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(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

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

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.

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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.

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.

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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