Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby plays guitar in the afternoon on game days as a way to relax and get into a good mindset for the game later that night, but the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner knows it may also help his glove hand.
Research has linked strumming a guitar to helping to catch a puck because of the way it trains the same neural pathways -- connecting the eyes, brain and hands -- used to make a glove save.
Holtby said it makes sense that the two are intertwined. More importantly, he can feel how it helps.
"It's funny because when you start out it feels like you have five thumbs trying to play guitar," Holtby said, "And then when you get it together, it's rhythm, and you can feel even doing little things not with a guitar, that your hands are just more coordinated."
Holtby grew up around music and taught himself to play guitar while playing junior hockey in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He added it to his game-day routine two months into last season after his agent bought him a "road guitar" so he could play when Washington was traveling. Soon afterward, a guitar appeared at the Capitals practice rink so he could play after morning skates at home.
"Last few years I've gotten better," Holtby said. "I can look at a song, a tab, and play it first try."
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None of that surprises Ted Monnich, a former minor pro goaltender who works as a sports psychology consultant and mental skills coach for goalies of all levels in North America and Europe. Monnich, who has consulted with the Carolina Hurricanes and their American Hockey League affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina, began tracking the links between guitars and goalies in 2003 after noticing his own increased glove-hand agility and performance after practicing the guitar. He tracked minor pro goalies and found glove-save response and save percentage increased after practicing guitar a few hours prior to games, something he calls kinesthetic response.
"When we look at what a musician is doing, either reading music or having memorized music, they are responding with their hands to a trigger," Monnich said. "The goalie's trigger is seeing the puck come off the stick. The musician's trigger is usually the preceding bar or stanza of music, hearing it, hearing the patterns, and that triggers the next response in their hands. We are dialing in a portion of the central nervous system that does the same thing, or has some relation. One reinforces the other. Playing music reinforces catching pucks."
It isn't limited to the guitar, though that does seem to be the instrument of choice for goalies.
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist once ripped through "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." Ryan Miller of the Vancouver Canucks, Mike Smith of the Arizona Coyotes, and Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils all play, as did former NHL goalies Jose Theodore, Brent Johnson and Robert Esche. Most view the guitar as a release, a way to relax, but like Holtby, ex-NHL goaltender Sean Burke, who once jammed onstage with Garth Brooks, would sometimes bring his guitar on the road to play.
"I think music in general helps," Holtby said. "Keeping a beat, feeling that rhythm, it's in a lot more things than people think."
Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins learned to play drums at age 9 in a music class in Finland, and started playing again when he moved to North America to begin his pro career 10 years ago.
"It's coordination so I am sure there is something to it," Rask, 30, said of the similarities.
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Matt Murray, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup-winning rookie, still plays piano in his down time and has tried his hand at guitar, an instrument his brother plays for a living in Toronto.
"I got semidecent at it but it's hard to do so I think if you are able to pick up an instrument like that I think it says a lot about your ability to grasp a concept," Murray said.
Monnich asks his goalies about any creative activities outside hockey, pointing to how Hall of Famer Jacques Plante knitted and painted portraits. One pro told Monnich that he was already good with a pottery wheel but also picked up the guitar to improve his hands.
Monnich said he isn't surprised Rask and Murray play instruments other than guitar, and that the footwork required also helps.
"Knowing to hit the foot pedals on a piano or a drum, there is a very specific time that you do this to the music and there is no time to think about it, so you have trained yourself to do it," he said. "There is a response there, a specialized neural pathway for that foot and those only activate when they are supposed to and no time to think about it or you will mess up. And our nervous system actually goes around our conscious mind to make that response. Just like a goalie reacting to a puck coming off a stick: There is the trigger, here is the response."
Even if it makes sense to Murray, don't expect him to follow Holtby's new routine.
"No," Murray said with a laugh, "I'm not bringing a keyboard on the road."