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October 12, 2011. Vancouver, BC. Canucks' sleep doctor Pat Byrne outside Roger's Arena in Vancouver, BC, Wednesday afternoon. Photo: Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail (Laura Leyshon/The Globe and Mail)
October 12, 2011. Vancouver, BC. Canucks' sleep doctor Pat Byrne outside Roger's Arena in Vancouver, BC, Wednesday afternoon. Photo: Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail (Laura Leyshon/The Globe and Mail)

NHL Weekend

Sleeping giant pries open Canucks' eyes Add to ...

On Sunday, Vancouver scientist Pat Byrne will head to Rogers Arena, home of the Canucks, and begin setting the NHL team's travel plan for the remainder of the season.

By that time he will know the score of a Rugby World Cup semi-final match between New Zealand's All Blacks and Australia's Wallabies. Byrne doesn't really follow rugby, but both sides are clients.

So is a premier NFL team that Byrne won't name because the organization demands that their relationship remain confidential. All he will say is that the franchise is a recent Super Bowl winner.

From hockey to rugby to football, the 58-year-old from Langley, B.C., is becoming a player in the world of big-league sports as franchises look for every edge to help their competitiveness. More and more, teams are calling on Byrne, the so-called “sleep doctor” for the Vancouver Canucks.

He says that sports account for just 15 to 20 per cent of his business, but the co-founder and vice-president of business development for Fatigue Science, a Hawaii-based firm that helps businesses assess and mitigate fatigue-related risk, believes that an avalanche of interest is coming.

“Industry understands the link between sleep and accident risk, but sports people confuse how they feel with how they actually perform,” Byrne said.

“Athletes who say they feel fine have terrible reaction time because there is chronic sleep restriction. They get used to [poor sleep]

“So full credit to [Canucks general manager]Mike Gillis when he came in because he realized that they had a problem with travel,” Byrne added. “It was very exciting for me because if you are a scientist, you want to tackle your hardest problem first, and the Canucks were the hardest problem because of their location. If you could solve their travel and sleep and fatigue problems, then you could fix anybody's problem.”

Byrne, who holds degrees in biology, chemistry and a master's in biochemistry from Western Washington University, began working with the Canucks four years ago when he was granted a 30-minute audience by Gillis. He walked into a Rogers Arena conference room and saw every relevant member of the Canucks' staff, including head coach Alain Vigneault, team doctors, trainers, etc. Ninety minutes later, Gillis turned to him and said: “When can you start?”

Byrne's work culminated last year when Vancouver posted the NHL's best road record, 27-10-4, which was nothing short of remarkable given that the city is the most northwest outpost in the league and that the team bears a heavier travel burden than its competitors.

Byrne's annual project begins in earnest after the first road trip of the season. The Canucks complete a four-game road swing Saturday in Edmonton, at which point the players will return home and turn in their ReadiBands.

The computerized bracelets monitor the players' sleep patterns, so Byrne gets a handle on who sleeps well on the road, who sleeps on the plane, who takes an afternoon nap, and how often they awake. From there, he aggregates the data, seizes up the road schedule, and gives the Canucks a travel plan through the use of a software program that turns sleep data into performance data.

Byrne bought the technology from the U.S. military and owns a third of the company. His investors include Brett Conrad and Darrell Kopke of lululemon.

Mostly, Fatigue Science works with industry, such as mining companies and airlines, where sleep deprivation is more a life-and-death question than an issue of wins and losses. But as the Canucks story has spread, and as more athletes Down Under, specifically the Australian Institute of Sport, have come on board, Byrne has been receiving more interest from sports organizations.

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Follow on Twitter: @mattsekeres

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