Kelly Hrudey was on top of his game and bordering on scared at the same time.
One of 25 starting NHL goalies thrust into action following the 1995 lockout, he had to quickly adjust after sitting idle for about a month before the Los Angeles Kings’ mini training camp.
“Maybe it scared me so much that it was a short season [48 games] and I knew the importance of each game,” the Hockey Night in Canada analyst recalled this week. Hrudey’s .910 save percentage in 35 games in ‘95 was the best of his 15 NHL seasons.
“I think what also made me focus quickly was the fact that in the first practice we had in coming back [from the lockout] I went from probably being really excited about being around the guys to pretty nervous around the ice to almost scared on the ice because I felt I was so far behind everybody else,” Hrudey added.
The Edmonton native had played little hockey during the work stoppage besides joining Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman and others on the two-week Ninety-Nine All-Stars Tour to Europe.
'If your eyes are even a split-second behind what they normally would be [in a standard 82-game season] you’re going to be beaten on shots that you would normally turn away easily.'— Hockey Night in Canada analyst Kelly Hrudey
Fortunately for Hrudey, he could draw on the vision training he began 12 years earlier when he broke into the NHL with the New York Islanders. Recently, Hrudey spoke of the six extraocular muscles around the eyes that act to turn or rotate the eye.
He believes NHL goaltenders will struggle early in the current shortened season because these muscles, which weren’t worked regularly during the 113-day lockout, need to be trained like any muscle and retrained to the speed of players shooting the puck.
“The benefits [of vision training] are remarkable if you stick with it,” said Hrudey. “There’s so much going on in trying to stop a puck. If your eyes are even a split-second behind what they normally would be [in a standard 82-game season] you’re going to be beaten on shots that you would normally turn away easily.”
Excellent depth perception allows netminders to judge the distance, speed and direction of the puck as it reaches the net. Eye-hand co-ordination plays an integral role in deflecting shots and knocking down high passes to help control the puck or attempt a glove save.
From his experience, Hrudey remembered having less tunnel vision on the ice after performing vision training exercises, which also expanded his peripheral vision and sightlines to see other players better and recognize their options on the ice.Former NHL goalie Kelly Hrudey remembers having less tunnel vision on the ice after performing vision training exercises, which also expanded his peripheral vision and sightlines to see other players better. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images/File)
“[Handling the] speed of the shot and [combating] traffic in front [of the net] are things you could improve with eye work,” said the 52-year-old Hrudey, who also played racquet sports during his NHL playing days to help improve his vision. “But reading a play? That’s just in the head.
“That would also be something I’m seeing [this season] with a lot of the guys. They’re really struggling right now because of a lack of [repetition].”
With a compressed schedule in a non-lockout season, teams aren’t afforded as much practice time. Also, under terms of the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement, according to Hrudey and fellow HNIC analyst Glenn Healy, players are prohibited to enter an arena within nine hours of checking into a hotel on a road trip, so say goodbye to some morning skates.
The CBA almost works against positional players and goalies if they’re struggling to find their game, noted Healy, a backup netminder for most of his 14 NHL campaigns.
Citing busy game schedules, travel and mandatory days off requested by the league in the CBA, Healy wonders when goalies are going to work on their game when “the wheel starts to wobble.”
In an 82-game schedule, teams might have as many as six consecutive days off.
“I’m going to get my game back in my one day off that I get to practice?” said Healy, a native of Pickering, Ont. “This is where it becomes difficult.”
Some goaltenders have been challenged in the first week of the season, thanks in part to sloppy play by their teammates and having to help kill off what appears to be a high rate of power plays.
“The guys who typically clean up the mess [on the ice] are the goalies. And there seems to be more of a crackdown on obstruction, which leads to power plays. They’ve been a big factor [so far]. The [Toronto Maple] Leafs have yet to score a five-on-five goal.”
For goalies, Hrudey said, it boils down to trusting your teammates.
“If they’re sloppy or if they’re making bad reads or poor decisions,” he said, “it’s hard for you as a goaltender to stay committed to what you need to do because to a certain degree you’re questioning whether they’re going to do the right thing."
Healy, 50, said there are 184 new players in the NHL this season due to player retirements and lockout casualties, meaning there are several goalies in the process of gaining the trust of their teammates and vice-versa.
“[There are] mistake-filled games [in a 48-game season],” Healy said, “because you have no chance [to develop] chemistry, no chance for training camp, no chance for pre-season [games] and we’re seeing it now.
“I think there’s more of a challenge at that [goalie] position than any other."