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Patrick Sharp in good frame of mind on and off the ice

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Washington Capitals v Chicago Blackhawks

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Updated: November 6, 2013 6:08AM



The thick beige liquid in Patrick Sharp’s water bottle didn’t look terribly appetizing, and Sharp acknowledged it wasn’t. But drinking nasty protein shakes is as much a part of being a professional athlete these days as lifting weights and sweating on a stationary bike.

It wasn’t long ago that NHL locker rooms looked more like the one at a local
gym; Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were hardly flawless physical specimens. Now, nearly everyone in the league is cut, with hardly any body fat. It takes an extraordinary amount of work to reach that point, but there’s a reason the Blackhawks do what strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman says: It works.

‘‘I probably started around 25 or 26; that’s when I got real serious about it,’’ Sharp said. ‘‘That’s when the fitness craze came into the league. Now you see players training at 13 or 14 years old with personal trainers. That’s definitely something I wasn’t doing. When Paul Goodman came in [before the 2008-09 season], we sat down and laid out a plan. Every summer I improve physically because of Paulie.’’

That’s why Sharp believes he’s in the best shape of his life — and arguably playing the best hockey of his life — as he approaches his 32nd birthday. While his buddy and linemate, 35-year-old Marian Hossa, talks about how he’s feeling the effects of his age and how he has to come in early every day just to loosen up for a simple practice, Sharp feels he’s in the physical sweet spot of his career.

He proved it during training camp, outperforming Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and all the other fitness freaks on the team to win the label of ‘‘Fittest Blackhawk’’ after the grueling testing.

‘‘Come on, I’m not that old; I’m not Marian Hossa-old,” Sharp said with a sly grin.

It’s no surprise Sharp came into this season particularly motivated. A shoulder injury allowed him to play only 28 games last season and ended his streak of 20-goal seasons at six. But despite having only six goals and 14 assists in the short regular season, Sharp was the Hawks’ most consistent forward during their Stanley Cup run, posting a league-high 10 goals and six assists.

He’s also playing to
secure a spot on Team Canada for the Olympics in February. Sharp was left off the team in 2010 and has made no secret of his desire to play for his country in
Sochi, Russia.

Coach Joel Quenneville likes what he has seen so far.

‘‘He had a great camp,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘He’s skating as good as I’ve ever seen him skate. Every single time he’s hit the ice, it seems he’s at a different pace this year. He’s approached the season in a real positive way. It’s good. We expect him to be producing at a real nice
rate here.’’

Sharp got off to a strong start in the season opener Tuesday against the Washington Capitals, firing a team-high five shots on goal, delivering three hits, blocking a shot and creating a takeaway.

‘‘I’m looking forward to picking up where I left off in the playoffs last year,’’ Sharp said. ‘‘Not only helping out offensively but being good in all areas.’’

It can’t get much better these days in all areas. Sharp is in the best shape of his life, he’s coming off his second Stanley Cup title and he has a second child on the way.

‘‘It’s a good time to be me, I guess,’’ he said, laughing. ‘‘I’m very lucky.’’

NOTE: Ben Smith will make his season debut Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, taking right wing Jimmy Hayes’ spot on the third line. Center
Michal Handzus returned to practice and expects to play Saturday, too.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus



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