Among hockey players, roughly 15 per cent have a wingspan less than their height, but those whose arms are longer are much longer than in the general population, as much as seven or eight inches greater than their height.
“I’m not sure that hockey players have bigger hands on average than you or I, but we can say their reachability is greater, and that surely has an impact on things stickhandling and generating power from a slap shot,” he said.
What surprises Gledhill is the ability hockey players – and soccer players – possess to use their hands and feet to cushion the impact of hard passes. It is a minor miracle of sorts in physiological terms, given all the variables and minuscule motor corrections at play.
“It’s just amazing to me that they can do that, you need an extraordinary amount of co-ordination,” Gledhill said.
Beyond the question of hand or foot dexterity, the average NHL player is obviously much fitter and stronger than a beer-league player, but that’s a function of training and work ethic, not necessarily genes. Some players bolster their skills training by undertaking outside activities that don’t seem connected to hockey.
Former NHLer Paul Kariya – one of the more proficient stickhandlers and shooters in hockey history – once taught himself to juggle, figuring it would help his game.
The more conventional path is to play other team sports, sometimes at an unexpectedly high level; Wayne Gretzky, the original perceptual-cognitive genius, was a killer baseball player, and pretty handy at lacrosse as well.
But that’s not to say that so-called “natural” athletes don’t exist. In Gledhill’s experience, they do.
In the late 1990s, Gledhill and his research associates tested 2,000 aspiring firefighters in Toronto and discovered that six had fitness levels (measured by the VO2 Max test) of elite-level athletes despite having done minimal exercise – it turns out their peculiarity was an unusually high blood volume (and the fittest among them had the ability to circulate it through their body effectively).
Faubert argues the biggest difference between a top-level player and a weekend hacker lies in the way elite players perceive the environment around them. It’s not what they see, but how they see it.
Essentially, it means they’re able to gather and process more visual data – they can make sense of information in their peripheral vision.
Thus, it’s not that they’re necessarily able to make quicker decisions or have more acute reflexes and muscle control to carry them out – although some do – it’s that decisions are made on the basis of more input.
“A great player knows where the puck is coming from, where the defencemen are going, how much time he has and where the goalie is positioned. If there’s an open spot in the bottom left corner, he’s going to shoot at it, and it won’t be an accident or luck if he hits it,” Faubert said. “That’s what we call quick hands, but it’s more than that, it’s the whole system.”
The question is: Why do some players have better systems than others?
Theories abound – genetic predisposition for greater brain plasticity, training methods, etc. – but science doesn’t yet have a definitive answer.
“The basic argument is always nature versus nurture, but in this case, I don’t think they can be separated,” Faubert said.
Step away from the lab and talk to rink rats, and the sense is nurture wins the day.
There are also terminological differences at work – typically NHL players understand “hands” to be synonymous primarily with stickhandling, although scientists don’t tend to be as dogmatic in differentiating between that and the ability to receive a hard pass or fire a laser-beam one-timer.
“I don’t know, maybe it just means you’re smooth with the puck. I look at it as being able to handle passes and make plays,” said Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza, who is usually at the centre of the discussion over who has the best hands in the NHL. “It’s practice. I think the innate ability is knowing where to go and the anticipation, but the actual ‘hands’ part of it is the work you put into it, especially at an early age.
“I spent a lot of time with a ball on the stick, with pucks on the ice. Lots of road hockey, I played road hockey every day. In the basement, in the driveway, mini-sticks against my brother. He’d take credit for it, I guess. But I reap the benefits of it now,” said Spezza, who has also worked with noted skills coach Jari Byrski.