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Age doesn't count when you're tough!
By DAN PROUDFOOT -- Toronto Sun

Fred Atkins as photographed by Dan Proudfoot during the interview for this story.
  CRYSTAL BEACH, Ont. -- If you were to visit this Lake Erie tourist town and for some reason arise before the dawn and walking along Oxford St., meet Fred Atkins on his way to the beach, your first impression might be the same as mine or any Toronto Maple Leafs who've made his acquaintance in the past week: If this guy looks this baleful when he's being pleasant, what can he be like when he's mad?
  At an age somewhere on the grey side of 70, his impact is such that one never asks what makes his hair so black.
  Long retired from the wrestling profession, he's anything but retiring.
  Here he is at 5:30 a.m. On his way for his eight-mile run along the beach, as he has since the days when he would encounter brontosauruses along the shores and take them two falls out of three. Tough? Ask the Whip, who would never lie.
  "Even today I would say that Fred Atkins would defeat 90% of the wrestlers in the business," testifies Whipper Billy Watson, whom Atkins beat for the British Empire championship in 1949. "He was the toughest, best-conditioned wrestler I ever saw."
  This is one reason the Leafs employ him to show their players a thing or two about fitness each year at training camp. He may be an old-age pensioner from Australia who never learned how to skate. No matter, for Fred Atkins' reputation is such that athletes flock to his basement gym for workouts.
  What kind of guy makes Borje Salming sweat? "The Wild Buffalo," according to a dispatch from Japan that's among the many clipping on his gymnasium wall, "is a rough, tough wrestler because he comes from the coal mines."
  Atkins harumphs at this. "Never been in a coal mine in my life." He chuckles. "Wild Buffalo? Hmph, I don't even come from Buffalo!"
  Until he's taken your measure, Atkins is a man of few words. "You'd never get Fred telling stories the first day you meet him," explains Peter McNab of the Boston Bruins. "With me, I wasn't worthy of the tea and cupcakes upstairs until I'd stuck it out in that basement for a lot of workouts. That's when the stories start."
  And so Fred will offer as simple fact that wrestlers have come around the world to train with him in the little bungalow with "The Atkins" painted on the sign. But he doesn't tell you, as he has an old friend, that "more than once blood flew off those basement walls, and it was never mine."
  He does say the great Shohei Baba, now the major domo of pro wrestling in Japan, brought a film crew to document the cramped but neat (one supposes the walls have been washed) basement. But it's for the Whip to note "Jeet Singh was nothing until Fred got him and made a wrestler of him."
  He doesn't train the Leafs to wrestle, and he's certainly not there to make them more muscular. Atkins' fame as a trainer is in producing stronger, more agile, less injury-prone athletes.
  "A hockey player is the same as any other athalete," he says, and his idea of a true ath-a- lete is as special as his pronunciation. "The trouble with a lot of them is, they've never been in shape. They've concentrated on building muscles, you see, when in athaletics you have to be quick -- and you lose quickness by lifting weights. I turn 'em around, get 'em stretching ligaments.
  Naturally, not every hockey player agrees. One Buffalo Sabre hotshot, a scoring ace when that team employed Fred fulltime a decade ago, went beyond refusing the off-ice drills. The critic made mention of cauliflower ears, Australian accents. "You do not push Fred, he will not take it," says Peter McNab. "Fred said, 'Oh, that's enough of that,' gave him a good quick cuff, and the guy, who I'm not about to name, found himself on the floor. You could just feel everybody's respect perk up."
  Those were the years when Sabres appeared as Stanley Cup contenders, with Punch Imlach as manager and Joe Crozier coaching. Most of the players privately gave much of the credit to Atkins, while not taking any away from their coach. "The year they went to the finals there wasn't a single knee injury," says Pat Hannigan, then as now a Sabre television broadcaster. "That was because of Fred."
  It was Hannigan who tipped Sabres off about the old wrestler from Crystal Beach. As American Hockey League players from the years before Sabres entered the big league, Hannigan and Billy Dea had known about the Atkins basement for a long time. "Wish I'd know him in 1960 when I was going to the New York Rangers," says Hannigan. "With Fred I'm confident I could have had 10 years in the NHL instead of three and a half.
  "Look what he did for Peter McNab. Peter was a weakling when he came to Buffalo, you could push him off the puck in the corners. He's been just the opposite ever since he went to Boston."
  Says McNab: "I didn't start working out seriously with Fred until the year I came to Boston. It was the turning point of my career. It's a shame the Leafs only have him for training camp, because in a mass training situation like that you don't get to know the guy, and he has so much to offer."
  The Leafs will not get to know Atkins because he dislikes Toronto, or, for that matter, any city. "I guess it's because I'm from the bush, a little town in Queensland," he says. "So I commute to training camp from here. I bought this house in 1948 after I'd come to America to wrestle. A perfect location. In the country, but easy to get to the Buffalo airport, then Los Angeles, then Japan. Or, the other way to Toronto and Europe.
  "But stay in Toronto? Nossir, not even for training camp. I don't stop for nothing, not even a cop, it's back to Crystal Beach for me."
  Even Fred's memory of Toronto's wrasslin' Fans is vaguely negative. "They were sort of wishy- washy: whether they were with me or against me depended on who I was wrestling. I wasn't a villain, didn't gouge anybody in the eye or anything. Don't know why they didn't like me more, maybe I was too aggressive for them."
 The problem, in Whipper Billy Watson's opinion, was that Atkins was underestimated. He was among the top 10 wrestlers anywhere, the Whip says, but never showy. "You'd never see Fred do a dropkick, never a flying tackle. That was not his style. His was a Greco-Roman style, closer to Olympic- type wrestling than anybody else."
  He remains just as straightforward. Within minutes of your reporter's arrival Atkins takes me to the basement. "Get down on your back on the mat," he directs. "Take one of these sticks: there, get it back behind your neck."
  You do not think of saying no to Fred Atkins. Soon he has me lifting my legs, bending my knees, straining my guy. In five minutes he's got a catalogue of my weaknesses. In 10 minutes he's demonstrating what everybody has already told me: he must be the strongest man, for his age, in the world. He learned everything he knows, he says, from "Herzog, an old German who moved to Australia and started teaching me when I was around 12."
  Two hours later, he returns to the mats, picks up the coins that had dropped from my pockets during the exercise. "This is how I get my tips," he chuckles. "See, you never get rich training ath-a- letes."