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Players rave about improving in workouts with team's strength coach.

Vladimir Mihalik always believed he trained hard during the summer.

That is, until the defenseman spent three weeks in August with Lightning strength coach Chuck Lobe.

"I thought I was in good shape," Mihalik said. "But compared to this year, knowing what I can do, I figured out it was pretty bad."

Not all the testimonials Sunday after the first day of training camp practices at the Ice Sports Forum were as dramatic. But there was no doubt from players who during the summer traveled to the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie to work out with Lobe that it was a smart move.

A stamina-building and strength-expanding move, too.

"It's like cheating" for training camp, Lobe said, laughing.

NHL teams are not permitted to sponsor offseason training, and Tampa Bay general manager Brian Lawton wanted it clear "there was no coercion, no anything" of the players.

At the same time, he said, "We wanted them to know it was available."

Lobe - who with strength and conditioning consultant Kevin Ziegler worked out of Velocity Sports Performance, a facility owned by Lawton's brother-in-law - said about 15 Lightning players, mostly younger, took part at various times of the summer. They stayed in hotels on their own dime or crashed with teammates who live in the area.

He said players from other teams were there as well.

"I will do this every summer from here on out," defenseman Matt Smaby said. "It was a really good thing."

Though Lobe said the goal is to get players in "hockey shape" by concentrating on "being explosive and being fast," a bonus is keeping a record of a player's program and progress. That, he said, makes it easier for him to help maintain the players' in-season strength and conditioning.

Lobe said Monday-Wednesday-Friday workouts were "full body" and followed the team's basic offseason program. Tuesday and Thursday were for things such as plyometrics.

Half-sheet rinks, built for three-on-three games, promoted quick feet and quick decisions.

"He just puts you through what you need to do to get better," said defenseman Mike Lundin, who lives near Minneapolis and has trained at Velocity Sports for three summers. "You don't have to think about what you should be doing."

That was just fine with right wing Steve Downie, who spent all of August with Lobe. The result: a sculpted physique and body fat Lobe said declined to 7.5 percent from 12 percent.

"I just didn't feel right on the ice last year," Downie, 22, said. "I felt slow. I just didn't feel strong."

He said he found out that though he was working hard, "I did all the wrong things."

Now, he said, "I've never felt this good on the ice before."

"Steve Downie is a different guy from last year," coach Rick Tocchet said. "That's what you're looking for."

Same with Mihalik, 22, whose body fat, Lobe said, is down to 11 percent from 17 percent.

"Be stronger, losing body fat, still losing body fat," Mihalik said. "Getting faster, too."

And, Lobe would say, getting better.