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Power Play

10/27/2022, 9:00am CDT
By Cory Zurowski

How a hockey player’s journey became a career passion to train athletes

Tommy Powers (right) trains Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who is also a partner in Empowers Performance, which opened this past spring in Edina. The two have deep roots as Powers has been training Dumba since he was 15 years old.

It’s a clear sunny day in early fall and inside Empowers Performance (EP) in Edina Tommy Powers has the place to his lonesome. The Keiser machines quiet. The infrared sauna and cold tubs unoccupied. The oxygen bike dormant. Which is extraordinary. Ever since Powers and co-owner Matt Dumba opened the athletic performance training and recovery facility in May, Powers has been anything but lonely, with dozens of amateur and pro hockey players descending upon the upstart, each on a quest to be better tomorrow than today.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we opened,” says the 37-year-old Powers, who previously worked as the strength and conditioning for the Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers. “We opened for business with zero clients. So the turnout has been amazing. 

“Judging by how well we’ve been received so early on, serious athletes who want to put in the work have found us. And that’s who this place was built for, serious athletes — whether they be a JV player working to make varsity or a junior player fighting to play Division I or a draft pick headed to his first NHL training camp — that type of person who is committed to working hard, and willing to put in the work.”

At first thought, launching an athletic training business in the Twin Cities, a hockey-rabid market already littered with such enterprises, might feel like a fool’s errand. On the heels of a global pandemic, lunacy. But upon closer inspection, Empowers’ entrance might be a stroke, dare it be said, of genius.

Empowers Performance is different from all others by design. Whereas its predecessors emphasize brute and brawn, EP stresses form and function. Whereas its competitors offer training for the player’s upcoming season, EP engineers and executes personalized performance training and recovery regimens for an athlete’s career. Whereas its forerunners are built as a gym, Empowers Performance was created to serve as a community.

“From the first time I met [Tommy Powers] I could tell he wasn’t invested in me just in the weight room or just in me working out with him,” says Harvard University hockey player Joe Miller. “Right from the start, Tommy has been invested in me as a whole hockey player and as a person.”

In order to understand and appreciate what Empowers Performance is and how it exists, one must understand the story of how it came to be. And that is the story of the hockey journey belonging to Tommy Powers.

Hockey Steals a Boy’s Heart 

Powers didn’t grow up playing ice hockey on frozen ponds. He spent his boyhood playing street hockey on the not-so-mean paved streets of suburban Miami. Around age 11, Powers’ best friend decided he was going to give ice hockey a go. Powers wanted in. His dad Tom said sure, but you have to pay for the gear out of your own pocket. Powers, in turn, sold his drum set. That first hour on the ice changed everything. Powers officially had hockey in his heart. 

The youngster played in-house for a couple of seasons, and didn’t make a traveling team roster until bantams. At the conclusion of his junior year in high school, which coincided with his last year of youth hockey as an oak tree of a stay-at-home defenseman for the Florida Junior Panthers, the realities of the sport two-handed the 6 ‘3 Powers, his dream of playing Division I hockey, withering before his teenage eyes. If he didn’t find a team to play with the following season, his career would quickly be relegated to late night’s men’s league for all eternity. 

Instead of resigning himself to beer league stardom, Powers got proactive. That summer he and his mom Nancy loaded up the family station wagon, driving 1,500 miles northeast to Boston for a tournament. His play in Beantown would earn him an invitation to play prep school hockey at The Gunnery School in Washington, Connecticut. Which he did for the next two seasons. 

Post-prep school, Powers spent time playing juniors, both north and south of the border. Circa 2005, with his Division I dream still thoroughly intact, his juniors eligibility coming to an end, and no scholarships in sight, Powers and his parents, Tom and Nancy, hatched a bold yet brilliant idea: He would draft a letter to every NCAA Division I men’s hockey program in the land. In the letter, he detailed the kind of player and person he was, his character, and why a program should take a chance on this rugged, little known blueliner. 

Two schools wrote back, including the University of Massachusetts Lowell where Powers would land as a “recruited walk-on” the upcoming fall.

“I didn’t really know what that meant,” he says. “But I’m like it’s Division I. It’s Hockey East. I’m playing against Boston College, Boston University, Maine, whatever. I’m like sweet.”

That offseason would impact Powers’ life for many years to come. 

A Young Man Meets his Mentor

Not long after signing on to (hopefully) play for the River Hawks, Powers received the team’s offseason training manual at his parents’ house in South Florida. The thick binder, with still photos and instructions, showed things that were totally foreign to Powers, whose offseason training until this point, was bicep curls tips he’d gleaned from Men’s Health magazine. 

“What’s a hang clean?” he wondered, perusing the manual’s uninspiring pages. Scratching his head, Powers got to thinking. The Florida Panthers rink is two miles away from me. Whoever is the team’s strength coach will certainly know what this stuff is, he thought. Maybe they’d be willing to help me out. Little did Powers know, but he was about to become acquainted with the person who was going to change his life and show him the passion that one day would supplant hockey, a passion Powers would eventually parlay into his career calling.

Powers met Andy O’Brien the following morning. Instead of inside at a gym, they met outside a nearby track. Unbeknownst to Powers at the time, the twenty-something O’Brien’s resume included training a teenage hockey wunderkind named Sidney Crosby.

O’Brien exposed Powers to a new world. The River Hawks’ training manual stayed closed that day and remained so all summer. Instead, O’Brien drilled the budding collegiate D-man on track exercises, falling reactives, agility movements, and explosive-type exercises. Instead of leading Powers down a path of jump squats and lift heavy then lift heavier, the trainer started acclimating his student to terms like “shin angle” and “hip flexion.” O’Brien stressed the importance of recovery and sleep like it was Biblical whereas the team’s manual said nothing about such topics. 

In the coming days and weeks, O’Brien would complement Powers’ customized training program with an arsenal of dietary supplements as well as eating instructions and recovery protocols, all of it in aggregate aimed at keeping the athlete healthy and explosive for the long road. 

“That first summer with Andy is when my eyes were opened to this way of training, training that we never put our bodies at risk, training on a whole other level,” Powers says. “That summer I did exactly everything Andy told me and just worked at it. That summer I realized how much I loved the work.”  

Training with O’Brien spring boarded Powers onto the UMass Lowell roster as the seventh defenseman, garnering ice time in two games as a freshman. When he wasn’t in the line up, the frosh could be found doing exercises O’Brien had sent him at school. 

“The best way to describe it is that everything is very dynamic,” says Powers. “There’s no single motion movements. It’s body encompassing. A lot of rotation. Nervous system based. It’s not about getting as strong as possible. It’s about increasing mobility, speed, and activation.” 

After a second offseason training with O’Brien, Powers saw action in 13 games his sophomore campaign. He’d be awarded a partial scholarship as he headed into his junior season.

“I didn’t do the offseason training program the team wanted,” says Powers. “I trained on the program Andy was training NHL players, and because of his program, my body kept feeling better and better, and I was like, ‘This is how I want to make other guys feel.’”

And it was in this revelation that sowed the seed that one day would become Empowers Performance.

Minnesota Wild forward Tyson Jost trained with Powers after Empowering Performance opened in Edina. Right off the get-go Jost knew “it was a no-brainer I should train with this guy.”

Heartbreak Beckons a New Calling 

Powers’ college hockey ascent would nosedive. Less than six months after becoming a scholarship athlete, the River Hawks coaching staff notified him he was being squeezed out of the lineup due to a bumper crop of incoming defenseman. 

Despite witnessing his collegiate career melting away from the press box as a healthy scratch, Powers kept busting him hump off-ice, heeding O’Brien’s training and recovery maxims. His devotion didn’t go unnoticed. His regimens intrigued his River Hawks’ teammates. They asked Powers to teach them the same. And a trainer was born.

Powers graduated with a degree in exercise physiology, minoring in nutrition. He apprenticed under O’Brien for two years then got plucked to be the strength and conditioning coach for the Phoenix Coyotes. Two-plus years in Arizona were succeeded by five years as the strength and conditioning coach with the Florida Panthers. 

Tyson Jost of the Minnesota Wild couldn’t be happier that Powers chose to relocate his young family to Minnesota and open Empowers Performance. The 24-year-old Alberta native, who spent a year playing college hockey at the University of North Dakota before turning pro, was introduced to Powers at a camp put on by CAA Sports, the agency that represents him. 

Right off the get-go Jost knew “it was a no-brainer I should train with this guy.” According to Jost, it was obvious, just in a few minutes conversation, that Powers was well-studied in his field of expertise, was committed to the craft, and exuded a passion for helping athletes.

This past summer Jost got his wish. 

“His exercises are so tailored to what you need to work on, what your body needs, and how your body needs to respond to it,” says Jost. “In the past, I’ve seen so much of that kind of one-size-fits all training. Tommy’s completely the opposite. He sits down with you and together you assess everything about your body and your health. Then he designs your own personalized program and spends as much time as you need helping you with nutrition, supplements, recovery, whatever you need.

“His place isn’t just some gym or just another place to train. It’s a relationship between him and me, the player, the athlete, the person, and it’s a relationship that doesn’t just cut out when I leave his place.”

“I feel like I’m way more comfortable within my body on the ice, feel way stronger, and more connected to the ice, and now I am able to make plays I wasn’t able to make in the past.” - Joe Miller, Harvard University

According to Harvard freshman forward Miller, the improvements he made this past offseason working with Powers transcend anything he’d seen in the past. It’s not even close. Miller gained no less than 12 pounds of lean muscle, and with Powers’ help, has learned to keep it on even while at school in Boston. Moreover, says Miller, in the past, while on the ice he would feel like he processed the game faster than his body could keep up. That’s no longer the case.

“All that training with Tommy, being strong in uncomfortable positions and training to be way more explosive,” says Miller, “I feel like I’m way more comfortable within my body on the ice, feel way stronger, and more connected to the ice, and now I am able to make plays I wasn’t able to make in the past. 

“All I can say is that as a person, as a guy, Tommy’s the reason… [Empowers Performance] is special.”

Stanley Cup champion Ryan McDonagh is one of several NHL players who train with Powers at Empowers Performance in Edina.

Tommy Powers is a man on a mission at Empowers Performance in Edina, a new state-of-the-art training facility geared towards professional and elite amateur athletes. Powers works with several Wild players as well as players from other NHL organizations.

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