Gordie Howe once said he'd figured out what made The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, such a special hockey player.
"I sometimes think that if you part Wayne's hair," Mr. Howe joked, "you'll find another eye."
Jacob Greenshpan believes he has found the secret to that mythical "third eye" that only the greatest of players seem to possess: an ability to see the ice almost without looking, a gift of anticipating what will happen before it happens.
Interestingly, Dr. Greenshpan himself has never played the game, and he lives in a country that he says has only one ice surface. But no matter – he knows what can make all hockey players better, and at the same time help protect them from injury: Train them like Israeli fighter pilots.
Dr. Greenshpan is the brains behind Hockey IntelliGym, a computer software training tool that is finding increasing acceptance in hockey circles, from USA Hockey's successful development program to several Canadian major junior teams, including the Ottawa 67s.
"Hockey sense is always said to be something players either do have or don't have," says 67s coach Chris Byrne. "What they are saying is that through simulation you can improve your reaction."
Jacob Middleton believes. The 67s defenceman struggled early in the year, began working regularly with the program – this is the first year the team has used it – and his game has steadily improved. The 17-year-old has been invited to play in January's Top Prospects Game in Calgary, where the top junior players in the country are annually showcased as they reach draft age.
"Not to say it's been the reason," says the native of Stratford, Ont., "but it has had an effect."
Dr. Greenshpan studied under world-renowned cognitive psychologist Daniel Gopher of Technion, Israel's Institute of Technology. Prof. Gopher, working with colleagues, believed there could be "land training" for air force pilots and years ago developed a then top-secret computer simulation program for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The concept was to create a "cognitive trainer" that would simulate high-speed action and take the brains of fighter pilots to a point where anticipating challenges in flight became instinctive. The computer simulation worked so well that it eventually became standard training in several air forces.
Some of the researchers asked: Why not apply the same thinking to sports? They built modified programs to simulate basketball, then football, with varying results. Dr. Greenshpan looked at hockey players and decided the parallels with fighter pilots were astonishing.
"If you take away the rules," he says from his office in Tel Aviv, "they really are quite similar."
While hockey players don't risk being blown out of the sky, they must process information at remarkably quick speeds. They have to project ahead. They have to know where their "teammates" are and where the "enemy" is coming from. They have to make split-second unconscious decisions in a compressed space and time – pause to think and it's too late.
He and fellow researchers wanted to close the gap – the amount of time between what eyes can cover physically and what the brain can process. By creating computer simulations that test reflexes, instinct, repetition, surprise, challenge – what IntelliGym CEO Danny Dankner calls the "executive functions" of the brain – they appear to tighten that gap over time. They call it "situational awareness" and, Mr. Dankner says, "we can improve the brain's ability to process information."
"It doesn't mean I'll become Wayne Gretzky," Dr. Greenshpan cautions. "But I will become a better hockey player."
The program is sort of a highly sophisticated Pac-Man that creates real-game and real-time situations. The "puck" is a "bomb." Make the wrong decision and the puck ends up in your "bunker." Keys control "radar," which picks up the "puck" and brings it under the player's control. There are goals, assists, passes, giveaways. Players work their way up through ever-more challenging levels, just as in most computer games. IntelliGym claims that by using the program for half an hour twice a week, a typical player will see a 30-per-cent improvement.
For the past five years, USA Hockey has been employing the software in its National Team Development Program. It appears to be having results. Thirteen of the American youngsters playing in last year's World Junior Championship – including high draft picks Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba and John Gibson – trained on the system. The team won gold.
In the five years that Americans' under-18 teams have used the software, they have gone from winning less than 30 per cent of their games to winning 70 per cent – and had four straight world championship medals to show for their efforts.
At USA Hockey, Jim Johannson of the hockey operations department is a believer, even if he doesn't fully understand how it works. "The space awareness components of IntelliGym are hard for me to decipher exactly," he says, "other than statistical trends. It tends to show a more responsible player in many aspects of the game."
In Mr. Johannson's opinion, the notion of a regular training exercise for the cognitive part of the brain should be part of overall development. The program also provides a chance for coaches and managers to see a player's work habits and attention to detail.
Paul Carson, Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey development, is aware of the program and finds it intriguing as a "decision-training tool." Unlike the U.S., though, Canada does not have a centralized development program, so Hockey Canada must leave such decisions to provincial arms and individual leagues and teams. Several Canadian junior and university teams are already using the program – access to it sells for around $300 a year.
IntelliGym claims, as well, that cognitive training can reduce on-ice injuries. Most injuries, the thinking goes, occur from unanticipated hits, so increased spatial awareness and faster reflexes will result in fewer injuries. One study looked at the medical records of American juniors attending the National Team Development Program between 2006 and 2011. Comparing injuries suffered in the first three years, when the program was not used, to the final two years, when it was, showed injuries had declined by 15 per cent.
This could, of course, be coincidental. Yet, as Mr. Dankner points out, so far hockey safety has centred on implementing new rules or equipment changes. "Training as a tool to reduce injury is a relatively new concept," he says.
The greater emphasis, though, has been on skill development, and in that area some players who have used IntelliGym, such as Mr. Middleton, are sold.
"It could be a superstitious thing," he says. "But from what I've seen, it has had an impact."