Jason Chimera is a rarity in professional sports. At an age when athletes’ bodies normally betray them, the Capitals’ 36-year-old left wing seems to be getting stronger, faster and, oddly enough, better.
“I don't think I've ever seen Chimmer skate so fast and that's saying a lot because he blew right by their guy on that goal,” Capitals right wing Tom Wilson said, describing the burst of speed Chimera used to race by Montreal Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin to score the final goal in the Caps’ 3-1 win Saturday night at Verizon Center. “It was pretty fun to watch.”
A little more than four months away from his 37th birthday, Chimera has 10 goals and 10 assists in 34 games this season, putting him on pace for a career-high 24 goals and 48 points.
“We talk about it every day,” said Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt, who picked up the secondary assist on Chimera’s goal Saturday night with a strong first pass to Wilson. “He’s just starting the second half of his career. He’s a guy that could play into his 40s. When guys get older things go and usually it’s their legs and this guy is getting stronger as he gets older.”
Chimera credits three people for his longevity – his youth skating coach, Steffany Hanlen; his personal trainer, Barry Butt; and his wife, Sarah.
'A race horse is born’
Chimera was a tall and lanky 13-year-old forward when his bantam coach introduced him to his sister, Steffany Hanlen, who at the time was a bit of a trail blazer as a skating coach in Edmonton.
“My brother said to me, ‘You’ve got to pay attention to this kid, there’s just something about him,’” Hanlen said. “You know when a race horse is born and he has these long legs and he kind of stumbles? That was Jason. He had the qualities and skills that motivated me to figure out how to make his coordination fit his frame.”
Hanlen, who later worked as the skating coach of the Edmonton Oilers and is the founder of Quantum Speed in Edmonton, said it was Chimera’s attention to detail that led to his near perfect skating stride.
“There is nothing natural about skating,” Hanlen said. “Skating is a reverse kinetic chain. It’s not like running or walking. Jason had the athleticism, the willingness, the tenacity, the love of the game and the drive, and he also had some adversity to come through. He was a tall kid, he was lanky and he went through a really uncoordinated stage.
“But he also had that natural rhythm that just needed tweaking.”
Hanlen said that while most hockey players “pound the ice” with their skates, creating stress on the joints, Chimera glides through every stride.
“He moves from his core,” she said. “That’s one thing a lot of players still don’t get. Skating effortlessly comes from using the proper kinetic chain. But have you seen how big his gluts and his quads are? Skating movement comes from the core and his core is very strong.”
Chimera continued working with Hanlen every summer through his junior days playing for the Medicine Hat Tigers. It was during those summer sessions that Hanlen came to appreciate Chimera’s work ethic and bigger-than-life personality.
“His work ethic was ridiculous,” Hanlen recalled. “He would go so hard in his sets and then he’d be singing or laughing or poking fun at everybody. That youthfulness and ability to change gears from intensity to joy can also create longevity and that’s what he’s done.”
‘He’s not the old grumpy guy’
Taken by the Edmonton Oilers in the fifth round (121st overall) in 1997, Chimera took his summer workouts to another level at the age of 19, when he began working with strength and conditioning specialist Barry Butt, a certified exercise physiologist based in Edmonton.
“He’s pretty genetically gifted with speed, but he works hard to keep that,” Butt said. “You have to put in the effort and work on it and he does. He’s as fast and as strong as anyone I’ve ever seen in a gym.”
Now the owner and director of Premier Strength and Conditioning, Inc., in Edmonton, Butt says he works with Chimera on lower and upper body strength, with a focus on sprints and explosiveness that allows Chimera to get to loose pucks like he did on Saturday night’s goal. Butt said he uses a biomechanics expert who was so enamored by Chimera’s skating stride he videotaped it for instruction.
“He’s got a very unique understanding of what the stride should look and feel like, which is pretty unique,” Butt said of Chimera.
Like Hanlen, Butt said it’s Chimera’s enthusiasm for the game that makes his summer workouts so enjoyable.
“Personality-wise, he’s not 36 years old,” Butt said. “He’s young at heart and that’s a big part of it. When he comes into the gym he’s not the old grumpy guy. He’s the vibrant guy the young guys love to be around.
“I think that’s a big part of it, not stressing yourself out over a lot of things. That becomes hard on the body when you’re not mentally strong. He gets called ‘old man’ on the ice all the time and he jokes about it. It’s true (he’s 36) when it comes to the number, but it’s not true at all when you see how he prepares himself.”
‘She’s opened my eyes’
Chimera said he’s also taken a more serious approach to nutrition, thanks to his wife, Sarah.
“She’s opened my eyes to a new way of thinking and eating food and healthy habits off the ice,” Chimera said.
“He keeps his body in really good shape,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. “I think a lot of that has to do with his wife. I think Sarah keeps him in check. She’s very knowledgeable about nutrition and it’s rubbed off on him.
“You can tell he’s in the best shape you can be at 36. He can still fly and I don’t think that’ll ever leave him. Most guys lose a step and he hasn’t done that.”
Now in his 13th full NHL season, Chimera is likely to turn his strong start to the 2015-16 season into his next NHL contract. His current two-year, $4 million contract is set to expire after this season. Chimera said he plans on playing well into his 40s and so far, no one is arguing with him.
“He hasn’t slowed down at all,” Capitals center Jay Beagle said. “He’s obviously a specimen. He doesn’t slow down in the gym. He keeps getting stronger. When he’s at the rink he’s a true professional and a guy you can look up to. I’d be blessed to play that long, that’s for sure.”
Even Capitals coach Barry Trotz is stumped when asked if he can think of a player that was able to keep his speed as long as Chimera has.
“The only guy I can think of who kept his speed and continued to be fast at an older age was Teemu Selanne,” Trotz said. “He’s got one of those bodies that doesn’t seem to age. He takes care of himself, he’s got a really good stride and he’s fast.”
So the question that hangs over Chimera’s career is this: How long can he play in the NHL?
“I don’t know,” Butt said. “He doesn’t seem to be slowing down. I’ve said this for probably 10 years. He’ll play until he’s 40. I think he can easily play another four years and from there you never know.”
“If he keeps taking care of himself that will be Jason’s choice,” she said. “He seems to keep getting better.”