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Neil Sheehy's unique healing approach helps keep players in the game

04/27/2021, 4:30pm CDT
By Tim McNiff

Neil Sheehy is a former NHL player turned player agent. He also uses a special technique to help players bounce back from injuries faster as well as keep them feeling their best. (PHOTO BY TIM MCNIFF)

It is the dream of every hockey player born and raised in Minnesota.

You are playing in the championship game at the State High School Tournament, with the score tied in overtime.

You are near the end of your shift when a teammate suddenly picks up a loose puck and carries it down the right wing into the offensive zone.

You’re gassed and you were heading for the bench, but a lifetime of training tells you to circle back and start heading toward the goal, hoping that somehow the puck will find you.

With a defender on him and running out of ice, your teammate fires a bad angle shot on net. The goalie makes a pad save, instinctively kicking the puck out in front of the net -- and suddenly the rebound is right in front of you.

And just like that, the game, the season, and hockey immortality is on your stick.

It’s a dream for countless hockey players, but for Eden Prairie Junior Jackson Blake it was dream come true in the 2021 Boy’s Class AA State Championship game against Lakeville South.

“When I got that puck I was just trying to put it on net and luckily it went 5-hole,” says Blake. “After that I didn’t really know what to do. At Eden Prairie we hadn’t won a state championship in a while, so it was good to get that one and obviously, scoring the game-winning goal is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, it was a very special moment.”

A special moment that was highly unlikely when you consider that Blake fractured his ankle not once, but twice during the Eagles regular season.

Blake had surgery on the ankle and that should have put the rest of his season in jeopardy. 

Instead, Jackson Blake missed just two games.

“The Dr. said I had to wait at least 3-4 days to play,” says Blake. “But if I hadn’t seen Neil there’s no way I would have been ready to go and I felt at least 85% within three days of surgery.”

“Neil” is Neil Sheehy, longtime NHL defenseman and player agent, who is now more than 10-years into his latest career reimagination. 

“I realized, when I was a player, the best players do not make it to the NHL, It is the best players who stay healthy that play in the NHL,” says Sheehy. “And so, I knew that if I had something special to help players perform to their ability, that I would have something that would draw them for me to be their agent as well.”

It’s not like Sheehy needed a lot of help in recruiting new clients. But Neil Sheehy’s career path has been every bit as unusual as it has been enduring, and make no mistake about it, Neil has called the shots at every step along the way.

After leaving Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics, Sheehy played nine-years in the NHL and two in Europe, before leaving the game to pursue a degree at William Mitchell School of Law, where he graduated in two and-a-half years while at the same time launching a business as a player agent. 

Says Sheehy. “My goal was to have my own company up and running by the time I finished law school. My very first client was my roommate with the Calgary Flames, former Edina forward, Paul Ranheim, who is now an Assistant Coach at Eden Prairie. Paul said, "If you are going to law school, why not be my agent?" I said, "Really?" So, my first client was an NHL hockey player, and that is how it all started.”

Sheehy says no one succeeds on their own, giving credit to his first agent, Edina's Brian Burke, the current Director of Hockey Operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins, for inspiring him to become an agent, and to the late Ron Simon, who took Sheehy on as a partner at a time when Simon’s career as an agent was starting to wind down.

“We were together for 15 years, and he gave me great experience, just how he handled things and the respect he had from everybody in sport,” says Sheehy. “I learned that you always have to do the right thing, that you do not make short-term decisions to make a buck. Always be honest, tell people the truth. Sometimes you realize that being with somebody is not the right fit and you have to be able to let it go. No matter how much it hurts you financially, in the long run, you will be better off.”

That approach has helped Sheehy survive in a cut-throat business, building, along with partners Paul Ostby and his brother Tim Sheehy, the I-C-E (Influential, Committed, Experienced) Hockey Agency. And by always advocating for his clients Sheehy saw another opportunity to lend value to their career.

“I did things differently as a player to help my body work, natural things,” says Sheehy. “I was not into drugs, but I did things to help my body so I could perform at my best. So, I started sharing some of those things with my clients.”

As you might expect, not all of Sheehy’s clients bought into their agent dispensing advice on how best to stay healthy.

“I got a table in my office. I would show guys different things,” says Sheehy. “Well, then some players started to think it was weird that I have a table and even though it would help them, different people would say, ‘Are you a doctor?’ I would say, ‘No, but I am a lawyer, and I know how to think, and lot of this stuff you can think, you do not have to be a doctor.”

You may not have to be a doctor, but Sheehy quickly found out that to be taken seriously with his new offering he needed to go back to school.

“I did not want to look weird anymore, so I went to Northwestern Health Sciences University and started in the chiropractic school, but I realized that it was not for me, in what I was doing was not about the bones,” says Sheehy. “So, I switched gears with my eye on becoming a Neuromuscular Therapist, and once I learned the science, and the techniques in the program there, that only elevated the knowledge I had already acquired, and I was able to find and learn many, many new things that have helped my clients.”

Sheehy is certified in soft tissue practice from the NeuroMuscular Therapy Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, and earned a certificate in Clinical Massage Therapy from Northwestern Health Sciences University, in Bloomington, Minnesota. He offers a hands-on approach aimed at allowing his players to be able to achieve peak physical performance.

“I knew it helped people and I knew that it was going to be very effective long-term, and I really loved doing it,” says Sheehy “So, getting the certification just enhanced everything because now I have the credentials, I am certified to do this type of thing, and with that, it just elevated my excitement to continue on as a hockey agent.”

If you’re looking for an explanation as to how NeuroMuscular Therapy helps the players’ performance let’s just say that some of them, while big believers, still have a hard time putting it into words.

“We just call it ‘voodoo’ because we don’t know what else to call it,” says Eden Prairie Senior Center Carter Batchelder. “Whenever we need help we just call him a “fixer-upper” because he’ll just have you lay down and hold on to some stuff and he’ll just start working on you, putting pressure on certain areas and you can feel your body start moving and he can always tell. He’ll say to you, ‘tell me when you can feel something in your toes,’ and like 15 seconds later you start to feel something in your toes. I wouldn’t say it’s fun, it’s a little painful, but it feels good in the end and that’s all that matters.”

“Oh my gosh, I have no idea how it works but, whatever he does it helps with your balance a ton, I know that,” says Eden Prairie Senior Defenseman Luke Mittlestadt, a University of Minnesota recruit. “You get up off the table after he works on you and you feel like you could run a marathon, it’s insane! He gives you so much energy and you feel so light. I have no idea what he does but I mean it makes you feel so much better.”

Says Sheehy, “Nerves run through tissue and if you have unhealthy tissue the proper connection isn’t being made, so what I am really looking to do is to find the disconnect in that unhealthy tissue and I make that unhealthy tissue healthy. I do different tests to find out where the neurological disconnect is and once I find the disconnect I use my hands to go in and find the unhealthy tissue and I make the unhealthy tissue healthy, regaining the neurological connection to the muscle, which allows the muscle to absorb the force that comes into the body.’

In a contact sport like ice hockey force is constantly coming into the body in the form of body checks and the body being constantly slammed into the boards. As such, players constantly find themselves in need of a tune-up, or perhaps much more, and it’s not unusual for Sheehy to hop on a plane to make in season house calls to his NHL clientele.

“Whenever there is an opening in the schedule he’s really good at shooting out,” says Nick Leddy, a Defenseman for the NHL’s New York Islanders. “But he would drop everything and come on out if we really needed him, if there was a bad hit or something where we needed him, he would drop everything to come and help out.”

An 11-year veteran, Leddy has been with Sheehy since turning pro. Always open to considering Sheehy’s alternative training methods, Leddy says Sheehy is always trying to find an edge for his players.

“It just shows how much he cares about his players, that’s the biggest thing to me,” says Leddy. “He helped me get to the training I have been doing now for 13-years now and I believe in that wholeheartedly and just his willingness to keep learning and to keep getting better and to keep adapting.”

COVID-19 forced Sheehy to close his office but that hasn’t stopped him from seeing players, or just about anyone else who finds themselves in need, at his home in Edina.

In 2020 it appeared that Batchelder’s season was over when he suffered a separated shoulder. Blake and Mittlestadt quickly suggested that their talented teammate make a visit to Sheehy.

“They said I was probably going to miss the rest of the season, and we were not even halfway through the season yet,” says Batchelder, who has committed to play at the University of Colorado College. “He did his crazy stuff on me and before we started he was like, ‘Yeah, I should probably have you good to go in like three weeks and I went there like, twice a week, once a week sometimes, and I think I was back in like seven games, which was about three weeks, maybe a little bit less.”

Batcheleder, Blake and Mittlestadt saw Sheehy throughout the 2020-2021 season and state tournament, usually going in together because while all of them find Sheehy’s approach beneficial, they also agree that the process isn’t always a lot of fun.

“We’re sitting there laughing at the guy on the table and then it’s your turn and they’re laughing at you,” says Mittlestadt. “We have a good time with it, Neil entertains us a bit when he messes with Jackson because nobody really messes with Jackson all that much but I think it’s really funny and it’s fun.”

Adds Blake, “I had a broken ankle and I would not have gotten to play without Neil, and I think there was another kid, who tore his MCL or something and he was back within days, I mean, that’s just unheard of. It’s super-hard to explain I’ve done it for two years and I still can’t explain it. I mean, it hurts a little bit, it’s definitely not fun but it’s for sure worth it. Neil’s the guy. If you’ve gotta be healthy you’ve gotta see him.”

All three Eden Prairie players received treatment throughout the state tournament and credit Sheehy for keeping them sharp at a point in the season where it is clearly survival of the fittest. 

Luke Mittlestadt, who started seeing Sheehy with his older brother Casey, now a center for the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, says other athletes could benefit from treatment too.

“I honestly think about that all the time. Any athlete can really go in there and kind of see the benefits it can give them.” Adds Luke, “I don’t know how it works, but I’m sure you could go in there if you were a football player and get worked on and it would help your game a ton.”

Sheehy is quick to point out that what he does won’t make an average athlete perform better, and he doesn’t take credit for what success his clients have attained. What he does claim to do is put his athletes in the best possible position to maximize their talents.

“Regarding the high school athletes, I just do it because I enjoy doing it and I am not looking for anything in return,” says Sheehy. “Now, with my clients, I am able to help them and then when they perform to their ability consistently, they are worth much more on the free-agent market or the hockey market, and that is what is driving me, that is what has made, going into my 38th year in pro hockey, really exciting and fun.”

So, while Sheehy says that he’s not open for business, word of mouth has his phone ringing constantly and people in various need of repair, many not athletes, continue to shuffle in and out his home.

“I just help different people. There can be a day where I can see five, six people, there are some days I see one or two.” adds Neil, “What matters in life is the relationships you create with the people around you. And when you are able to help those people around you and you have something where you’re not looking for anything in return that is really exciting, and it drives me to get up every day because I love doing it.”

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