The path to the Stanley Cup, professional sports’ most famous trophy, is one of attrition. For the last team standing, the National Hockey League championship represents the successful end of an eight-month season featuring more than 100 games, extensive travel and countless injuries — both significant and minor. University of Maine graduate John Whitesides played a key role for the 2011 champion Boston Bruins, working behind the scenes to optimize player performance and minimize down time related to injury.
Job title: Strength and Conditioning Coach, Boston Bruins
Where did you grow up? North Conway, N.H.
Where is home now? Bedford, Mass.
Family: Wife, Virginia, whom he met when working at Boston College, and 19-month- old twins, John and Jane
Years attended UMaine and degrees?
Bachelor’s degree in KPE, 1995; master’s in exercise physiology, 1997
Milestones in your professional career after graduating from UMaine?
Between my undergraduate degree and master’s, I did an internship in the athletic department at Boston College. I wanted to stay in New England and BC was attractive because it has the largest college sports program in New England. After I finished my master’s at UMaine, I went back to BC as a volunteer and I was in the right place when a job opened up so I took it, working with all sports, but as the hockey team’s head strength and conditioning coach. The four hockey teams I worked with qualified for the Frozen Four, winning the national championship in April 2001. Two months later, I was working for the Bruins.
What are the primary differences between college and professional sports?
The biggest difference is the amount of focus at the professional level. Everything is focused on the game, where in college life there’s also schoolwork and the other aspects of the college experience. This is a business. These guys are coming to work and this is what they do for the day.
How did UMaine help prepare you for your career in strength and conditioning?
In strength and conditioning, there are colleges that have bigger names than UMaine, and I know people from those programs. I feel that I was better prepared than they were. The hands-on approach and the personal involvement of professors like Dr. (Glenn) Reif, Dr. (Steve) Butterfield and Doc (Robert) Lehnhard kept me interested and put me on track to be successful. I still lean on Doc today, asking his advice on things like specialized testing procedures and other aspects of my work. Others in the KPE department like Walt Abbott and Diane LeGrande, who works in the office, are part of a tight-knit group that’s almost like a family. They all influenced me greatly. They took me in and guided me toward a rewarding career. It was a challenging environment, but one where everybody knew everybody else and we all worked together. That was ideal for me because I’m more comfortable in that setting than one with 500 other people. The faculty and staff all take a huge interest in their students and making them successful.
As a student, why did you choose to study exercise science?
I started out with an interest in teaching and coaching, and I was on track to finishing my degree in four years. Education is important to my family and my first goal was to earn a degree. Because I was red-shirted, I had a year of football eligibility remaining, so I planned to stay at UMaine. Doc encouraged me to pursue the department’s teaching fellowship, to cover the cost of my master’s degree while giving me a chance to teach some labs and courses. I got that fellowship and all of I sudden I found myself switching gears. I made the commitment to teaching and learning about exercise physiology, and I walked away from football. I was thrust into high-level exercise courses, and Doc Lehnhard was right there to help me. That was the point where I made the transition onto my career path.
What courses did you teach?
I taught undergraduates in Theories of Conditioning, along with all of the labs in biomechanics and kinesiology, and archery, where I taught everybody how to avoid shooting each other and let them shoot.
I was recruited to play football. I also looked at UNH and some schools in Pennsylvania. I remember driving onto campus and seeing that big “M” on the Field House and I was instantly impressed. I met some people, walked around the campus and I knew it was a good fit.
What was the impact of Black Bear football on your college experience and your career path?
I had a number of injuries, which led to experiences that would help me in my work because a lot of my responsibilities involve dealing with injured players. They feel separated from their teammates and they often have nowhere to turn, and I know that feeling. The strength coach plays in important role; you become an ally. There are no politics in the weight room. What you lift is what you lift. It’s a raw, bottom-level experience because what you put into it is what you get out. That’s why I gravitated toward this work.
My injuries, which were lower-body injuries, also pointed me in this direction because I wanted to stay in shape, so I spent my time doing a lot of upper-body lifting and Doc Lehnhard was the team’s strength and conditioning coach. We spent a lot of time working together and those experiences began to turn me toward a career in conditioning.
How do you relate your teaching experiences to the work you do now?
When I was at the front of the classroom, I quickly learned that a positive environment is best for learning, and that it’s important that we have open, honest communication. I’m not afraid to say I don’t know the answer, either in teaching or coaching, but I do know how to find the answer. I learned to hold the line and be consistent, which is important, even in professional sports.
When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?
Lengyel Gym. I spent so much time there and it was a big part of my life.
Most memorable UMaine moment?
When I found out that I had earned the teaching fellowship. I had always thought that my athletic ability was the key to my success and that was how I defined myself. I had struggled when I was younger with academics. All of a sudden, I realized that academics were going to carry me and I was going to get a master’s degree, and that represented a switch in my life. Athletics were no longer the driving force; academics were going to define me. It was a huge turning point for me. I was no longer a football player; I was a master’s degree student and a college teacher.
While in Orono, I spent too much time:
At Pat’s Pizza. Those are the places you miss, too. I also have great memories of York Village where I lived with my teammates Todd Park and the late Aaron Terry. They were my closest friends. We backed each other up on the field, off the field, everywhere.
What was the influence of Coach Cosgrove and his staff?
They were unbelievable, but I was injured so often that I spent a lot of time with Doc Lehnhard, leading me to what I do. Coach Cosgrove and the rest of the staff are really great people, and they provided important lessons to all of us, especially with things like focus, direction and organization.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have …
I might have tried to make it easier on myself by studying harder at a young age, although, really, I probably wouldn’t change much. I don’t do things the easy way, but that works for me.
Who is your inspiration in your field?
Doc Lehnhard, who continues to be a great resource to this day. He has always given me good advice. For example, when I was in grad school, I could have worked with football, hockey or any sport. Bob insisted that I needed a variety of experiences to be marketable, especially for college jobs, so he encouraged me to work with a women’s sport, which I did with the field hockey program. He was exactly right, and it helped me to be both more marketable and better at my job because I had had a wider variety of experiences. Your next question will probably be: What’s the difference between working with male athletes and female athletes, right? Female athletes are a lot tougher and they don’t question you when they tell you to do something.
Best advice to UMaine students?
Learn as much as you can from the teachers you have there. Spend time asking questions, picking their brains, learning as much as you can before you leave. The answers are in the classroom. I could have missed that if I didn’t stay for grad school. You don’t need to leave to go somewhere else for a master’s or a great education. The answers are there at UMaine.
If not a strength and conditioning coach, what would you be?
I’d be in a business atmosphere of some kind.
What is your most enduring memory from the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run?
Grabbing the Stanley Cup and holding it above my head, on the ice after Game 7 in Vancouver.
Because of their playoff success, the Bruins played more than 100 games in a season that continued until June 16. What does that mean with respect to preparing for next season?
It complicates things greatly. Players are recovering from injuries later than normal, and they will have to get in condition in a shorter period of time. It’s hard to predict some of this because we haven’t lived through it yet, but we are talking to other coaches and some of our current players to find out what’s worked for them. Mark Recchi has won two other Stanley Cups and Shawn Thornton has won one, so they’ve got some experience we can draw on. We will be fine because we have guys who are veterans and who are in great condition already. That’s the thing about the NHL. These guys are the best in the world where athletes in other sports, football for example, are the best in North America. Hockey is different and that’s part of what makes this such a great job.
John Whitesides is also the host of a 10-part series of online video presentations providing workout advice of use to those looking to improve their own fitness programs.
Image Description: John Whitesides