Skip to main content

Young Stars Finding Innovative Ways To Train For New NHL

The NHL has become faster and more skilled. As the NHL's new generation of stars look to make their mark, Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall and more have turned to a new age of training.

If Joe Quinn’s training methods were treated like a medical textbook, the list of symptoms would stretch several pages long. The most common sign is involuntary deceleration, because anyone who first attacks the circuit at full speed winds up around 25% by the next set. Sticks are often slammed on the ice, occasionally smashed into splinters. Pucks get fired against the glass, F-bombs get thrown into the air, and some players even feel so humbled that they can’t help but smile. Everyone handles failure in different ways. But no one is immune.

“When you first start, it’s hard to even want to go back, because it’s so challenging and it’s frustrating,” says Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, the reigning Hart Trophy winner.

“It was unbelievable,” says Coyotes forward Max Domi, a lottery pick in 2013. “I still suck at it.”

“They all struggle,” Quinn says.

Predators Face Daunting Task of Defending Western Conference Championship

This is by design, of course. Maybe you saw the videos from this past summer. Remember McDavid, whipping around a thin bar roughly shaped like the outline of a very large high-heel, hopping over a six-foot long hurdle with just enough space to fit a puck, which by the way he has been controlling this entire time too? (Just go watch the thing.) Navigating the course looks effortless for him, as most things in this sport seem to be, but the truth is McDavid has been mastering Quinn’s system since age 11—more than 500,000 repetitions by the Buffalo-based skills coach’s estimation. That Quinn hosted a private camp in August featuring all-stars such as New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, Islanders captain John Tavares, Colorado center Matt Duchene and Detroit speedster Dylan Larkin, however, hints at the rest of the NHL taking notice.

“It’s just different,” McDavid says. “You have to do it at top speed. I think there are a lot of different skill coaches whose programs have you standing there, looking down at the puck. In today’s day and age, that never happens.”

At its essence, Quinn says his system—called Power Edge Pro, with an additional trademark on the buzzy term “reactive countering training”—teaches players to use multiple motor skills at the same time. “The old way of training was power-skating without pucks,” he says. “Or stick-handling that didn’t incorporate our feet. That leaves lots of time and space to make decisions. That's the opposite of game situations.” So the aforementioned apparatus—PEP Gear—creates obstacles that players must learn to navigate at midseason speed. “I think the thing now is not only to develop skills, but to develop them so they directly apply to how you’re using them out on the ice,” says Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner, another camp attendee.

As clutching and grabbing disappeared and the modern NHL increasingly prioritizes skill and speed, there is always more room for creative minds. Minnesota forward Charlie Coyle spent the offseason working with shooting coach Glen Tucker—on his website he’s called Dr. Shot—and posted several videos of himself using a ricochet board to simulate passes arriving from behind. The likes of Brent Burns and Steven Stamkos regularly see Jari Byrski, who employs a makeshift dummy with a yellow smiley face. (Skinner has skated with Byrski too, which might explain why he picked up PEP faster than most.) During one drill in a particularly sizzling sizzle reel, Toronto’s Mitch Marner leaps from a springboard, snags a puck from midair, places it down and immediately uncorks a slap shot, all in one motion. 

“It seems like when I first came in, everyone was practicing their one-timers and shooting pucks after practice,” says Stars captain Jamie Benn. “Now it’s going through cones, it’s those little stick devices, it’s actually pretty cool to see.”

Maybe social media is simply drawing more attention to tools that already existed—Capitals winger T.J. Oshie, for instance, says he still uses car tires and overturned nets like he did as a kid—but players also say that their offseason routines reflect a shifting focus. “The skill development is year-round and it’s a lot more advanced than it was in my time,” says Hall, who, for the record, is 25 years old. “You would’ve never seen apparatuses like that, or teachers teaching you to do that kind of stuff.

“But that’s the same with any facet in life. Smartphones, streaming services, it’s all developing. The game’s only getting faster, the players coming up now are so good at skating and so good on their edges. I think it’s because of drills like that, that make it easy for them.”

Quinn too has refined his process over time. He started in Smith Falls, Ontario, sawing two-by-fours and lugging auditorium chairs onto the local ice rink at 6 a.m. to skate with 10 bleary-eyed kids. Along the way he switched from wood to metal, financed the mold, obtained the patent, began manufacturing gear. Five circuits—the different permutations of hops, skips, jumps, cuts, turns and crossovers around the course—expanded into 100.. He recently returned from working with the Detroit Red Wings during training camp and says five NHL teams have called in the past month. Next summer, he plans to hold additional camps in Kelowna, B.C., Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and Connecticut.

“I don't think it’s reached its full potential yet,” Skinner says. “There’s a lot of smart people involved in it. It’s a product of when you get around a bunch of your peers, everyone’s kicking around ideas about how to get better, what’s worked for them in the past, new things you’re trying out. Then everyone gets on the train and you tell the next guy.”

It also helps having an all-world pitchman. When he was the former head skills instructor at Toronto’s PEAC School for Elite Athletes from 2007-10, Quinn came across a young kid named Connor McDavid. Years later, when the Edmonton Oilers interviewed McDavid before drafting him No. 1 in 2015, they asked him about working with Quinn. “It’s a little bit of a different system,” McDavid told the suite of Oilers brass, “one that not a lot of people are using.” As McDavid enters his third season, pay special attention to how often he pushes pucks into open space to gain separation from defenders, like his absurd self-alley-oop Wednesday night against Carolina. That’s the product of PEP.

"Obviously Connor’s Connor for many reasons, but you can see some things he does with those crossovers in the neutral zone, those are exactly what PEP does," Domi says. "That’s his thing. It’s pretty cool when you see a guy like that, and obviously that stuff paid off for him."

Vegas Golden Knights Players Finding Familiarity in Their Brand New Settings

“They’re trying to teach you to put pucks through guys’ sticks, through guys’ legs and skate around them,” Hall says. “It’s really hard to stickhandle around players now. If you watch Connor, that’s what he does.”

It was Hall’s first summer working with Quinn. He was one of those players who laughed at the beginning, “missing the open lane, missing the one on the back, missing the circuit altogether,” Quinn recalls. “By the end of the summer, I’m looking over and saying, ‘That’s not the same player.’” 

Even McDavid, the NHL’s best player to many and second-best to even the most cynical souls, went through similar growing pains. (Granted, he was no older than 12.) One particular circuit demands skaters to employ what Quinn calls a “reactive linear backfoot crossover,” meaning that they’ll land on their back leg, and McDavid couldn’t quite nail the motion. Other kids wanted to move onto the next segment, but McDavid insisted on practicing until he learned it cold. Now, whenever he swings by the rink and sees Quinn working with kids, he smiles and says, “Any of them do the back foot, Joe?”