Team consultant applies science to skating
Jamie Heffernan will be watching the Stanley Cup final tonight with a trained eye – and a vested interest.
The 34 year old proprietor of JH Sports, a golf pro by profession, has worked closely with the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning for the past year and a half, using the Zenolink 3D motion capture technology system as a tool to analyze and evaluate hockey skating and shooting.
“I use Zenolink as a doctor would use an X-ray,” said Heffernan, whose clientele includes golfers, hockey players, basketball players and runners. From there, Heffernan and his training team design an individual training program “to make them more efficient in everything they do.” “This technology has been around a sport like golf for a lot of years,” said the Lakeville, Ontario native. “Currently, I’m the only person in the world using it for skating. It really helps us take the guesswork out of why someone is not an efficient skater or can’t shoot the puck properly. We test and we don’t guess. We look at the biomechanics of what is holding a player back in being able to be as efficient as they could in skating.”
His poster boy is 30 year old Eric Neilson, the Fredericton native and Tampa farmhand. Heffernan tested his training system on Neilson two years ago. Heffernan set up two motion cameras at the Aitken Centre, each shooting at 240 frames per second at that speed, two seconds of video takes 45 seconds to play. As Neilson skated, the equipment recorded his first four strides on a “calibration cube”. The video was sent to Endicott, N.Y, and analyzed on the Zenolink system. “They digitize everything for me and supply me with the data that I use to design the program” said Heffernan.
“In Eric’s case, his hip extension speeds and knee extension speeds were very low,” explained Heffernan. “His joint output speeds were very low compared to the best skaters in the world. Once we found that out, we took him through some range of motion exercises. Some of it was a co-ordination issue. He had a hard time co-ordinating from his hips to his knees. We fixed some of those patterns and his strength coach designed a program focusing on joint output speed”
The week before he went to camp, Heffernan put him through another evaluation“ and his joint output and timing all significantly improved. He was noticeably faster, and his skating stride was less labour intensive,” to the point where Lightning brass took notice at the team’s training camp and asked Neilson his secret. Neilson connected Heffernan with the people he needed to talk to in the Lightning front office. Heffernan is reluctant to drop names and Lightning brass heard enough in subsequent conversations that they wanted to hear more.
Heffernan flew to Syracuse and tested five players with the AHL Crunch and then showed them movement exercises to help the players get better. The exercises are done in the gym rather than on the ice. The movement exercises are done for 35-40 minutes before switching to strength exercises, and the routine is incorporated into a pregame warmup.
The idea is to carry those patterns on to the ice, where they can be reinforced by the skating coach. “We keyed in one of their key prospects,” said Heffernan. “The skating coach provided a detailed description of what she saw that was wrong with him on the ice. I provided my analysis of what was wrong from a movement standpoint. I took him through a physical screening to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with a hip, or a knee or an ankle that could be causing that. Then we provided him with a summer training program. The next time we saw him was at an evaluation camp after the draft last year. We retested him there, and they were astonished at how much better his skating had gotten in eight weeks. You can make significant changes in eight weeks.”
Convinced, the Lightning signed Heffernan that very day. Last year, he was in Montreal three times over the course of the summer, working with as many as nine players who will be in the Lightning lineup tonight when they host the Chicago Blackhawks in the first game of the Stanley Cup final. He worked with them for two days, then returned three weeks later to evaluate the players, reinforce the training and test again. Heffernan is an independent contractor. He said there have been talks with “multiple” NHL teams interested in his system. It may be the next big NHL innovation. But for now, it’s exclusive to the Lightning. He started in February, 2014 and has allured the organization with his hands-on presentations.
He presented first to the coaching staff and then the director of player personnel, followed by the skating instructor and strength coach. He then pitched to the development camp a couple of weeks after the June draft. After that, he addressed the front office. He travelled to Montreal last summer and was in Syracuse “once or twice a month” this season working with the Bolts’ AHL prospects. Heffernan says the Lightning are interested in expanding his role. “We’re in contract negotiations right now for next season” he said. “I can see it absolutely taking off in the NHL” said Heffernan. “It’s a very important key in the development process that has been missing for a long time.” The earlier Heffernan can get to athletes, the better.
To that end, he and Neilson have put together a development program that will begin June 30 at Kingswood involving movement preparation and analysis, shooting and working with strength coaches. JH Sports includes Heffernan, Neilson, sports psychologist Dr. David Scott, strength coach Walker Blizzard of Kingswood, Zenolink founder Chris Welch, and massage therapist Dennis Wilson.
“It’s motor pattern development,” he said. “Your brain is teaching your body how to move differently. And that 100 per cent can be trained. Does it get harder to make significant change when they get older? Absolutely. But kids start to develop bad patterns and bad habits at younger ages. We spend a large amount of time correcting all those bad habits and make sure the patterns are established before. It’s very much tailored to the individual to allow them their best chance to get better.” He likens the process to teaching his 3½-year-old son Brady – he and his wife Jen have two boys, Brady and three-month-old Bryce how to open a door.
“It’s steps,” he said. “First you need to teach him how to lift his hand up and touch the door. It takes a lot of reminders to get him to do that. But once he starts telling himself and reminding himself to do that, he does it instinctively. Step 2 is to teach him how to grip it. Step 3 is to turn it. Step 4 is to pull. That’s not something that happens instantly. It’s constant cues and reminders on a daily basis, over and over again. Now he walks up, grabs the door, opens it and walks outside. And if you ask him if he reminded himself, he’s going to say no. With the help of coaching, and his brain reminding himself how to do that, he’s developed a pattern to learn how to do that again. It’s the exact same philosophy I follow on a daily basis working with hockey players.”
Speaking of which, it may open significant doors for Heffernan. The Lightning have embraced him and what he brings. “They’ve been unbelievable in opening their doors and letting me do what I do,” he said. "They told me ‘You do whatever it is you need to do to make our players better. It’s our job to coach them on the ice and make them better on the ice.' It’s my job to do what I do. Our goal is to make every athlete we work with to get their body to move as efficiently as they possibly can.”
So efficiently, in fact, that the Lightning may lift the Stanley Cup in a couple of weeks time. Heffernan will take no bows if that happens. “Part of my ego would say yes, I’m a part of it,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’d be very proud of the individuals I had a chance to work with” he said. “I’d be extremely proud for them”
Jamie Heffernan, the owner and operator of JH Sports, works as a consultant with the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning. He applies cutting-edge technology, applying 3D motion capture technology to design gym exercises that increase skating speed and efficiency. It must work: The Lightning are in the Stanley Cup final beginning tonight in Tampa.
PHOTO & ARTICLE: BILL HUNT, THE DAILY GLEANER