Virtual Reality Has Come to NHL Training

The New Jersey Devils are one of several teams using a new VR tool for both skaters and goaltenders.
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Mackenzie Blackwood. Photo by Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports.

Mackenzie Blackwood. Photo by Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports.

Technology is changing the sports landscape in fascinating ways and with so many investors banking on Virtual Reality, it should be no surprise that VR has come to hockey. Sense Arena is one company making big moves in the sport right now, lining up an official partnership with the New Jersey Devils and working with a number of other franchises such as the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings.

Based in the Czech Republic, Sense Arena was founded four years ago by CEO Bob Tetiva, a former pro basketball player who did time in the telecom industry before entering the world of start-ups.

"My soul is in sport," Tetiva said. "Then suddenly, this technology and my roots matched up."

The company, which also has offices near Toronto and Boston, offers modules for goalies and skaters, who can use Oculus headsets to run through a variety of training exercises. Given the state of the world and all the pandemic-related shutdowns in the hockey community, Sense Arena's VR tech arrived at a great time for those who wanted to stay sharp, even if they couldn't leave their house. In fact, December was the company's busiest month for traffic so far.

But even when players have access to the ice, Sense Arena can be a great training tool. While every player lives for games, the fact of the matter is that puck-touches are at a premium on the ice and there are only so many shifts to go around. With Sense Arena, you can simulate a lot more repetitions.

"How many times are you confronted with decision-making on the ice?" Tetiva said. "Not many. With the simulation, it's four or five times more intensive. And because the intensity is so high, the development curve is fantastic."

The key focus is on cognitive skills, so skaters can practise odd-man situations (like a 5-on-3 power play, for example), but they can also sharpen their mental multi-tasking abilities, leading to quicker, more concise decision-making on the ice. The program can also be used by players when they are rehabbing from an injury and unable to take to the ice just yet.

Perhaps even more interesting is the goalie module. Mackenzie Blackwood was the first Devils netminder to try out Sense Arena and the company also has branded training plans from the likes of Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford and former St. Louis Blues netminder Marek Schwarz, who is still playing pro hockey back home in the Czech Republic.

Netminders can hold controllers when they do their VR drills, or they can wear their actual catchers and blockers with a special attachment added on. Tetiva said that more than 40 pro goalies are using the module already and he sees a range of benefits from his product. For one, the Sense Arena drills focus more on upper-body movements, so goalies don't have the up-and-down butterfly repetitions that sometimes lead to injury. Instead, focuses include reading a shot release or finding a shot through traffic or screens. Once again the benefits are in the cognitive arena, but that doesn't mean it's laid-back - even if you're doing it in an office chair.

"You'll sweat like hell," Tetiva said. "It's not an easy time."

Another interesting innovation for the goalies is a 3-D replay function. Many coaches and players use iPads and tablets to record themselves these days, but with those you only get the angle you recorded. Sense Arena goes one better with their 360-degree replay.

"You can actually walk around yourself," Tetiva said. "You can see how you made the save."

The Devils already have modules installed at the Prudential Center and more are coming to New Jersey's practice facility. The franchise also plans on using Sense Arena as part of its public outreach, where it can be used at youth hockey camps and Learn to Play programs.

The future of tech isn't just coming for the hockey world - it's already here.

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