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Magic Mitts

By Ontario Minor Hockey Association, 11/06/13, 9:45AM EST


The mystery of magic hockey hands starts and ends at the head

These instruments are not made for bludgeoning, but nor are they the delicate hands of a concert pianist, surgeon or watch maker.

Biggish, but not gnarled, strong, yet nimble, these marvels of human evolution belong to a 19-year-old who uses them to wield what may well be one of the quickest sticks in the NHL.

Ask Alex Galchenyuk when he discovered his ability to stickhandle and shoot with uncommon force and agility, and he’ll shrug and laugh.

“Uh, I think I was always known for good hands … I don’t really remember much about when I learned. Today, I’m still working on getting better at that aspect,” said the Montreal Canadiens forward, who has seven points through seven games this season.

It’s not a question NHLers dwell on, but why some hockey players are so “handsy” and how they come by their skills is, like a human hand itself, both simple and complex, and involves a healthy dose of mystery.

The common hockey argot is “mitts” – be they, “quick,” “soft,” “sick” or merely good – but it turns out that’s not strictly accurate. The catch-all puck folk should use is eyes, or more pertinently, vision. Not just what the eyeballs see or how well they see it (it turns out that isn’t such a big factor) but the neural pathways and areas of the brain that interpret visual cues and spatial information.

Gush all you want about the magic of Galchenyuk’s toe-drags, Patrick Kane’s crazy dangles, Steven Stamkos’s uncanny one-timer or Pavel Dastyuk’s pickpocket cunning (the general sense among NHL players is the Russian is the da Vinci of hands), just know it’s not strictly about their sticks or the strength and flexibility of their limbs.

It’s about their heads. More specifically, perceptual-cognitive processing.

Research suggests the region in the brain’s temporal lobe that processes “biological motion” may hold the key to unlocking why some players excel at accepting passes in tight spaces, or stickhandling at top speed, or getting off a quick, precise shot.

That’s not to be confused with eye-hand co-ordination.

That’s the downstream process which is thought to live in something called the occipital junction, in the frontal and parietal lobes. The brain is a complicated place.

A recent study authored by University of Montreal researcher Jocelyn Faubert – an optometry professor who directs the school’s visual psychophysics and perception laboratory – has concluded elite-level athletes in a trio of professional sports (NHL, English Premier League soccer and French Top 14 rugby) process visual information in similar ways.

According to the paper, published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports in January, their ability to gather and filter vastly greater quantities of it than regular humans, and even high-level amateur athletes, is their true advantage. It appears things like above-average eyesight, strength and reflexes are marginal factors.

More importantly, Faubert discovered that not only do elite athletes outperform control subjects on a clinical test of their brain function, their capacity to quickly master increasingly difficult tasks far outpaces regular folks.

“It’s not so much where they start, it’s where they can go,” said Faubert, who has written several papers on the question of perceptual-cognitive training and has a financial stake in a company that does dynamic visual testing.

But neuroscience hasn’t yet provided a full explanation of the intricacies of motor skills, and why some people develop them more quickly or to a higher degree than others.

Several scientific studies have drawn the distinction between ability (defined as specific physical characteristics like endurance or speed) and skill (specialized motor functions and the like). The latter can be taught, the former cannot.

An oft-cited study conducted in the 1980s by found the physiological differences between elite-level hockey players and regular folk aren’t as stark as you might expect. But that’s not to say there aren’t any.

York University kinesiology professor Norman Gledhill recently established one of the things that sets hockey players apart.

He’s the man behind the fitness testing at the NHL’s annual scouting combine, and in testing more than 300 players discovered something about their wingspan.

The distance from fingertip to fingertip is typically in direct relationship to height from head to toe, although roughly 15 per cent of people have a shorter wingspan than their height; the rest have a larger one, and the maximum variance is typically two or three inches.


This article originally appeared in Montreal - The Globe and Mail (October 18, 2013)
Origional Article
© The Globe and Mail 2013

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