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Goalies using juggling, online tools to stay sharp during NHL pause

Bobrovsky, Rinne, Hart among those to hone skills while remaining off ice

by Kevin Woodley / Independent Correspondent

The video of Sergei Bobrovsky wearing his pads and gloves catching tennis balls shot out of a serving machine in the Florida sun was more than a social media stunt. 

"I am using the tennis ball machine for both having fun and training purposes," the Florida Panthers goalie said.

Tweet from @NHL: Sergei Bobrovsky's (@SergeiBobrovsky) staying sharp. (🎥 IG/olyabobrovsky)

Bobrovsky isn't alone. Goalies are finding different ways to try to stay sharp since the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. 

From learning to juggle, to different types of ball-shooting machines, to a variety of online vision and cognitive training tools, NHL goalies are doing their best to get better despite not being able to get on the ice. 

Some of the techniques are relatively new, but some were already being used as training tools, including ball-shooting machines like the one Bobrovsky showcased on Instagram. 

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen has a machine that shoots smaller balls (which can curve) in St. Louis and another at his offseason home in New Brunswick, where he is with his family during the pause.

"Essentially it's for baseball hitters but the balls are smaller," Allen said of the SKLZ pitching machine. "Basically, you just plug it into the wall, you load it up with 50 balls, and you change your angles, you change the targets, they come up with different speeds and different curves. It simulates a pitcher throwing a pitch at you, but you can use it for goaltending or catching or whatever you want."

Detroit Red Wings goalie Jonathan Bernier has been using a tennis ball machine for years in the offseason but said he had to order another one because the original was locked away at his summer cottage.

Bernier said he's used the machine in the past to help avoid some of the repetitive stress that comes with being on skates, so it should come in handy now that he can't get on the ice. 

"If you can find a way to not be on the ice all the time, I think that's a good way with the tennis ball to keep your reflexes," said Bernier, adding that it helps him focus on leaning into shots rather than reaching too much. "You can actually do a lot of repetition and you'll find that you're making the right movement all the time, instead of sometimes on the ice you are kind of rushing to make saves. I just find that it helps me to just be more in control a little bit."

Other goalies are working on their hand-eye coordination with juggling, which is part of daily warmup routines during the season. Anaheim Ducks goalie Ryan Miller shared some juggling basics on social media, and Buffalo Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark took it a step further with a series of videos demonstrating different types of juggling he said he does almost every day.

Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne is using the extra time to learn how to juggle. 

"I never knew how to juggle, and I was always so jealous when I saw other goalies do that," Rinne told former playing partner Chris Mason, who now works as an analyst on Fox Sports Tennessee. "So I went and ordered actual juggling balls, so that's been my new thing."

Tweet from @cmace30: People: Come on Mace, give the people what they want.Me: Fine I will. 🐐 #Peks #Juggling @PredsNHL 💛

Some have taken their work online and into virtual reality. 

Colorado Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz has started using different types of online mental training, including virtual reality simulations where balls come toward him and he has to react with his hands while holding paddles. Francouz has also worked with NeuroTracker, an online brain-training program in which multiple objects and shapes, including balls, move randomly around a screen in three dimensions at increasing speeds, and the viewer must accurately rank them. 

"This has all been made to model sport situations for your brain," Francouz said from his home in Pilsen, Czech Republic. "And it really is able to stimulate your brain, so I think it is really helpful."

NeuroTracker is designed to improve focus, awareness and decision-making. It is used by NFL and NBA players, like Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry, and makes the user work on multiple-object tracking, which is a perfect fit for goalies, who must follow opponents and the puck around the ice. 

Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers each used NeuroTracker for years while working with Alberta-based sports psychologist John Stevenson. Hart still uses online tools for vision and mental training but has switched to a program called Vizual Edge that he can use on an iPad even when the Flyers are on the road. 

He has used mental training tools to stay sharp when he missed games because of injury in each of his first two NHL seasons and is back to using them while waiting out the pause at home in Sherwood Park, Alberta. That work includes the online vision-training program and concentration grids.

The concentration grid times a user tracking numbers (one through 100 on a 10x10 grid). Hart has done it in 1 minute, 51 seconds, a record among Stevenson's clients. Hart is also training with juggling. 

"I've just got four balls so far, but I've been doing the Vizual Edge four times a week now on the iPad," Hart said. "And I also have my concentration grids before bed."

The hope for NHL goalies is the extra mental training and ball work will make it easier to concentrate and catch pucks again when they get back on the ice.

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