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Unmasked: Can playing guitar make goalies better?

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com

Whether it's New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist ripping through "Sweet Child O' Mine" on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," or Arizona Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke jamming on stage with Garth Brooks, the links between goaltenders and guitars appears strong.

The list of guitar-playing NHL goalies includes Ryan Miller, Cory Schneider, Mike Smith and alumni Jose Theodore, Brent Johnson and Robert Esche -- and those are just the ones we know about.

For most, music makes a nice break from the game.

"It's more of an escape mentally to relax and think about something else," Lundqvist told NHL.com. "Music to me is a release; you are just relaxing and enjoy it and don't think about the game, and that kind of helps me save energy and come back to the rink."

Henrik Lundqvist (Rebecca Taylor/ MSG Photos)

Whether these wanna-be shredders know it or not, there are links between their ability to catch pucks and pluck guitar strings. Being able to do one can enhance the ability to do the other. Specifically, playing guitar can give a goaltender a better glove hand, according to some experts.

It has to do with how our brains work, how we learn skills, and how those skills contribute to and reinforce similar motor functions; it's a phenomenon called Transfer of Learning.

Ted Monnich, a former minor-pro goalie and goaltending coach who is working on a Ph.D. in sports psychology at the University of North Carolina, began tracking the links between guitars and goalies in 2003 after noticing his increased glove-hand agility and performance after practicing the guitar.

Monnich, who also works as a mental conditioning coach with GDI Southeast goalie schools and was at training camp with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL, tracked the performance of select senior and minor-pro goalies across several seasons and found that glove-save response and glove-save percentage increased on a game-by-game basis after practicing the guitar a few hours prior to playing hockey.

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"Likewise, the agility of musicianship increased after playing hockey," he said. "And a more difficult music seemed to produce greater short-term stimulation and enhancement of these functions."

The improvements, it should be noted, come from playing by memory because reading sheet music, said Monnich, engages a different part of the brain and is closer to a language skill.

"This is memorization, and we are utilizing neural patterns that we have established, these nerves that run from our brains, down our spine, down the arm and up the hand," Monnich said.

The neural pathways for playing guitar are the same as they are for making a glove save. So when a goalie learns, practices and plays a song by ear on a guitar, he stimulates the same right-hemisphere area of the brain that memorizes the skills used in goaltending. By stimulating the right hemisphere, the same neural pathways used to make a glove or blocker save are engaged.

"It is called cross-task facilitation, different activities that are related or connected in the same part of the brain," Monnich said.

As each new bar of learned music is triggered automatically in the brain by the end of the preceding bar, the goalie's glove hand learns to react automatically to seeing a puck coming off a stick.

"When you learn to play a song, those nerves are triggered in that part of your brain and you are using your hands on the guitar to pluck the strings and go from fret to fret on the neck of the guitar, which is often our glove hand, and our hands go there automatically once we have memorized the song," Monnich said. "That same part of the brain, because it's your hands and because it's muscle memory, is the same part of the brain that works with a glove or blocker save. The more that we practice or simply do that thing correctly, the stronger that circuit of nerves, that neural pathway, becomes."

Working those neural pathways by playing guitar before playing goal is like warming up the brain in a way that works on the ice.

"It makes the brain more agile," Monnich said.

Burke, now the assistant to the general manager and goalie coach for the Arizona Coyotes, always has been a guitar fan; he featured his favorite guitarists Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix on some of his masks during an 18-season NHL playing career. He wasn't totally shocked when informed of the music/glove-hand theory.

Ryan Miller is an accomplished musician and played
with Ronan Tynan during his time with the Sabres.
Courtesy: InGoal Magazine (Click to enlarge)

"I don't know if I can see it, but I can sort of understand how it might correlate," Burke, who was known to bring his guitar on some road trips when he played, told NHL.com. "Obviously that side of the brain for me when I sit down and play guitar, I really like just the way your hands have to move and the fluidity you have to play with. You can play aggressive if you want, but for the most part to play well requires almost a sort of Zen feeling. And in playing goal, especially catching pucks and using your hands, it's almost that same sort of feel. You don't want to be stabbing at pucks, you don't want to be aggressive. You want to have that feeling your hands are quiet, they are comfortable. And so, to me, that would be the similarity I see."

Goalie Todd Ford, who was picked No. 74 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2002 NHL Draft, said using a guitar to warm up helped him throughout his career before retiring in 2012. Jeff Jakaitis, who has a .922 save percentage in 10 games with the Stingrays of the ECHL, is using it too.

It may take longer to catch on in the NHL, even though Monnich said the science behind developing neural pathways is well established.

"It's relaxing, but I don’t know if I've ever thought so far as to use it as a coordination-training thing," said Miller, the Vancouver goalie who had Hendrix and Page on his mask with the St. Louis Blues last season.

Miller, who uses tennis balls to engage his hand-eye coordination before a game, said he can see how using the hands independently of each other by playing a guitar might help on the ice.

"I guess it is coordination; but for me it's just a nice release," he said.

Smith, the Arizona Coyotes goalie, said that it was tough to find time to play guitar with three kids under the age of 3, but like Lundqvist his interest was piqued at least a little when the neurological links were laid out.

"It's definitely hand-eye coordinating and that's something we use on the ice as well, so it's very interesting," Lundqvist said. "I might start playing guitar every day now."

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