Dubuque Fighting Saints forward Robert Cronin looks to score against Team USA in late February. Cronin has benefited from the team’s unique strength and conditioning program this season.

Tim Dutton has never been to Dubuque, and he hasn’t met any of the Fighting Saints players.

And yet, the PhD student played a pivotal role in the team being physically prepared for the rigors of a United States Hockey League playoff chase this season.

From his home in the United Kingdom, Dutton provided a weekly strength and conditioning blueprint for assistant coach Evan Dixon to relay to the players to execute throughout the season. The workouts varied based on the goals for the week and the on-ice workload.

“It’s not anything that’s super difficult to perform in the gym, but it’s more about making sure the guys are moving the correct way with full range of motion,” Dixon said this week. “Not only has Tim’s program resulted in less injuries — specifically in common hockey injuries like shoulders and groins — but we’ve also seen the results in energy and endurance. That shows in the fact we’ve gone 4-2 in the last game of weekends where we’re playing three games in three days, and that third game is always the most difficult.”

Saints head coach Oliver David met Dutton through a mutual connection and offered to help with his doctoral studies. David and Dutton spent countless hours on Zoom last summer discussing the biomechanics of hockey, a sport unfamiliar to Dutton.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the Saints to get a little creative with their strength and conditioning program, and Dutton offered his services free of charge in exchange for assistance in his doctoral pursuit. In addition to coordinating workouts with Dixon, he consults with trainer Megan Monjeau frequently and stresses the importance of proper nutrition, hydration and rest to the players.

“It’s been a very nice project for me,” said Dutton, who primarily worked with rugby players prior to the Saints. “I spent the majority of last summer educating myself on ice hockey, like work-to-rest ratios and physical capacities, and then coordinated things with Megan on the injury side of things.

“Fortunately, Evan has been a legend in the whole process. He’s the guy on the ground who smashes it with the lads, and his feedback has been instrumental in making the little tweaks that make it work. The key is finding the right stimulus to help them grow while keeping them ready to perform in games. That can be a challenge when they play a lot of games in a short period of time.”

The Saints actually spent more time in the training room this season than in the past. They’ve worked out four times per week instead of two, but many of those sessions centered around lighter work or simply stretching exercises.

A key component has been education on both ends of the equation.

“I have a general understanding of strength and conditioning, but in no way am I certified,” Dixon said. “A lot of it is me asking Tim, ‘Why are we doing certain things?’ Then, I can go to the players and explain them. Today’s athlete wants to know why, and when it makes sense to them, it’s a lot easier for them to complete the workouts.”

Robert Cronin, who leads the team in scoring, has reaped the benefits of the program by adding 15 pounds of muscle. Players typically lose weight during the rigors of a season.

“The biggest difference between the USHL and college is physical maturity, and, with this being my last year, I wanted to put on a lot of muscle and get bigger, stronger and faster and physically outmuscle people,” said Cronin, who will play at the University of New Hampshire in the fall. “Last year’s program was really good, too. But this one is a little different because it’s a lot of different exercises that hit different sets of body muscles at the same time.

“We don’t specifically focus on one body part. It’s more of a full-body thing where you do a lot of repetitions to increase muscular endurance and strength. It’s been awesome.”

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