Before this summer, Happy Valley was far from Robert McLean’s radar.
That all changed in June when McLean got a phone call while in Toronto last June. McLean was helping a group of players from the NHL with their summer workouts.
“Out of the blue,” he got a call from a player he worked with in the American Hockey League. It was current Penn State men’s hockey head coach Guy Gadowsky, who asked McLean if he was interested in becoming head strength and conditioning coach for the Nittany Lions, McLean said.
At first, McLean did not think coaching at the collegiate level was for him.
“Over time you start thinking about things and I’ve always wanted to get my wife a degree because she didn’t get the chance to when she was younger,” McLean said. “We started looking at the different pros and cons of coming to the university level.”
Penn State is a top school academically, so it made their decision easier, McLean said.
The Pegula Ice Arena was another pro that made McLean seriously consider Gadowsky’s offer. The new arena will give McLean an opportunity to design the gym around his workout program. It is something that is not normally available in the NHL because you are either limited by money or space, he said.
With those pros in mind, three weeks after Gadowsky’s call, McLean called back to ask Gadowsky if anyone had been hired.
McLean said Gadowsky was waiting to hear back from him. An interview was set up, and McLean was introduced as the new head strength and conditioning coach for both the men’s and women’s Division-I ice hockey teams in July 2012.
It was a long process where all the little things added up to make it all happen, McLean said.
Gadowsky said during the summer that he is extremely excited to have had McLean on the staff.
“I think he may be the best hockey guy out there,” Gadowsky said. “He is very well respected on both sides of the border. He is extremely educated in hockey and skating specifics.”
Once McLean settled in to his new role, he was able to get to work on the Lions’ training program. McLean said he was able to make quick and simple adjustments to make the training program more specific to hockey players.
“Very quickly I was able to identify where they were in their conditioning, strength, and where they were deficient in the needs of a professional athlete,” McLean said. “[My program] either counter balances the imbalances of the game or to improve performance in key areas of the game.”
The first key area is injury prevention. McLean said after 24 years of working with NHL players it is easy for him to predict what imbalances cause injuries.
After that goal is met, the focus shifts toward improving performance.
“You see just how strong NHL guys are,” McLean said. “We started working on the big gap here right away just because that ties into skating speed, the explosiveness, stability, and basically every part of the game.”
Hockey players come in all shapes and sizes, but no matter what size of the player is, they have to be strong and quick, McLean said.
Gadowsky liked how McLean’s program will build power for skating and build up the muscles protect players from injury.
“When you are skating, it is not a natural motion,” Gadowsky said. “If you look around hockey now, people have lower back and hip problems because of skating.”
The opportunity to work with younger players has allowed McLean to see the differences at the collegiate and professional levels. Sometimes McLean has to keep players out of the gym to prevent them from training too much.
For McLean, he has one goal for every player that goes through his program —enhance the body so it can perform at the professional level.
“You get a room full of players who want to play pro hockey and they come to me to help them achieve that dream,” McLean said. “I take that very seriously.”