Engineering Hockey Sense: Teaching the “Unteachable”

One, a popular 1980s arcade game, the other perhaps the next great revolution in hockey skill development.

by Dan Kramer, Staff Writer,

MONTREAL, QC — This week, Alex Galchenyuk is in Lake Placid and Charles Hudon is with Team Canada, each at their respective country’s summer camp as a first step in preparation for this December’s World Junior Championship.  Every nation seems to have different practices when it comes to developing their young players, which further complicates the job of scouts on NHL Entry Draft day as they attempt to project the learning curve of the latest crop of prospects.  With more focus in Montreal placed on the draft this year than usual – a draft that yielded both Galchenyuk and Hudon, as well as Sebastian Collberg who would have also been in Lake Placid with Team Sweden if not for an injury – a lot of chatter and analysis could be heard from armchair GMs around the city.

Player X needed to improve his defensive game, player Y’s skating technique needed work, or player Z (ok, who are we kidding, Filip Forsberg) would need to put up better numbers soon if he is to reach his offensive potential.  These areas are all looked at as things that can be improved over time.  More static, in the mind of most, are size and hockey sense.  The former comes hardwired into our DNA, and many speak of the latter as an innate ability – something you’re born with.  But now, one company – Applied Cognitive Engineering (ACE) – in partnership with USA Hockey, is seeking to challenge the notion that hockey sense isn’t something you can teach.

Introducing IntelliGym, a sophisticated computer-based learning platform initially developed by a team of cognitive psychologists, computer engineers, and game theorists to train military fighter pilots, but later adapted to basketball and now hockey.  At first glance, the software looks not unlike an arcade aircraft shooting game from the 1990s (see a demo HERE).  Players are represented by ships, and the user must achieve certain objectives, typically ending with getting a puck into an unguarded net.  As the user advances his or her personal account through stages, scenarios evolve in complexity and difficulty, providing additional opponents, distractions, obstacles, time objectives, and situations (e.g. shorthanded, powerplay, etc.).  In this way, it seeks to improve a player’s reaction time, awareness, anticipation, and decision making, all components of the much-vaunted “hockey sense.”

I’ll stop here to acknowledge your immediate reaction: are ACE and USA Hockey suggesting that players may be able to improve their on-ice abilities by spending time playing video games?

“The IntelliGym is a scientifically-based program and we invite anyone to take a close look at our patented training methodologies and training outcome,” answers Danny Dankner, CEO of ACE.  “Twenty or thirty years ago, when lifting weights was introduced to coaches, many objected it. Some thought it not only a waste of time, but would actually worsen shots and passes accuracy.  Today, you can’t find a single elite player who doesn’t go regularly to the weight room.”

USA Hockey believed in the software enough to first partner with ACE in its development, and subsequently implement it within the US National Team Development Program; a perfect candidate given the group sticks together for a full season at a time, and that the software is recommended to be used 1-3 times a week for thirty minutes at a time.  Their faith, it seems, was well-placed, as the club showed improvements after starting to use the program beyond what could statistically be projected for a team to experience during the course of an average season.  In January of 2009 – after the software was rolled out – the US U17 Team won Gold, and the U18 club improved from a 29% to a 70% win ratio.  Former U.S. U18 coach Kurt Kleinendorst was quoted as saying, “[the players] just started making plays under pressure that I hadn’t seen prior to them using the IntelliGym.”

[more on this case study can be found here:]

The system has since been implemented by the University of Maine, the U.S. Air Force Hockey Team, and thousands of youth hockey organizations, as it is recommended for players from the age of 12 right up to the Pro ranks.  Is this a tool that will serve only young Americans of a certain profile, or might it be a revolution throughout the hockey world?

One, a popular 1980s arcade game, the other perhaps the next great revolution in hockey skill development.

“Similar to acquiring strength and agility, training hockey-related fundamental skills is required regardless of your game philosophy,” responds Dankner.  “Along the research, we have seen a large variety of players profiles and roles.  However, after a thorough analysis of their game we concluded that the basic hockey sense skills – such as awareness, reading plays, decision making, peripheral vision, concentration, anticipation and finding free ice – are all needed by all types of players and different positions. Therefore, the program would be of a benefit to a goaltender just like it would be to a skater.”

“Consider, for example, the need to know where other players are located even if they are out of one’s field of view. This is a highly important skill to all players. Training their working memory skills with this program dramatically improve this capability regardless of the trainee’s position.”

While Hudon and Galchenyuk won’t get exposed to it this week – since most of the year they are under the instruction of their CHL coaches, and Dankner feels it too complicated for the National staff to approach and involve the training schedule of each and every such coach at this point – the Concordia Stingers in Montreal are said to be another upcoming case study.

Perhaps somewhat surprising was another byproduct witnessed by teams implementing the IntelliGym: a reduction in injuries.  Dankner says a five-year US National Team Development Program study showed on-ice injuries were reduced by 15 per cent, and head injuries by 27 per cent, since the implementation of cognitive training.  Dankner attributes this primarily to players being more aware of their surroundings, leaving them less vulnerable to blindside hits.

You can read more about this exciting new training method on the IntelliGym website .  While it hasn’t been publicly implemented by any National Hockey League clubs as of yet, with a trend of some teams favouring younger, more innovative coaches, the day that someone gives it a shot is likely not far away.  In the shorter term, it has the potential to revolutionize the way scouting staffs evaluate young players and project their development, perhaps making them reconsider players whose reaction times aren’t yet where they should be.

As for Galchenyuk and Hudon this week?  They’ll need to impress coaches on-ice, with Galchenyuk scoring a goal – his first of camp through three “games” – in today’s matchup against Team Finland, and Hudon skating on a top line at Canada’s camp with Jonathan Huberdeau and Boone Jenner.


Hat tip to Matthew Ross for story topic.