RALEIGH, North Carolina — The first thing you notice is the grunting. Walk by the Carolina Hurricanes‘ weight room, and there’s a good chance you’ll see the biggest gym rat on the team.
“You peek your head in and see him,” says forward Jordan Martinook. “He’s got his head down, his hat low, you can’t even see his eyes. He’s got a weight vest on, and you just hear him go, ‘Mmmpfh.'”
“You just see a lot of veins,” says defenseman Haydn Fleury. “Some grunts. It’s kind of scary, to be honest.”
“He usually has some good ’80s music on,” says defenseman Dougie Hamilton. “I don’t like to go in there when he’s in there because I feel small.”
“He’s a horse,” says forward Erik Haula, an addition this offseason.
“You can catch him at all hours of the day, it’s kind of a thing,” says captain Jordan Staal. “He basically lives his life with an extra 30 pounds with that weight vest on. I’ve never really asked about it; I guess it’s a lot harder. He always has that thing on.”
And Bill Burniston, the Canes’ head strength and conditioning coach: “He’s simply a beast. A beast.”
You get the point. Rod Brind’Amour — the Hurricanes’ 49-year-old coach infamously nicknamed “Rod the Bod” as a player — still gets after it. So much so that when the Hurricanes arrived to camp this year to do their off-ice conditioning test — two half-mile sprints on the Assault bikes in under 60 seconds each, with a three-minute break in between — the players found out that their coach had already completed the test.
And not only were Brind’Amour’s times good enough to make the cut but he finished better than about half of the roster. (“It was very important for me to beat him,” says Haula, who joined the team this summer from the Golden Knights. Asked whether he did so, Haula responded, “Just barely.”)
“I was dying when I did [the test], dying,” Fleury says. “Some guys didn’t pass it. So it’s pretty crazy he does it … just for fun.”
Brind’Amour’s reasoning for that self-imposed torture: “I ask my guys to do this, and I gotta make sure it’s not too hard. If I can still do it, then I know everybody should be able to. They can bitch all they want, but I know it’s doable.”
Most NHL coaches aren’t quite like Brind’Amour. But most teams aren’t quite like Carolina, either. Over the past two years, the Hurricanes have developed a reputation as disrupters. It all began when Tom Dundon took over as majority owner in January 2018.
Dundon gets a bad rap in the NHL for being cheap, but he’s really just trying to find value and doesn’t necessarily agree on where NHL teams have historically valued things. (Dundon made other headlines earlier this year when he invested $250 million into the AAF, then quickly cut his losses and ceased operations of the startup league).
The Hurricanes were in the muck of a league-high nine-year playoff drought when Dundon assumed control. Not long after, familiar faces left: GM Ron Francis, a Hockey Hall of Famer; Cam Ward, the goalie who led the team to its only Stanley Cup; Jeff Skinner, the star forward and only Carolina player to win the Calder Trophy; Chuck Kaiton, the longtime radio voice. At the end of the 2017-18 season, coach Bill Peters resigned.
Dundon hired Brind’Amour — a franchise legend as a player, who had been serving as an assistant coach — to replace Peters behind the bench.
Around the league, skeptics criticized the Canes’ sweeping moves: Who is this Dundon guy, and what does he think he’s doing?
“For sure people were skeptical — I probably would be too if I was on the other side,” Brind’Amour says. “That’s why it’s a big risk; when you try new things, and if they don’t work, it’s like ‘oh, here we go.’ But he knew right away we needed to change things. He had no loyalties. He’d still tell you that. ‘I don’t know anything about anything. I’m going to do it this way.’ But he’s not stupid. He’s not doing things that don’t make sense. He’s been a big breath of fresh air around here.”
When Dundon first hired Brind’Amour, the two sat down for a long conversation in which the owner laid out his plans. Brind’Amour absorbed it, then told his boss: “‘OK, we’re either going to be good, or we’re going to suck. But I’m happy with either one. Because we’re going to get better either way.’
“With what he laid out, it was going to be one or the other — I don’t think we were ever going to be mediocre with the way we did things. And that’s the way I’d want to be. I’d rather strike out swinging than bunt every time. We got rid of a lot of players. We made some moves everyone is shaking their heads about. But it worked. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but it did.”
The plucky Canes not only made the playoffs but knocked off the defending champs to reach the Eastern Conference final. Along the way, they once again drew the ire of traditionalists — “Hockey Night in Canada” commentator Don Cherry served as an avatar for their critics — with elaborate postgame celebrations (deemed the Storm Surge) for the home crowd. They were labeled the Bunch of Jerks, and leaned into the nickname, selling thousands of Bunch of Jerks T-shirts through the playoff run.
Brind’Amour’s presence was just as important to the success. He was in the trenches every day with the players. None of it would have worked if the players hadn’t bought in. And Brind’Amour was the passionate, relatable coach for the role.
Brind’Amour was born in 1970 and grew up in British Columbia. His mother was a school secretary, and his father was a pipe fitter at a mill. Brind’Amour always wanted to be a hockey player. When he was 13, his dad asked what he wanted for Christmas. Brind’Amour says he needed weights.
“So he bought me these crappy weights,” Brind’Amour says. “At 6 in the morning, I was getting up when he went to work, and I’d do a stupid little 20-minute circuit. It was the old-school thing, Banshee, curls … And then I’d do it every day after school, so I’d do it twice a day.”
Brind’Amour was self-admittedly always pretty good at hockey. But adding the workouts made him feel like he was getting an extra edge. “It’s the one thing you can control, how hard you work off the ice,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m better than you, but if I think I am, it helps. If you run me over, then that guy is better. But if I get run over, and I know I didn’t work that hard, then that’s on me. I never wanted that. The problem is, I can never go back. I always have to add.”
Brind’Amour was selected ninth overall by the Blues in 1988. The next year, he went to Michigan State. As legend goes, Spartans coach Ron Mason had to turn the lights off at the gym — and eventually padlock the doors — to deter Brind’Amour from going to the gym at all hours.
Brind’Amour was traded to the Flyers in 1991, and that’s where he really took to team trainer Pat Croce, who later became an entrepreneur and team president of the 76ers. Brind’Amour adores Croce, who was the first one to coin the “Rod the Bod” nickname.
“I was never crazy about it; I think my teammates just used it to get to me,” Brind’Amour says. “But, it is what it is.”
Brind’Amour’s reputation on the ice was just as stellar. He had a 484-game ironman streak of consecutive games played, and would later win back-to-back Selke Trophies with the Canes in 2005 and 2006, as he captained Carolina to its only Stanley Cup.
Brind’Amour had played 1,484 games in 20 seasons in the league — and another 159 in the playoffs — when he retired in 2010.
“I was 40 when I stopped, I could have kept going for another five years,” Brind’Amour says. “I know it. I’m telling you, I know I could have. But there’s a mental push you have to do that I wasn’t able to do. And I would have had to move. By that point with my family … the minute they said we’re done with you, I said, ‘I’m not moving.'”
When Brind’Amour retired, he stayed just as militant about his workouts. He says he has never taken two days off in a row in his life.
“Just for the mental health benefits, I can’t not do it,” Brind’Amour says. “If I take more than a day off, I just don’t feel right. Mentally, I’m just not good.”
Brind’Amour can’t run anymore because of his knees. “It just hit me this year,” he says. “My knees are shot. I like to run, but it’s not worth it.”
So every day, he does 45 minutes, minimum, on a bike for cardio. He does the Assault bike conditioning test players do once a week — “but only half the test,” he insists. “Just to sniff around it, so I know once a year when I’m going to do it, I can do it.”
Every day he does core work “because if my back goes out, I’m screwed,” he says. “Then, depending on my time, I have two upper-body workout days, then a leg day, and I rotate through.” Brind’Amour insists he doesn’t know how much his weighted vests weigh. “I just throw one or two on, depending what I’m doing,” he says.
Brind’Amour makes his workouts travel-proof. One of his leg days doesn’t even require equipment. “I can roll with anything,” he says. “If there’s no bike in a hotel, I’ll jump on that stupid elliptical — which I call the executive workout — like you’re just getting a half-assed sweat.”
Brind’Amour never took time off from hockey, either. His first year out, he worked for the Canes’ development staff, often checking in on the AHL players in Charlotte. Then he became an assistant coach. Because he wanted to spend more time with his family and coach his son, he cut a deal to coach only for home practices and home games. “I wish I could have kept that gig up,” Brind’Amour says. “But the problem with that, I found, is that if you’re a part-time coach, you can’t really influence anything. You’re not really in charge.”
When Brind’Amour was an assistant coach, the Canes had a 5:45 p.m. meeting before a 7 p.m. game. Burniston, the strength and conditioning coach, noticed there were still weights out and saw Brind’Amour sitting at his desk, dressed in his suit. “Are you done with those?” Burniston asked. “No, I’m not done,” Brind’Amour replied.
The coach walked out, did one squat — in his full suit — to re-rack the weights where they belonged.
“With Rod, the standard is the standard,” Burniston says. “There’s one way to do things; there’s not multiple ways to do things. And that one way is the right way.”
Adds Hamilton: “He’s been through it all as a player. He played however many games, won a Stanley Cup, was a captain. Why would you not want to learn from a guy like that? And I mean, he can still skate, he can still shoot, he can still jump in on drills when we need an extra guy.”
Last season, the Hurricanes lost seven of their first 31 games by one goal. “I’d been around the NHL for 20 years as a player, another 10 as a coach, and I’ve never been around that,” Brind’Amour says. “It was weird. If you watched the game, we were the better team by a mile. But we just couldn’t win. I’d come in the locker room after the game and say, ‘I just don’t know what to do.’ I was worried. Everything I believe in, everything we’re doing, and we’re not winning. I was like ‘Guys, what do we do?'”
Brind’Amour eventually just asked the guys for patience. Trust the process, he pleaded.
“Luckily, the guys believed it, they stuck with it,” he says. “They could have easily just said ‘Rod, you don’t know what you’re doing.’ And yet, they bought in.”
It was a magical finish on and off the ice. By the end of May when the playoffs were done, the Canes had generated more than $5.1 million in new season-ticket memberships — up nearly $4 million from a year prior.
There were more changes this past summer. This time, Carolina became a free agent destination. Among those who chose the Canes: former Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner, who signed a four-year deal at a discounted $4.05 million per season.
“The word is out,” Brind’Amour says. “We’re getting players that want to be here. This is a place where they know they can win. But this year is really important. We had a good year, but we have to back it up. And then you’ll start to see real change stay around here.”
It’s early, but the Canes have shown once again to be a disciplined hardworking bunch. They won their first three games of the season for the first time since 1995-96 — they needed overtime in each of those games, and overcame third-period deficits in each.
After the Canes stifled the Lighting, Bolts captain Steven Stamkos was frustrated.
“We just got totally outclassed by a team that was hungry to play, that had a game plan, played to their structure,” Stamkos said of the Canes. “We just continue to be the freewheeling team that thinks we can come into games and win because we’re skilled.”
For a Brind’Amour-coached team, that’s the ultimate compliment.
“Our team’s identity comes from [Brind’Amour],” says top-line center Sebastian Aho. “It’s not just that he’s the most fit guy here. He’s a great leader. You want to learn from a guy like him.”