This article originally appeared on Wired.com. Read More
As a recently retired jock who spent 17 seasons in the National Hockey League, I was asked by Comcast SportsNet California to be an analyst covering the San Jose Sharks. At first I wasn’t interested, since I was more accustomed to throwing elbows over a choppy puck, not throwing powder and makeup on my face before a live shot. But as soon as I sat down in that studio chair for the first time and started talking hockey, what began as Why would I want to do that? morphed into I can’t wait until next season!
Fortunately, the Sharks advanced to the Western Conference Finals this season, squaring off against the upstart Chicago Blackhawks. As one of my new CSN coworkers was watching a recent pre-game show during the series, he witnessed some of the players playing soccer as a warmup exercise. He walked over and asked if that was what I used to do. “No,” I replied, “I juggled!” Well, to be precise, what I would do was juggle, watch TV, jump up and down—back and forth, side to side—all while counting backwards from 100. At the same time.
If you’re asking why a longtime NHL veteran would subject himself to a seemingly mundane set of everyday calisthenics, it’s all about multitasking. The impetus for this weird routine goes back to the mid-‘90s, when I was still a 20-something defenseman for the Vancouver Canucks. A good friend of mine, whom I call Duke, lived nearby in scenic British Columbia and was the exercise physiologist who tested our team’s conditioning during the preseason. When you’re a young pro hockey player who can be traded at a moment’s notice—except after the trade deadline, then you just get cut—I found myself moved along. Later, I got a call one day from Duke, who said that he had something for me.
He explained that everyone knew Wayne Gretzky was the best player to ever play the game of hockey. That much wasn’t in doubt. But what intrigued him was what Gretzky wasn’t. “He wasn’t the fastest, wasn’t the toughest, wasn’t the strongest,” he said. “He certainly didn’t have the hardest shot, but what he did have was the ability to process multiple things at the same time.” To Duke, Gretzky’s most vital on-ice asset was that he could multitask, to the highest possible degree, and make the game slower for him than everyone else. When the Great One was stick-handling with the puck through the neutral zone or eluding befuddled defensemen, he was, in essence, processing huge amounts of information on the fly, making himself, as Duke put it, “two or sometimes three plays ahead of everyone else.”
What my friend had come up with was a modified skatemill machine—think of a treadmill designed to help inline or ice skaters that is not placed on the ground but in the ground. What I remember most about my hours on this unforgiving contraption is that it didn’t ever stop. You couldn’t just stop skating to stickhandle the puck. If you tried to pause your stride even a smidge, you’d find yourself hanging from the safety harness and looking like a fool in front of your teammates standing in line, waiting to take their turn at becoming the next Gretzky.
What Duke did was lower this skatemill in the ground so he could place a small ice rink around it, making it level to the surface of the machine. Obviously, the skatemill has to be larger and bulkier than a standard treadmill, since the skating stride does not function like a running stride. Skaters’ strides are longer and wider, giving them the ability to thrust themselves down the ice very fast on an eighth of an inch-thick piece of steel.
He had been testing NHL players on his custom rig at 10 mph speed, at a 3-degree incline for exactly 10 strides, both with and without a puck. What he discovered was a direct correlation between average points per game. Players training without the puck had a lower scoring output in game situations. In other words, if you wanted to score more when it counted, you better get that puck in front of you while training.
That was enough for me. I caught a flight to Vancouver and immediately started on his modified skatemilling regimen. Over the next few years, I’d travel frequently up to Vancouver, between seasons, to continue honing my brain in the ways of hockey-based multitasking, beyond just skating while handling a puck. I also started working out with that crazy routine I described to my CSN colleague, with the juggling and the jumping. Not only did I see a huge gain in my ice-time but my overall performance improved as well. One of the most emotional phone calls I’ve ever made came after winning the 2006 Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes. It was to Duke, and I couldn’t thank him enough for all he’d done for me and my career. He had realized, earlier than so many hockey-centric minds, that you could work your brain, like any other muscle, to process more things at the same time, aggregating the same mental skill-set that could get players closer than they probably deserved to playing like Gretzky.
Think about that tonight when you’re watching the Blackhawks face off against the Philadelphia Flyers in the third game of the Stanley Cup Finals. It might sound obvious, but really watch the player with the puck. Check his ability to handle it through the zone, skate between opposing defenders. For the elite player, the game is slowing down all around him. He’s one step ahead of the other team—before they even realize it. By then, the red light is already on.
Bret Hedican is a former defenseman who spent 17 years in the National Hockey League. He won the 2006 Stanley Cup with Carolina and is a two-time US Olympian. You can follow him on Twitter at @BretHedican.