London weight trainer Jeff Van Damme earns trust of NHL stars

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Once Jeff Van Damme finished with school, he asked himself the same question we all do at that point in our lives.

What now?

He had a master’s degree in kinesiology from Western University and enjoyed lifting weights, something he jumped into after countless summers of hearing his soccer coaches tell him to get bigger and stronger.

“I thought maybe there’s 16 people in London who would want to work out with me,” he said. “I never went to business school, but I figured that number would keep me afloat.”

He started with a single customer and that grew to a few more.

Thirteen years ago, a man walked into his gym, then on Ann Street, and looked around.

“Are you Jeff,” he asked the only person in the place.

Yes.

“I have a son and he needs a trainer,” the man said. “Have you ever trained hockey players before?”

No.

“Well, could you?”

It was Chet Couture, father of current San Jose Sharks star Logan.

Later, Drew Doughty showed up in his NHL draft year. He wanted to be selected by the Los Angeles Kings and the club had challenged him to shed 20 pounds.

Fellow pro d-man Dylan DeMelo followed and goalie Matt Hackett signed on, too. The past few summers, ex-Knights Corey Perry and Nazem Kadri have built up their bodies at Van Damme’s gem of a private gym, dubbed The Training Station, in a former printing office at the corner of Wellington Road and Grand Avenue.

“First time I met Jeff, he was a little shy and basically the same guy he is now,” Logan Couture said. “I figured I’d give him a chance and our relationship just grew from that moment. The Sharks have some good equipment for us, but Jeff has some stuff right on par with that.

“He knows what he’s doing and it’s enjoyable to go to the gym. I can’t really see myself working out anywhere else.”

If you dubbed Van Damme London’s “trainer to the hockey stars”, he would wince at that title. But it’s clear he is fiercely proud of his puck crew.

There are several sweaters decorating the place to honour the famous faces that work hard in his space. New versions went up when Doughty, Perry and Couture were named alternate captains of their NHL teams, as well as their Canadian World Cup threads.

They add some colour to a pristine room full of barbells, battle ropes, ellipticals, slide board, rowing machine and — as a symbol of how his business has changed over time — a net and shooting area.

“I watch as many games as I can,” Van Damme said. “I care about how they’re doing in-season and when the guys struggle, I feel bad and think how could I help better. I try to work as hard as I can for them and do a good job.

“There’s a misconception once the training is done, you’re finished for the day. There’s always new research coming out and you have to stay on top of it. It’s like school again.”

In the fickle world of sporting self-improvement, players keep coming back to Van Damme.

“Big thing with Jeff is he’s very good at adapting to the way training has changed,” Couture said. “He’s a quick learner.”

Sometimes, there are scheduling crunches because of long playoff runs and early training camps. Often, there are injuries to overcome.

“I’ll make a template, then it turns into mush,” Van Damme said. “When we have limited time to work out, I try to get as much bang for my buck as I can. I’ve been in a gym for 35 years, so I can sense how they’re feeling and how far to push them without hurting them.”

This summer, Couture came home with a smashed mouth after taking a puck to the face. A few years back, he had to deal with the after-effects of shoulder surgery.

“You can’t do squats because you can’t hold a bar,” Van Damme said. “You can’t put a weight vest on. You don’t want to do jumping because that jars the injury and you don’t want to tear the stitches. So it’s thinking outside the box and creativity to get them back to the elite level the teams expect.”

Right now, Couture and Perry have a need for speed to compete with players like Connor McDavid and Johnny Gaudreau out in the Western wars. Kadri, the Leafs centre, has been adding power.

Doughty is such a natural talent, there is a perception he can simply roll off the couch and dominate NHL games without curling one dumbbell in advance.

Not true, says his trainer.

“He always works out hard,” Van Damme said. “People get that impression of Drew, I think, because he’s so friendly. He’s a brilliant hockey mind and he’s a respectful person. There are times where he got stuck in traffic, thought he might be a few minutes late to the gym, and he calls me to let me know.

“These guys are competitive at everything, all the time, and sometimes I have to hold them back, and remind them they’re hockey players, not weightlifters.”

The game consumed their attention as kids. As they age, they start asking more questions about nutrition, rest and exercise, looking for little ways to gain an edge.

The NHL’s big-minute players also limit their gym time to counter the in-season demands and travel. These days, Couture spends two hours-plus on lifting and conditioning three times a week.

“I love having these guys home,” Van Damme said. “They make me laugh and I miss them when they’re gone. They bring all that life and energy to the gym and it’s a privilege to work with them.

“I’m lucky.”

The players feel the same.

“We come back to London because we’ve got houses here and family,” Couture said, “but then there’s the comfort of knowing you’ll have a great summer training with Jeff. Then, once the skating starts, you have a great group of players in this area.

“That plays into it.”

It’s one thing for a city to produce some of the world’s hockey stars.

It’s another — with help from people like Van Damme — to keep them up there at the top of their game.

rpyette@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/RyanatLFPress

TRAINING STATION

Website: trainingstation.ca


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