NISSWA, Minn. -- The signs warn you're headed for a dead end.

As you weave through a heavily wooded area just off Minnesota Highway 371, it feels like you must have taken a wrong turn at some point.

But zip a mile east on County Road 13, another mile up Clark Lake Road, take a winding turn to the left, and you come upon a massive warehouse-looking structure. The industrial-sized garage door is wide open. A cool breeze from nearby Clark Lake blows in, while the sounds of AC/DC, the Cars and the Eagles blare out.

Inside, it's full of gym and workout equipment, surrounded by photos and jerseys of NHL players who have spent time there in the past: T.J. Oshie, Matt Greene, Brad Malone, Ryan Malone, Scott Hartnell, Derek Stepan, Jarret Stoll and more.

Normally, at this time in the summer, it would be home to scores of young hockey players working out at Minnesota Hockey Camps. But not this year. Not with the coronavirus pandemic raging on.

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Instead, you'll find Cole Smith and his friends alone in there.

Smith's workouts are a thing of legend among his UND hockey teammates. Over the last four years, they've come up with many different ways to describe him: freak, specimen, warrior.

In 2016, Smith became UND's first freshman in more than 20 years to win the Iron Man award, which goes to the player with the best off-ice fitness and strength testing. He won it three times in four years, despite having to go against Colton Poolman, the son of athletic trainer Mark, all four years.

It was strength, fitness levels, athleticism and a relentless work ethic that pushed Smith from just a single Division-I scholarship offer -- and a 20% offer at that -- to an NHL contract with the Nashville Predators in the span of four years.

"He works harder than anyone I've ever met," UND senior Matt Kiersted said.

That sparked an idea in the locker room late last season.

Kiersted, an all-conference defenseman, and Jordan Kawaguchi, a Hobey Baker Award finalist, wanted to find the best way to prepare for their senior seasons.

"Guch and I talked about it last year," Kiersted said. "We wanted to spend the summer with Schmidt (Smith's nickname), because he's the Iron Man. We thought that spending the summer with him would be the best thing for us guys. We wanted to be around Schmidt, see what he does, and do what he does.

"And he invited us."

For the past month, Kawaguchi, Kiersted and Gavin Hain have been living in Brainerd, training with Smith and the Poolman brothers -- Colton and Tucker -- who each won Iron Man once.

Smith has been the ringleader, putting together his own custom workouts for the players.

"It's pretty basic, really," Smith said. "These guys came in here without lifting a whole lot (since the end of the season). Basically, we wanted to start with general preparation and getting them ready, back into lifting form again. This month was to get them ready to lift hard again."

(From left) UND hockey players Dixon Bowen, Cole Smith and Colton Poolman share a laugh during the senior spotlight video following the team's 2-1 overtime win against Western Michigan on Saturday, February 29, 2020 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
(From left) UND hockey players Dixon Bowen, Cole Smith and Colton Poolman share a laugh during the senior spotlight video following the team's 2-1 overtime win against Western Michigan on Saturday, February 29, 2020 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks HeraldNick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Summer in Brainerd

Kawaguchi, Kiersted and Hain arrived in Brainerd at the start of June. They slept in a bunk house in Smith's back yard. Smith and his father, Tom, built it themselves.

With gyms still closed in Minnesota, they began their summer workouts in Smith's garage, where he has barbells and other weights.

Smith attempted to ease the players back into lifting weights after a month-plus without access to gym equipment.

"We were coming off of whatever we could do at home," Kiersted said. "So when we got here, it was right into it that first week. It reminded me of the first week in Grand Forks in the summer. You work out hard, and then every night you're sore and can't get off the couch. It's good for us to be here, especially early in the summer. It's been really good for us."

Once gyms re-opened in Minnesota, the group began paying a gym fee to work out at Minnesota Hockey Camps in Nisswa, where there are more options.

The routine was similar all month.

They worked out every day at 9:30 a.m., except Mondays and Wednesdays, when they would start at 7 a.m. and rent out ice time at Breezy Point afterward.

"Coach Schmidt has been putting us through the wringer a little bit," Kawaguchi said. "It's been good. He's been getting us going and keeping us in line."

The workouts themselves aren't always the same, though. Smith changes them up a little bit every week.

"He watches videos about working out all the time," Hain said. "He’ll come to the weight room and have a new workout to try. He’s always trying to find something different, workouts to work different muscles and stuff. It’s cool to work out with him because he’s so smart with the body. He’s finding all these crazy things to do for different muscles. We do stuff that I’ve never even thought about doing in my entire life.

"He told us if we have a workout that bothers us to let him know and he’ll change it up and give us something else to work the same muscles."

Smith's focus was on building muscle and not as much on cardio.

"At the end of the workout, we do some density circuits with a little bit of cardio," Smith said. "They'll start ramping up the cardio when they get back to UND. That really wasn't our focus right now. They'll get a lot of that back at UND."

Another benefit for Kawaguchi, Kiersted and Hain has been getting an up-close look at the summer workouts for the Poolmans and Smith.

Tucker Poolman won Iron Man in 2015, the year UND went on to win the national championship. Tucker, now a member of the Winnipeg Jets, spent April, May and June in Brainerd. Colton Poolman, UND's captain of the past two years and a Calgary Flames signee, won Iron Man in 2017 as a sophomore. Smith won it in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

"They're just specimens," Kawaguchi said. "Schmidt can do just about anything physically. It's good to see how they train and to work out with them and see the different ways of doing things. Kiers and I were laughing that maybe we have a shot at Iron Man now that all of them are gone."

Kiersted, who opted to come back for his senior year rather than sign one of his multiple NHL contract offers, said he's hoping for a big final college season.

"That's why we wanted to come here and spend the summer here," he said. "I've been working harder than probably any other offseason so far. It's senior year. We got snubbed last year with the pandemic and everything. Hopefully, we can come back strong this year. Hopefully, we can start where we left off. We want to start off with a hot start and see what we can do. . . hopefully, win a national championship."

Fighting Hawks defenseman Matt Kiersted carries the puck past Alabama-Huntsville's Liam Izyk (21) during a January home hockey game. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
Fighting Hawks defenseman Matt Kiersted carries the puck past Alabama-Huntsville's Liam Izyk (21) during a January home hockey game. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks HeraldNick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald


Back to Grand Forks

It hasn't been all work this summer.

In the afternoons, they've golfed, played pickleball, biked and gotten out on Gull Lake.

"We've been taking the workouts and skates pretty seriously," Hain said. "It's been good to keep us on track and get us ready to go. But we've also had fun playing golf, fishing and biking. It's been fun and good work, I think."

With players going their own directions in March -- after the pandemic ended in-person schooling for the year -- they said it was nice to be back together again.

"It’s been amazing," Smith said. "Through quarantine, it got pretty boring. Being able to have these guys around me again for a little more than a month was awesome. We hang out every day. We golfed a lot. We were able to get on the lake quite a bit. We had a good time. I’m going to miss them when they go back."

The current players will return to campus this week and begin working toward the 2020-21 season.

"We've all been working super hard here," Kiersted said. "Everyone has made good strides. You can see it. We're getting stronger and going up in weight. Now, we're going back to Grand Forks and we're going to keep working hard, leading by example and hopefully other guys see it and step up. Maybe Iron Man will be a little closer contest this year. We'll see."

Maybe Kawaguchi, Kiersted or Hain can pick up where the Poolmans and Smith left off with Iron Man.

"That's what we've been talking about," Hain said. "We've been on the Cole Smith Workout Plan this summer, so one of us should win it."

Fighting Hawks forward Gavin Hain brings a point-blank shot to the edge of Colorado College goalie Matt Vernon's (30) crease in the first period of Friday's hockey game at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
Fighting Hawks forward Gavin Hain brings a point-blank shot to the edge of Colorado College goalie Matt Vernon's (30) crease in the first period of Friday's hockey game at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks HeraldNick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald