to attend Wilmington College, a small Division III school in his home state of Ohio. He studied sports medicine and athletic training while serving as a strength coach, initially working with the football team and later for other sports as well.

“While I was getting my start, I tried to read all of the literature available at the time,” he said. “You grabbed everything you could get a hold of that talked about strength, conditioning and training in order to build a knowledge base, which you would try to implement in your program.”

With an undergraduate degree in hand, Kinney figured colleges would be lining up to add him to their coaching staff, but he quickly learned that it wasn’t going to be so easy.

“The struggle was the larger schools didn’t take a Division III guy seriously,” he said. “I thought they would look at me as someone who had made something out of nothing, someone who was a real go-getter, someone they’d want on their team. I kept reaching out to all these big schools, but they all kept blowing me off.”

Thankfully, Mike Wallace, the football coach at Wilmington, provided an introduction to West Virginia University, where Wallace had previously served as an assistant coach for the Mountaineers.

Kinney headed to Morgantown, where he would ultimately meet Mike Barwis, a similarly structured, highly motivated individual who would eventually have a profound influence on his career.

“We struck up a friendship as grad assistants at West Virginia,” he said. “We were like two peas in a pod – similar personalities, similar views, similar philosophies. We made a pact that whoever became a head strength coach first would hire the other guy.”

After obtaining his master’s degree in athletic coaching education from WVU, Kinney headed to the U.S. Naval Academy, where his undergraduate studies proved beneficial since the institution was looking for someone to fill a rehab role.

“Once an athlete gets injured, your job is to help him return to sport,” he said. “An athletic trainer can say they are ready to participate but they’re not really ready to go 100 percent yet, so that’s where strength and conditioning come into play.”

After three years at Navy, Kinney headed to Kansas State University (2000-04), where he ran the strength and conditioning program for the men’s basketball team while assisting with the football team. A year later, he also worked with the women’s basketball program at the school.

While the Wildcats football team was a power in the Big 12 Conference, both basketball programs were rebuilding.

“Honestly, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of being in a position where I can help build things,” he said. “Bigger schools like Michigan and Ohio State are already rolling, so they just plug people in. Kansas State was the perfect place for me at that time of my life.”

In 2004, he returned to West Virginia to become an assistant to Barwis, who had risen the ranks to become the strength and conditioning coach of the Mountaineers’ football program and, true to his word, eventually hired Kinney to be his assistant.

He was Barwis’ right-hand man from 2004-07 under head coach Rich Rodriguez, who would leave to take the football job at the University of Michigan. While Barwis followed “Rich Rod” to Ann Arbor, Kinney headed to the University of Tulsa for the opportunity to head the strength and conditioning program there.

Kinney and Barwis would cross paths again, three years later. After the Wolverines severed ties with Rodriguez, Barwis opened a training center in nearby Plymouth, where he was beginning to work with Olympians and professional athletes. Kinney, meanwhile, had returned to West Virginia to pursue his Ph.D.

“When I needed to get my coaching fix while I was taking classes, I would visit those guys during spring break and summer,” he said. “Eventually, Mike wanted to expand into Grand Rapids and I began working with Luke Glendening, Mike Knuble, and Chris Summers – all former University of Michigan guys – during the summer of 2012.”

Glendening began the 2012-13 season, his rookie year, with the Toledo Walleye, eventually playing his way onto the Griffins’ roster right before Christmas. With no strength coach in Grand Rapids, Glendening suggested that the club interview Kinney.

Blashill and the Red Wings brass saw the potential for a complement to then-athletic trainer John Bernal.

“I think my athletic training background worked in my favor,” Kinney said. “They saw that I wasn’t a total meathead going (evokes a deep guttural voice), ‘Lift weights! Get strong!’ I think the interview went well, so they gave me a shot.”

The Griffins, of course, eventually captured their first Calder Cup with Glendening playing a central role. The organization offered Kinney a permanent part-time position following his initial foray with the team.

“Like anybody worth their salt, I just wanted an opportunity,” he said. “At the end of the year, I got good exit interviews from the players about the work that I had done, so they offered me the chance to return.”

Kinney saw his role with the Griffins as the logical next step in his evolution as a strength and conditioning expert.

“From an organizational standpoint, we know we need to build guys up,” he said. “With a lot of incoming draft picks, that means we’re getting a lot of players between the ages of 18 and 22. The good thing is that’s my wheelhouse. It’s the same things we emphasized in college where you’re trying to turn a young man’s body into a fully developed adult.”

Although the field of exercise science has changed over the past 20 years, Kinney said many of its principles have remained the same – namely that training requires a three-pronged approach of equal parts of hard workouts, solid nutrition and recovery.

Like other professional athletes, hockey players are keenly aware of their bodies. They welcome any exercises that will make them stronger, more effective in their day-to-day performance, or improve their recovery between games.

“Hockey players are very cognizant of taking care of themselves – everything from their nutrition to their recovery,” he said. “Even the young guys are attuned to their bodies and they’ll talk to you about the things they can do to be the best that they can be, and they’ll follow your guidelines. Of course, it’s true with the older guys, too.”

Sport-specific training became a buzzword in the field a number of years ago, but Kinney insists there are certain fundamentals of exercise physiology that are common to all athletic pursuits, whether the sport is hockey, soccer or swimming.

“Listen, if you want to make someone stronger in their lower body, you’re going to put their feet on the ground and have them do squats,” he said. “If you’ve got to make your upper body strong, you’re going to do presses, no matter the sport. If you want to make someone more powerful and explosive through their work in the weight room, you’re going to use a combination of Olympic-style lifts and plyometrics. Those are the building blocks that will provide their foundation.

“Where sports differ is in their movement patterns and conditioning. Hockey is very different from all of the other ground-based sports in the stride of the players. A runner cycles their legs in an elliptical-type pattern, but hockey players kick their legs out in a stride, so their hips and groin become a little more important. Their base of support rests all on that thin blade, so their smaller, stabilizing muscles become key in how they are able to maneuver.

“The biggest difference, however, is conditioning. You don’t condition a hockey player like you would a football player, swimmer or sprinter. A lot of that work has to happen on the ice. We can put them on a bike, but if they can get their conditioning work done on the ice, it’s so much better because that’s where you can best simulate the action.”

Ultimately, strength and conditioning programs are designed to fortify the required joints and muscles and reduce the potential for injury. “The same shoulder maintenance that’s good for a swimmer is also good for a hockey player,” he said.

“When you look at athletes across all sports, the injury rates are similar. What are you going to injure? Ankles, knees and hips if it’s a ground-based sport and shoulders if it’s a contact sport. Those are the joints that are susceptible to injury. The goal is to make those muscles and joints stronger and more efficient so that they’re less susceptible to injury.”

“You have to remember that it’s the little things that make the big things happen. So we work on details, strengthening the smaller muscles so that the major muscle groups can do their work more efficiently.”

While he works with the entire team, there are some exercise routines that are tailored to specific players.

“In certain aspects, there may be variations from guy to guy,” he said. “We’ll hear from the development staff that so-and-so needs to be more explosive, this guy needs a quicker first step, so there are exercises that we can integrate into his program to help him improve in specific areas.”

There are few secrets when it comes to improving the players’ fitness. Good communication is central to keeping everyone on the same page, whether Kinney is talking strength, conditioning, nutrition or recovery. “You definitely want players to know where they stand,” he said. “If they know what’s going on, you’ll get more buy-in from them and be one step closer to achieving the gains they want.”

Kinney assumed full-time responsibilities this past summer with the arrival of Steve Yzerman as Detroit’s general manager.

With both Shawn Horcoff, the Red Wings’ director of player development, and Dan Cleary, his assistant, having seen first-hand the benefits of Barwis Methods when they were still playing, the decision was made to fortify the fitness efforts within the organization.

All-new equipment was purchased for the Griffins’ weight room, which nearly doubled in size during the offseason renovation of Van Andel Arena’s locker rooms and adjoining space, and Kinney started accompanying the team on every road trip.

“With the arrival of Mr. Yzerman, the organization made some big changes,” Kinney said. “During the rebuilding process, we’re becoming even more focused on the development of our players. We want a seamless transition between the AHL and NHL so that when they go back and forth between Grand Rapids and Detroit, everyone is on the same sheet of music.”

With new equipment and a new space, there are also new expectations. Kinney said he believes his work will become even more data-driven with time as the organization employs statistical analysis in the pursuit of peak performance.

“We’re trying to take the subjective out of training and move into more objective analysis,” he said. “Instead of a player saying, ‘I feel this,’ we can look at certain data points and go, ’Here is what it is.’ By looking at the numbers, we can determine whether someone is in shape or out of shape.”

Everything can ultimately be measured for key indicators, from heart monitors that can determine a player’s recovery rate to tests to measure the velocity of the bar during the lifting of weights.

All of the data will be collected, analyzed and ultimately assembled into statistical reports that will determine the desired elements necessary to become a complete hockey player.

“It’s new for our organization, but it’s not new in sports,” he said. “We’ve been behind, so it’s a welcoming change and a credit to Steve, Shawn and Dan that we are fortifying our strength and conditioning efforts. It feels good that they’re putting some teeth behind our efforts to build the total player.

“I’ve been ringing that bell for years. If we’re going to be a developmental league, there is so much more we could be doing to develop our guys and help them become the best players they can be. With the introduction of data, our players can objectively know what is happening with their strength and conditioning.”

Kinney’s increased role means the Griffins will continue to rely on his motivational abilities.

“Sometimes the weight room is the last place that players want to be, especially when they have three games in a week or they’re fighting for a playoff spot,” he said. “I try to make this a happy place. I try to be cheery, try to be funny because I realize this probably isn’t the first place they want to be.

“I try to create a positive environment to help keep guys headed in the right direction. I’ll do what I can to keep things light, act a little goofy, keep them smiling. Nobody wants to deal with a tyrant. That’s not going to work.”

Win or lose, Kinney does his best to keep an even-keel approach.

“When the team is struggling, I do my best to keep the mood light,” he said. “Nobody wants to come into a room filled with doom and gloom. You always tell athletes, ‘Don’t let the last one mess up the next one.’ Last night was last night. What can we do today to get better for tomorrow? We always try to remain upbeat and positive.”

The goal, Kinney says, is to be “a ray of sunshine.”

Every player can use little reminders, or even a bit of a push, from time to time.

“That may depend from week to week or even day-to-day,” he said. “Maybe somebody had a bad game and now they’re extra motivated to do some extra work. Someone else might have had a bad game and now they’re down in the dumps.

“It’s all about learning how different guys respond. You find ways to lift them up and make things better. Strength and conditioning exercises have to be a part of every player’s routine. As they get older, the focus changes a little. Eventually, it’s not necessarily about building strength and power as much as staying strong and healthy.”

In the end, Kinney is happy that he’s playing a small part in the process of reshaping the organization during a journey that will eventually see the Stanley Cup return to Detroit.

“Understanding the glory days of what the Red Wings represented for so long, it’s exciting to be a part of the building block process,” he said. “Knowing what we do in Grand Rapids at the AHL level is going to be impactful on the organization in Detroit for the NHL is very exciting.”

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