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(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Mystery of magic hockey hands starts and ends at the head Add to ...

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, whose puck skills have enabled him to score 17 goals in the last 24 NHL games he’s played (it’s not a huge sample, but one of the highest goals-per-game ratios in the league) concurred.

“If you have decent ability you can certainly make it better. I’m always working, Nazem Kadri is always working, playing with pucks out there. You can certainly keep improving but with some guys the hope is not there. It’s just generally your skills,” Lupul said. “There are a lot of things I do in practice, flipping pucks up, bouncing them, kicking them, that I would probably never do in a game. But I would say it’s still building some skills for you.

“It’s helping you with your hand-eye and speed and feeling comfortable with the puck, so in a situation in a game where it does come, when the puck is bouncing, you feel comfortable grabbing it and controlling it.”

Lupul and the other Leafs players often hone their skills using a rapid-shot machine, which has a stickhandling pad on it.

If you’re good enough to play in the NHL, there’s an excellent chance you possess the baseline level of skill to develop decent skills – any recreational player who has stepped out on the ice with an NHL plugger understands.

It turns out modern training methods – there has been an explosion in the skills coaching industry in the last 15 years or so – also help.

“My hands are better now, at age 48, than they were when I played,” former NHLer Dave Gagner said with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what a toe-drag was.”

The heredity argument doesn’t hold all the answers for Gagner, a first-round draft pick in 1983, who played 17 NHL seasons and scored a respectable 318 goals and 719 points in 946 career games.

That may be partly due to the fact his son, Edmonton Oilers centre Sam, is more gifted in the hands department than his father.

“I’m a big believer in the 10,000-hour rule,” Gagner said in reference to the social science axiom that expertise in most domains can be acquired by a minimum of 10,000 hours of concentrated practice.

As a youngster, Sam Gagner spent countless hours noodling around on a backyard rink in Burlington, Ont., with childhood pals John Tavares (the supremely skilled New York Islanders captain) and Cody Goloubef (a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect).

But he also spent considerable time developing his stickhandling, passing and shooting ability as a preteen minor-hockey player – under the careful supervision of his father.

“We practised 1-on-1 moves and dekes a lot, forehand-backhand, forehand fake shot, backhand fake shot, and we discovered that doing multiple reps of the same exercise while skating one length of the ice was especially effective for the kids’ inside edge work,” said Dave Gagner, who until recently was the Vancouver Canucks director of player development (he now works with agent and Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Bobby Orr). “Repetition and training, that’s how you become proficient at something.”

And yet not all the children Gagner coached on his son’s team could stickhandle like Tavares, let alone end up in the pro ranks.

Therein lurks the mystery: motor skills involve more than just physical attributes.

The taxonomy of human abilities – there are 52 categories in all – was defined by Edwin Fleishman, a psychologist.

Call it genetics, call it environment (growing up playing with and against guys like Tavares, Stamkos, Canadiens star P.K. Subban, St. Louis Blues defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty and San Jose Sharks centre Logan Couture surely helped Sam Gagner improve) it’s something of a golden age for slick-manoeuvering players.

From Colorado’s Matt Duchene, to Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau to Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle by way of Galchenyuk and 2013 NHL top pick Nathan MacKinnon, there is a ton of skill out there.

Some worked with skills coaches, some didn’t – “We moved a lot, so there wasn’t time,” Galchenyuk said – all continue to evolve. In the meantime, they will do what hockey players do: focus on what they can control.

“People say it’s preparation, and you have to put in a lot of work to make things happen. It’s one aspect I’m naturally confident in, but like I said I still want to get better at it,” Galchenyuk said.

Revising an entire vernacular may not be a realistic aim, but it’s time for hockey people and fans to start talking about heads instead of hands.

With reports from Roy MacGregor and David Shoalts

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