Keeping their eyes on the prize
To the untrained observer, Oilers' captain Connor McDavid's dominance on the ice would seem to be the exclusive product of his exceptional speed, strength and stamina. However, when it comes to the young star's uncanny play making ability, Marty Klinkenberg writes, there is more than meets the eye
In the 1980s, as Edmonton built hockey's last dynasty, Glen Sather had more than Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier on the bench. The legendary coach had Karen Muncey on his staff.
An optician who performed preseason exams for the Oilers and Calgary Flames, Muncey was among the pioneers of sports-vision training. Sather brought her on as an experiment before the 1984-85 season, and kept her on to sharpen his players' visual and motor skills as they won four Stanley Cups over the next six years.
"Glen very much bought into new, scientific approaches," says Muncey, who operates a vision-training centre in Ottawa now. "He was always looking for something different that would help him win.
"I was his big, secret weapon. He wouldn't talk to anyone about what I was doing. He loved the whole idea, and it made a difference with his team."
While sophisticated tests are widely used to measure the reaction time and peripheral vision of preternatural stars such as Connor McDavid today, the Oilers were one of only two NHL teams to mix science with sports then. The Islanders did it first, employing an optometrist named Leon Revien in 1981 to improve players' hand-eye co-ordination, accuracy and timing.
"It seemed to me that the one part of the body that the athlete didn't train was our eyes," Sather says. "It seemed like you could change the strength of your peripheral vision, so I suggested we give it a try.
"That year in Edmonton, I had all of the players do it, and remember that Craig MacTavish really got into it. I could beat all of the guys at the beginning but as Craig got better I couldn't beat him anymore.
"The science has gone a lot farther since then."
The training that players received then is nothing like the program that is used today.
"The science was very new to everybody and very primitive in the beginning," Muncey says. "With the Oilers, we used 'romper room' techniques with balls, beads and strings. That was the sports-vision protocol in that day."
Sather made the training compulsory for players, but some of them were incredulous. Dave Semenko, who served as Gretzky's protector on the ice, was among the skeptics.
Once, while laying on a bench and being asked to track numbered tennis balls suspended above him, the tough guy could hardly contain himself.
"He sat up and started laughing and asked, 'Where is Allen Funt?'" Muncey says, referring to the host of the popular television program Candid Camera. "He was sure that he was the victim of some sort of joke. He thought we were taking video of him to show it at the Oilers' Christmas party."
Through countless hours of training, the game's biggest stars of today have developed keen spatial skills. Brenley Shapiro, a sports psychologist and vision trainer in Toronto, says when tested, hockey players score higher than any other athletes.
She has a series of stations set up at her cognitive-processing training centre to measure peripheral awareness, eye tracking and memory recall, among other attributes.
"Your brain is a command centre for the body," Shapiro says. "Hockey is 95-per-cent visual."
Able to skate at nearly 40 kilometres an hour, McDavid is not only the NHL's fastest skater, but among its quickest thinkers. In the summer of 2015, during a preseason game against the University of Alberta Golden Bears, he set up a goal during a power play by directing a pass blindly through his own legs and the legs of an oncoming defenceman to a teammate in front of the net.
"It was simple math," McDavid said. "I saw one guy following one of my teammates and could feel another bearing down on me. By sheer numbers, it meant somebody was uncovered.
"I was just kind of lucky when I guessed where he would be."
When asked to describe the remarkable plays he makes, McDavid is often left searching for words. He doesn't think about; he simply does it.
"It just comes to him naturally," Shapiro says. "He doesn't even understand what he is doing. He is very much a gifted player."
'Offensively, he sees things developing before anybody else'
The most recent in a series of extraordinary NHL players, McDavid enters the final weekend of the regular season with a nine-point lead in the scoring race over Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane.
The 20-year-old has put together an MVP-calibre year, leading the Oilers to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Over the past 12 games, as Edmonton has overtaken San Jose for second place in the Pacific Division, he has seven goals and 21 points.
With games still to play against Vancouver on Saturday and Sunday, he is only three points shy of 100, and the Oilers are on the verge of earning home ice for the first round of the playoffs. He has 29 multipoint games this season, three more than Crosby, and has either led or shared the scoring race since Nov. 22.
Thus far, in 125 NHL games, he has never gone more than two games without scoring a point. He has not missed a step since returning to the lineup after suffering a broken clavicle that caused him to miss nearly half of last season, and this year is shouldering the burden of being the youngest captain in league history.
With him leading the charge, the Oilers have 45 victories, their most since winning the Stanley Cup for the third time in 1986-87.
"Connor sees things happening in front of him and behind him and only needs a glimpse to know what is going to happen two seconds later," says his agent with the Orr Hockey Group, Jeff Jackson. "Offensively, he sees things developing before anybody else.
"It is like he has a freaking GPS. He senses what is going on around him."
Touted as the most remarkable player since Crosby joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005, McDavid has exceeded impossibly high expectations. He seems on his way to accomplishing what Crosby and Mario Lemieux did in Pittsburgh. He has resurrected a Gretzky-esque level of excitement in Edmonton.
"I have had the honour of being around tremendous players in my day," Todd McLellan, the Oilers coach, said last week after McDavid played a role in all three goals in an overtime defeat of Anaheim. "Connor is at a high level now, and is separating himself from other guys in the league.
"He has been remarkable, really."
The first overall pick in the 2015 draft, McDavid scored 48 points in 45 games in his injury-abbreviated rookie season and has only got better. He wreaks havoc with opponents nearly every game, using blistering speed to skate through and around them.
He is one of the few players able to accelerate as he carries a puck, maintains possession in tight combat and almost always looks to pass before he shoots.
It's not a coincidence that his linemates Leon Draisaitl and Patrick Maroon are having career years. A beefy left wing, Maroon has 27 goals in 80 games. His previous high was 12 split between the Ducks and Oilers last year. Draisaitl, 21, is eighth in the NHL in scoring, and together he and McDavid are the top tandem in the league.
Cam Talbot, the Oilers' goaltender who set a team record Thursday night with his 41st victory and has played well enough for Vézina Trophy consideration, is the teammate with the best view of McDavid's abilities as he watches plays develop from the other end of the ice.
"His speed is second to none, and he is a smart, cerebral player," Talbot says. "The biggest thing is his hockey IQ. When you combine it with his speed, it's a deadly combination. What he has done for us this season can't be measured."
Veteran coaches such as Dave King aren't easy to impress. The former coach for Team Canada at three Winter Olympic Games and five International Ice Hockey Federation world championships says his pulse quickens every time he watches McDavid.
"You see lots of guys that can skate like hell but accomplish very little," says King, the first coach of the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets. "He skates fast, and his timing is impeccable. He is a clever, smart player and it makes him hard to defend against.
"There aren't many people that can play the game as fast as he does and process it like him. It is gratifying to watch. Every so often a talent like him comes along and it gives you hope that somewhere along the line there will be another like him."
'He has great recognition skills and processes things very quickly'
Karen Muncey moved to Edmonton with her family after finishing high school, and received a degree as a licensed optician and ophthalmic dispenser from the University of Alberta.
Her former husband was also an optometrist, and together they had offices in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. During September, they would perform eye exams for the Flames and Oilers. That's where she met Glen Sather.
Eventually, she chatted to him about sports vision as a concept, and they reached a deal. She worked for the Oilers on her own time and at her own expense in 1984-85, during which time Sather became a believer. He paid her expenses and signed her to a personal-services contract, and was so impressed that he took her to New York with him when he left Edmonton to join the Rangers as president and general manager in 2000.
Before and since then, Muncey has worked with players on a number of other NHL teams, as well as NHL referees, Canadian Olympic hockey teams, the Edmonton Eskimos, Toronto Blue Jays, RCMP emergency-response units and counter-terrorism forces.
In 1989, in partnership with a former football player, Phil Jones, she designed a machine called DynaVision 2000 that is still used as a measuring tool in sports-vision training, along with other uses. The firm she currently runs, Dynamic Edge, trains students, high-performance athletes and elite businesspeople.
Her start, though, began so many years ago with an invitation from Sather and the Oilers.
"The truth was that until I went to work for him, I had never watched a hockey game," Muncey says. "I had to learn real fast. The principle was simple, though. They wanted to identify skills that were essential, show that they could be improved and were measurable, and could be transferred to performance."
She recalls that MacTavish felt it gave him an edge, especially as an older player. Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson were complete packages, possessing strength and speed to go along with spatial skills.
Gretzky could not match them in terms of physical prowess, but was still heads above.
"He had amazing peripheral awareness," Muncey says. "He was one of the slower skaters on the team, but he always knew where he needed to be and would be there.
"Upstairs above the shoulders, nobody could compete with him."
Muncey has never tested McDavid, but offers a few conclusions about him. Physically, she says, he reminds her more of Messier than Gretzky.
"He has great recognition skills and processes things very quickly," she says. "He is physically fast, and in his thinking. Her certainly looks like he has the complete package.
"He has the ability to take away time and space on the ice. He forces defencemen to make the choice to be passive or contain, and either one of those things could be wrong."