Hockey sense is one of the most enigmatic concepts in the game. Scouts and coaches often use the term to describe a variety of intangible attributes that are often perceived as something a player is born with or without.
It’s personified by greats like Coffey, Crosby, Richard and, of course, Gretzky. The latter’s ability to read the game and make decisions was so profound that Gordie Howe once famously said: “I sometimes think that if you part Wayne’s hair, you’ll find another eye.”
The best way to define and understand hockey sense is to break it down into its constituent parts. Here are three key components that complement one another to make up hockey sense:
Whether on the ice, on the basketball court, or just walking across the street, success requires knowing what’s happening in the immediate environment. Spatial awareness is the ability to read your environment by taking in the multitude of events occurring at any particular moment (other players, one’s own on-ice position, location of puck, etc.), processing this information, and then placing oneself in an ideal situation to exploit opportunities and mitigate risks.
Spatial awareness can impact player safety profoundly. Given that many hockey injuries are the result of unanticipated contact, those players that have or can hone better spatial awareness will be less likely to suffer injuries. Again, Gretzky’s career is an example. He was not the biggest player, nor the fastest, but he rarely got hit without knowing what was coming.
“A heightened sense of spatial awareness allows players to spend less time and energy determining possible options, giving them an edge,” said Danny Danker, whose company makes the cognitive training tool Hockey IntelliGym,
Anticipation of play:
Hand-in-hand with spatial awareness stands anticipation of play, which is based on being conscious of what both your teammates and opponents intend on doing by anticipating their next move.
When a player recognizes patterns in the game well enough to systematically predict what is going to happen, success is usually close at hand.
“He just knows where to be,” is phrase often used to describe great goalscorers. It speaks directly to the cognitive functions that permit great anticipation of on ice play. It’s a trait that can make a third line player, with average skating and puck skills, into a first liner.
The two aforementioned components directly impact the third, decision making. It involves a variety of cognitive tasks including planning and sequencing activities, focusing attention, selecting between environmental aspects, switching and dividing attention between different actions, and more.
Decision making is the “executive branch” of hockey sense, and it’s why Gretzky broke goal and assist records, and Niklas Lidstrom played at an elite level for 20 years.
Beyond the physical:
Hockey sense allows a player who does not possess the ideal body type, hardest shot or slickest stickhandling skills to excel. Former Air-Force Falcons Coach, Mike Corbett put it well, saying “It’s the difference between average and good, and good and great players.”
The brain has not, until very recently, received much focus from those who specialize in training hockey players for optimal performance. However that’s changing as is the view that it is innate or untrainable. Contemporary research with regards to performance of hockey players has paved the way for effective cognitive training tools that can take the games of all players to whole new levels.
Applied Cognitive Engineering (ACE) is the developer of the Hockey IntelliGym – a training program proven to substantially improve hockey sense skills. IntelliGym is currently being used by players of all ages and skill level – from professionals and national teams to young hockey players. The program has also shown to reduce on-ice injuries, and it is used by medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic Sports Center to train athletes.