A Napanee native is helping to turn Canada’s Yukon into a hot spot for producing some of the country’s elite athletes in a wide array of sports.
Ben McPherson, who grew up in Napanee and attended Napanee District Secondary School (Class of ’08), has quickly made a name for himself as a strength and conditioning expert in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
His highest profile client, Dylan Cozens, donned the ‘C’ for Team Canada at the 2021 World Junior ice Championships in Edmonton, picking up eight goals and 16 assists.
His Canadians brought home silver to go with the gold medal he earned in 2020. Combing his stats from 2020, Cozens’ 25 points across two tournaments are the fourth most ever recorded by a Canadian.
McPherson spoke with the Beaver over the phone from Whitehorse earlier this week, keeping a close eye on the clock, as he did so not want to miss the opening face-off for Cozens’ semifinal game.
A standout football player in his high school days, when McPherson was exploring his post-secondary options, he got an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I was actually recruited by Leroy Blugh, my Napanee hero and athletic mentor for sure,” McPherson recalled, noting Blugh was the Bishop Gaiters head coach at the time. “I played for Leroy at Bishop in Quebec and came back to Napanee in the summers and then one summer I decided to go to the Yukon.”
While training in the Yukon ahead of his final university football season, McPherson fell in love with the territory. He took a job with Environment Yukon in 2013 and in keeping with his passion of sports, he began training athletes on the side.
“I kind of realized that all I was doing was waiting for my full-time job to end so I could go to the gym and do what I really wanted to do,” said McPherson. “I got my CSCS-certified strength and conditioning specialist certification-and then quit my job, started working with more and more athletes full time and that became my new gig.”
A few summers later Blugh once again recruited him, this time as part of the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa RedBlacks strength and conditioning department. After a season with Ottawa, McPherson missed the work life balance of the Yukon and moved back in 2017 to open the Northern Strength Academy with his business partner Jeremy McCulloch.
“For an athlete, all the funding that goes into sports here for kids is crazy,” McPherson said of the Yukon. “If you’re good enough to play on the Napanee Stars, you go up here and take that talent and you’re playing for Team Yukon and you’re going down south and you’re playing against Team Ontario and future NHL’ers. Whatever the sport is, it’s not just hockey. Hockey is a very small percentage of the athletes that train out of my gym. There’s lots of opportunity for athletes here.”
McPherson first met Cozens when the latter was 14-years-old. Some four years later he was selected seventh overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres. He’s now in training camp with the big club with the hope of making the team’s Opening Night roster.
A native of Whitehorse, Cozens has spent his last few summers training with McPherson to prepare for this moment.
“It’s an advantage,” McPherson said of Cozens training in the Yukon. “He comes up and gets away from the media, it’s not like he’s going two hours down the 401 away from Buffalo. He flies up here and he’s able to disappear and go fishing and get out of cell reception and get out in the woods and go hunting and live a much more balanced life. I think that’s a huge advantage. The attention I’m able to give him, I’m working with some other junior hockey players but I give that kid two or three hours a day, one-to-one with all the best research I can find and put it into practice and I think it’s quite beneficial at the end of the day.”
McPherson says Whitehorse is also a great place to train outdoors. His athletes make frequent trips to Grey Mountain.
“There is some cool terrain here,” said McPherson. “I can take kids out to the sand pit on the mountain here. We’ll do that with 20 to 40 athletes every week in the summertime.”
While Cozens may be his most well known client, there are several others who are on the verge of making a name for themselves in their respective sport. Those include a pair of swimmers gearing up for Olympic trials this spring, cross-country skiers who have made the Junior Olympics, high-level snowboarders and a mix of volleyball, basketball and soccer players who have competed at the international level and are poised to be recruited by universities.
Though he still holds a fondness for Napanee, McPherson has no regrets about his move up north.
“It’s really grown,” he said of his business. “It kind of started when I moved back from Ottawa and decided to make my own business out of it and I just had a crew of hockey players, including Dylan and that was kind of it. Now it’s expanded two or three years into something much bigger than that so it’s been pretty exciting.”