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Goaltenders pass the eye test

For Pittsburgh's Mike Condon, vision exercises make seeing believing

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Mike Condon doesn't have a crystal ball, so he couldn't have foreseen playing 55 games as an NHL rookie with the Montreal Canadiens last season after Carey Price was injured, or imagined starting this one with Pittsburgh Penguins. Condon is, however, seeing the puck a lot better.

When Condon, who was claimed off waivers by the Penguins on Oct. 11, had his sport vision tested as part of his offseason training, a significant deficiency was found in how his eyes worked ­- or more to the point, didn't work -- when pucks were coming at him. Looking back, it wasn't a shocking revelation.

"The whole year I was having trouble tracking, I didn't know what was going on," Condon said. "I was losing pucks as they got close to me. They did a couple of tests, and before you know it, he was like, 'Your eyes don't converge,' so there are a bunch of different techniques and tools I use every day to help my eyes converge, and now they are, and I'm off the charts with it."

Condon made the discovery while working with Eye On Performance sports vision training, a part of the Stop-It Goaltending facility near Boston that he trains at every summer with long-time personal goalie coach Brian D'Accord. After diagnosing his convergence problem, a plan was devised to help Condon improve the way his eyes moved while trying to focus on an object coming at him.

By late July, his testing scores had improved by 30 percent.

"It's like I am seeing it in a whole new way I've never seen it before," he said. "Doing eye-hand coordination drills with wiffle balls or softballs, I can see the stitches in the ball or the holes in the wiffle ball, and on the ice I can see the whole release, almost like it's in slow motion."

Condon wasn't the only NHL goalie to seek out improved sports vision during the offseason.

The idea of warming up the eyes with juggling and visualization routines before a game isn't new. As Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said in this space last season, "Your biggest muscle as a goalie is your eyes," so it makes sense for goaltenders to warm those eye muscles up the same way they would their groin or hip muscles. But more goalies at all levels are also discovering the importance of testing and training their eyes long before a game.

They also are learning doesn't just mean juggling in their spare time.

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Eddie Lack was on his laptop computer Wednesday night in his hotel room, preparing his eyes for a start against the Calgary Flames on Thursday.

Lack was introduced to the next wave in sports vision training by Josh Tucker of Minnesota-based True Vision Sports, which was brought in to test and train the eight NHL-contracted goalies taking part in the NET360 goalie camp in Kelowna, British Columbia, during the summer.

Lack didn't find any vision deficiencies, but he still saw an immediate benefit from the training. He scheduled follow-up work with Tucker, purchased a vision training device for his home and changed his warmup procedure, dropping pregame soccer in favor of juggling and other ball drills.

"I feel like it's made a big difference," said Lack, who logs into an online program to do his eye exercises when the Hurricanes are on the road. "It's easier at home, but the computer program is good too, and then I have a video with different tennis ball drills and juggling from Josh."

Lack wasn't the only goalie at the NET360 camp who noticed an improvement. Tucker and former National Women's Hockey League goalie Chelsea Laden started by testing each goaltender for four types of vision tasks: convergence (how the eyes move with an object coming at them); divergence (widening that focus to see a bigger picture); accommodation for vertical movement; and tracking to see how the eyes moves while following an object through a variety of movement patterns.

"It was kind of funny, we were hoping we maybe had a flaw in our vision because then we could correct it and be better," said Chris Driedger of the Ottawa Senators. "I have done eye testing before, but not going as far as things like divergence and convergence, which is key for goalies."

Like Driedger, a lot of the goalies at NET360 had done some form of vision training and testing previously. A handful of NHL goalie coaches make it a priority for every new goalie that comes to their team. But even among that group, goalies at the NET360 came out of their first training sessions with Tucker and Laden feeling a little sore around the eyes. Just like the body aches after a workout, it's a sign those muscles were not used to working the way they optimally should.

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Some goalies felt so good that they wanted to go back out for a second ice time and more shots.

"It feels easy to focus in and out," said Laurent Brossoit of the Edmonton Oilers. "I've never done anything like this and I am surprised I haven't, considering we use our eyes so much."

While some goalies joined Lack in purchasing off-ice training tools and signing up for continued training with True Focus Vision, Brossoit already was planning to work with Holtby's old goalie coach, John Stevenson, who owns Zone Performance Psychology in Edmonton.

In addition to vision training, Stevenson focuses on goalie-specific sports psychology, including some of the warmup routines Holtby uses. Stevenson also incorporates brain training using a machine called Neurotracker, which some NHL teams used to improve processing speed and cognitive capacity by incorporating three-dimensional object movement into vision training.

"It really is like weight training for the eyes and brain," Stevenson said last year.

That can be as simple as ball drills to warm up both before a game, but as goalies like Condon, Lack and Brossoit are discovering, today's vision training goes well beyond juggling.

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