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Grubauer, Merzlikins making most of new virtual reality training tool

NHL goalies using program to increase reaction time, keep hands active

by Kevin Woodley / Independent Correspondent

NHL goalies don't have to lace up their skates, strap on their pads, or even get on the ice in order to make saves thanks to a new virtual reality training tool.

Sense Arena launched in late July as a program that allows goalies to feel like they are facing real shots, using a headset and paddles that can either be held in or attached to a goalie glove and blocker. It has since been adopted by 10 NHL goalies, including Philipp Grubauer of the Colorado Avalanche, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Antoine Bibeau of the Carolina Hurricanes.

"You put it on and you basically appear in the net in an NHL arena and you look around and it's really like being in an NHL arena. I'm shocked by how realistic the whole thing is," said Bibeau, who signed a two-way contract on Oct. 22. "There's a part where it's an actual player shooting so you can read the release and it's crazy how realistic that is, and then there's also some reaction-time drills. It's an awesome tool for goalies."

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Los Angeles Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford got involved with the virtual reality program after learning about it at an online goaltending symposium in June, and now has several Kings goalies using it. Though the idea of being able to work on goalie-specific skills at a time when not everyone has access to ice because of the coronavirus pandemic is part of the appeal, Ranford believes it will have continuing value.

That's because he sees it as a development tool to help focus on puck-tracking mechanics and encourage active hands, and as a way to help his goalies rest more during the season. The early feedback from prospect goalie Jacob Ingham, who has a set with him in Germany, where he is playing on a loan from the Kings, reinforced that development potential.

"Jacob used it and practiced the next day and couldn't believe how good he felt tracking the puck in practice because the goggles force you to move your head to track the puck," Ranford said.

Developed in the Czech Republic by founder and CEO Bob Tetiva over the past three and half years, Sense Arena also has a skater's version where a player can hold a stick and run drills or react to plays all over the arena. But the virtual environment is ideal for goalies because those same plays always end up coming toward the goalie, and their movement is more contained. Tetiva worked with former St. Louis Blues prospect Marek Schwarz, who plays professionally in the Czech Republic, as a model and tester to fine-tune the details important to the position.

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Brian Daccord, who was named Arizona Coyotes director of goaltending operations and special assistant to new GM Bill Armstrong on Sept. 25, has also joined the company as an advisor. 

There are several options, including reaction drills, tracking passes and shots from computerized players, or video of real players shooting, which allows a goalie to work on reading various elements of a shot release.

"We have video of real players releasing shots and then we mask the puck and replace it with a virtual puck that comes at you," Tetiva said. "I strongly believe the next step in athletic training is not doing more squats or pushups, but working on your brain, and for goalies that translates into your ability to read the release, be clever facing screens, and work on your box control."

Video: Sense Arena virtual reality training

Goalies can not only add those screens to work on finding passes and shots through traffic, but they can also overlay box control grids that draw lines from the puck to the four corners of the net and create an imaginary box in front of the goalie that the puck would have to travel inside in order to hit the net. It's a concept, brought to the forefront in Sweden, that allows goalies to better understand their positioning relative to the net, how much of that net they fill based on where they're positioned, and how little they need to move to close that smaller box rather than worry about the larger net behind them.

"I've been working on my tracking, box control with it at home," said Bibeau, who missed most of last season because of hip surgery. "It's a perfect tool to keep working on my game and to keep my brain active without putting any wear and tear on my body and my hips."

Video: Sense Arena virtual reality

Ranford sees that as an opportunity to help his goalies stay rested during a season. He said the current version is ideal for simple movement patterns and shots, but doesn't see long, cross-ice passes as ideal when goalies are moving side to side in sneakers rather than skates because the mechanics are different. That said, some professional teams in Europe are using Sense Arena on the ice with goalies in full equipment, and Ranford will investigate similar options and variations, including a slide board, that will continue to evolve with the technology. 

"Where they've come from what I saw just watching what they had available at the goalie symposium in June to where they are today is leaps and bounds," Ranford said.

With NHL goalies and teams already adopting it, and more improvements coming in the next release in November, virtual reality is fast becoming a new reality for goalie training.

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