Unlock Your Potential: Why NHL Players are Turning to Boxing for Off-Season Training

Matt Luff, a hockey player in the NHL, wearing black shorts and a black shirt with the West End Athletic Club logo is standing in front of a black wall inside the Toronto gym.

West End Athletic Club is proud to welcome NHL hockey player, Matt Luff of the Detroit Red Wings, for training in the off-season.

From beauty queens to NHL athletes, boxing is a sport that appeals to the fighter in all of us. Take Matt Luff, a winger for the Detroit Red Wings. You may think most hockey players take a break and relax when the off-season rolls around. But in truth, it’s an opportunity for players to go beyond the rink and challenge their bodies to get stronger and faster. Matt sees the off-season as a chance to push himself to new limits and enhance his performance on the ice. That’s why he turned to boxing.

“Coming off of wrist surgery, I wanted to learn something new that would get me back to peak condition and surpass where I had been pre-surgery. I’m a bigger guy, there are expectations for me to provide a strong physical presence on the ice.”

Boxing provided the perfect solution for Matt, the intense cardio, shoulder mobility, technical punching skills, and core strength required in boxing all translated well to his hockey game.

Every week throughout the summer of 2023, Matt trained with Coach Stevie Bailey at West End Athletic Club. He couldn’t help but observe that “boxers are the most in-shape guys I have ever seen. I’m completely winded by the end of my session, the cardio is just insane. Boxing is the whole package: shoulder mobility, cardio, learning to protect myself and my teammates, the technical aspects of punching properly, and core strength. Every time I left there I was hurting, that’s how I knew what I was doing was working.” 

Detroit Red Wings Matt Luff Boxing with Coach Stevie Bailey

For Matt, boxing is not just about physical fitness; it’s about learning to protect himself and his teammates on the ice. It’s about improving his agility, footwork, and hand-eye coordination. And most importantly, it’s about enjoying the process and challenging himself in new ways.

Matt Luff Knows What it Means to Put in the Time

In Canada, it seems that most kids are born with a hockey stick in their hands ready to take the ice. Matt Luff was no different, his mom would take him to Timbit hockey where they used only a quarter of the ice and he would cry. “I hated playing on the ice, I wanted to be with my friends playing road hockey,” Matt reflected of his childhood growing up in Windsor, Ontario and then Oakville, Ontario. As he got older, his feelings about playing hockey on ice changed, you couldn’t get him off the rink and he ended up playing for the Oakville Rangers.

In hindsight, Matt gives a lot of credit to his parents for their support in all aspects of the game. “I give my parents so much credit, paying to keep my sticks up-to-date, new skates. They got to do a lot of it with me, including playing in places like Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic. I respect my mom and dad so much and am grateful for all they did to get me to where I am today, and it wasn’t easy.”

Upper body image of Matt Luff in his Los Angeles hockey uniform, wearing a black helmet, inside the rink at an NHL home game.

Playing in the NHL was a dream that Matt Luff has worked hard to make a reality.

Matt wasn’t drafted right away, he spent time playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs and Junior A with the Oakville Blades. Eventually, he ended up in Phoenix, Arizona for rookie camp and while at the airport on his way home he got a phone call inviting him to play another year in the OHL with a contract for the NHL. “I was shocked, I didn’t get drafted but I got a contract, I called my parents at 2 am to tell them, I didn’t sleep the rest of the night. At the age of 21, I made my NHL debut.”

Currently, Matt is in Detroit, Michigan playing for the Detroit Red Wings in his second season. Last season he was in Nashville and realized that if he wanted more minutes and become an integral part of the team he would have to do more. Putting in the extra time when no one was looking, finding something that would push him physically and mentally, and without his realization at the time, emotionally. Boxing became the off-season training that proved invaluable to his performance on the ice.

Matt Luff ahead of his Red Wing debut

Boxing Technique and Footwork Translates Well to Hockey

One of the most important things to focus on in the off-season of any sport is understanding your strengths and isolating your weaknesses while maintaining proper nutrition. It’s important to get on a schedule or have a routine and know when to pick it up and slow down. “I check in with my body and align what I need to focus on.”

When Matt was considering how to train in the off-season he knew he wanted to:

  • Be lighter on his feet
  • Pivot his feet and body more quickly
  • Increase his cardio
  • Improve hand/eye coordination
  • Train his brain to react quicker, think faster

Boxing checked all of these boxes. “It was another way to train. If you look at any high-level athlete they aren’t just training in their one sport. They’re looking for any way to improve their game and performance. The technique and footwork required for boxing directly translate to hockey. From the warm-up to the insane cardio, it makes me a better athlete. By the end of the hour I’m dying, I never realized how much cardio you need to box.” Current Director of Player Health and Performance at the Ottawa Senators Hockey Club and World Renowned Holistic Health Expert, Matt Nichol, couldn’t agree more. Nichol believes in cross-training to support neuroplasticity and motor learning, proprioception and kinesthetic awareness, motor pattern variation and injury prevention.

“Boxing has also taught me how to protect myself better, the technical aspects of punching which will help me better protect my teammates. It has improved my shoulder mobility and core. Everybody is trying to find something to add to their game, for me, the results of boxing in the off-season are showing in camp and making me better.”

“When I’m at West End Athletic Club I don’t even realize the time and how fast it’s gone by. I like my Coach, Stevie Bailey, and I like the gym. Athlete or not, boxing is awesome. When I’m there I see people trying all these different classes in one day, people you wouldn’t expect, and it’s motivating. My entire body is strengthened from boxing, it’s a no-brainer if want a good workout. It just puts you in a completely different zone.”

Matt Luff Typical Training Session at West End AC

Everything is based on 2-3 minute rounds, much like how a boxer would compete.

  • Start with a full body warm-up: skipping, mountain climbers, push-ups, lunges, squats. 
  • 3-5lbs weights doing upper-cuts
  • Straight punches
  • Move into the ring to work on strikes (at first a lot of technique then moved to combinations)
  • Core work
  • Punching for time
Upper body image of Matt Luff on the ice in full hockey gear, wearing his Detroit Red Wings uniform during a game.

Matt Luff works hard for the MotorCity. Photo credit from: Matt Luff Morning Skate Updates vs Nashville

“Ultimately, I like knowing that I can protect myself or a teammate, I have the knowledge of what to do and how to execute. I won’t doubt myself in a fight on the ice whether it’s to get the boys going or to protect myself.”

Matt Luff and Stevie Bailey standing in front of the West End athletic club sign.

Stevie Bailey pushes Matt Luff out of his comfort zone to maximize cross-training results.

Canadian NHL Player, Matt Luff, Meets Irish Boxing Coach, Stevie Bailey

When Matt first got an email from Stevie he immediately looked him up and thought “he’s a big dude and a bit intimidating.” Matt was nervous going to his first training session.

Stevie made it easy.

“Deep down he is one of the nicest guys I know. He is a very well-known Coach who works with world-class boxers and is so down to earth. He understands the pro-athlete lifestyle and is very easy to talk to. What surprised me most was the depth he took to understand me and my sport. After a couple of sessions, he came back letting me know he had watched YouTube videos of hockey fights, he researched it and spoke about the guys I might go up against; it was personal and tailored to exactly what I needed. I’m not one of his fighters and I was blown away by his professionalism, knowledge, and commitment to making me better at my sport. He wants to know about you and your sport, his approach speaks volumes about who he is and why so many boxers want him in their corners.”

Just because Matt likes Stevie, doesn’t mean Stevie takes it easy on him; far from it. Matt has learned from not only his Coach but the other boxers in the gym. He has learned about boxing as a sport and was opened up to an industry he knew little to nothing about.

Stevie Bailey from West End Athletic Club is holding a boxing glove.

Staying focused as a Coach, Stevie Bailey ensures to challenge every athlete he works with.

Stevie Bailey Has Thoughts on Training an NHL Athlete

It’s important for all athletes to train in the off-season, to maintain a certain level of strength and fitness. That way when they go back into preseason it will be a comfortable transition for them. Boxing is unique in that it can address anaerobic and aerobic fitness. It includes cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, and strength, it’s a total body workout. There is also a mental component that most other athletes don’t realize.

Coach Stevie has worked with gymnasts, hockey, soccer, basketball, and football players, you name it. “Matt wanted to improve his striking, so most of his training focused on that.”

Reflecting on Hockey and Boxing, Matt Luff Feels More Equipped for his Season

What Matt loves most about hockey is his teammates and the bonds he makes with the players. Depending on who gets traded, they may end up playing against one another, but adjustments are made and it is like a brotherhood.

“Trying to win the cup with 23 guys is something, every team that has won it is a tight group and when you walk into training camp it’s like being with 23 of your closest friends.” For that reason and so many others, Matt wants to get better, to challenge himself to contribute to the team and to support his teammates by coming in every season as an even better player.

Stevie Bailey is standing in the middle of nine professional boxers that he Coaches. They are inside the boxing ring at West End Athletic Club all with one hand up in fist.

Working as a World-Class Coach, Stevie Bailey is surrounded by World-Class Boxers at a World-Class facility.

On reflection of his time during the summer at West End Athletic Club, Matt said “Honestly, after seeing some of Stevie’s fighters train, he probably thinks my punches are like throwing pillows. It takes commitment to be good at boxing. I underestimated how hard it is to succeed in that sport; the strategy, and analyzing the opponent, are just things I never would have thought about. I have a new respect for boxers and how they grind, they’re truly their own breed of what it means to be an athlete.”

Matt Luff knows the importance of pushing himself beyond his comfort zone in the off-season to support his team in season. With boxing, he found a way to improve both his physical and mental game. And he’s hoping to inspire other NHL players, teams, and young athletes to do the same. Boxing offers complimentary cross-training benefits to any sport, so why not give it a try on your own or with your entire team? Contact us today to connect with our Team Training Program or a Personal Trainer to help improve your performance in or off-season.

Team Training at West End AC