If you see Devan Dubnyk staring off into space before a game, know the Wild goaltender hasn't lost his mind. He's just focusing — literally focusing.
If it seems like he has fallen into a trance, he's actually exercising his eyes. First, he will focus on something far away, like the lettering on a teammate's stick. Then he will shift, focusing on something close, like his own fingerprint.
"Then you look up again and try to focus as quickly as you can on something far away," Dubnyk said. "Your eyes go in and out. It's like a warmup. They're muscles so you have to warm them up."
Dubnyk, 31, recognizes he is mortal and in the near future, his athleticism will deteriorate. If he wants to make a living as a goaltender for as long as possible, Dubnyk realized he has to do something to gain even the slightest edge.
Dubnyk thinks he found the answer — in his eyes.
"As you get older, you're not going to add a bunch of different athleticism or skill to your game," Dubnyk said. "You certainly continue to work on it and continue to stay sharp on it, but you have to find ways to continue to improve, and this is certainly one of them."
To improve his eyes, Dubnyk doesn't have to look too far — only to Edina, where a local company called True Focus Vision keeps his sight in line.
Focusing on True Focus
True Focus shares an office building with a few other businesses, and it is not some futuristic, clandestine facility that magically fixes eyesight that you might picture from a science fiction movie. Inside, it looks like an athletic training facility. There's an area to lift weights and artificial turf to hold workouts.
One of the few clues this place has something to do with eyesight is in an office — the T-shirt of owner Josh Tucker, a former goaltender and hockey coach. Tucker's shirt has an eyeball with arms that are flexing well-defined muscles.
Tucker, 36, took ownership of True Focus from its creator, Jim Nelson, who founded the company to help children better their reading ability by improving the tracking of their eyes. But the methods the company uses can also help athletes, especially in hockey, where the eyes have to allow a player to react quickly and focus on objects near and far in a short amount of time.
The logo is a comical way of driving home Tucker's point about True Focus' vision — which is to improve yours.
"A lot of people when they ask what I do, they don't know what it is," Tucker said. "Most people start with their 20/20 score and they say, 'All right, I've got 20-20 vision. I'm great.'
"But there's more to it than that."
The eye is contolled by muscles that people can train to improve, regardless of vision quality when reading an eye chart. Tucker said most of NHL clients — he said he has trained players on 12 different NHL teams — walk in the door with good vision. It's hard to play hockey and advance to the pros without it, he said. Dubnyk said he had "terrible" eyesight growing up but had two laser surgeries.
"As you get higher up and higher up, any weakness — your skating, your passing, your visual system, your strength — if you're not there, you'll get weeded out," Tucker said.
So his goal is to strengthen the eye muscles to react easier to the fast-pace NHL game. Dubnyk said that's essential, especially late in a game when other parts of the body may be worn out.
"You don't know what (part of your body) is going to be tired," Dubnyk said. "You try to do as much as you can, so you're as prepared as possible to play your best."
Working out the eyes
Tucker runs Dubnyk through a number of exercises. One is the lightboard, which isn't much different than Wack-a-Mole. The black lightboard is lined with dozens of small buttons that will randomly illuminate. "You just hit them with both of your hands as fast as you can," Dubnyk said.
Tucker tracks Dubnyk's reaction time and accuracy in various quadrants of the board to see where Dubnyk needs to improve. To make the task more difficult, a number may pop up in the center of the board, requiring Dubnyk to either say the number, or, if Tucker feels like punishing him that day, add the numbers together while hitting the buttons that light up. The purpose is to improve Dubnyk's periphery vision by having him focus on the center of the board and using his periphery to hit the buttons.
"It's fun (competition)," Dubyk said. "That's an important part of it, too — you want to work with somebody you enjoy working with."
A second exercise involves even more competition between Tucker and Dubnyk — with the addition of special glasses. Dubnyk will get in front of a net as if he's tending goal. Tucker will then fire tennis balls or racket balls from behind Dubnyk off a piece of wood, so Dubnyk doesn't know where the balls are headed until they hit the board in front of him.
"Once in a while I'll sneak one or two by him," Tucker said. "But once we go through this progression, I have to ice my shoulder when I'm done. I'm throwing so hard."
The catch is catching them while wearing special "shutter" and "strobe" glasses. The shutter glasses cut off Dubnyk's periphery, and make him follow the balls into his hands. The strobe glasses make the room seem like a nightclub, with everything in your sight blinking. This simulates a puck going through traffic — one moment it may disappear from Dubnyk's sight line, then re-appear.
"Very few people get the view that I do, where I get to watch him right here doing this," Tucker said. "There's an easiness about the way he moves in the net that makes things quite simple — the speed where his hand just goes and gets it — this like weight training for your eyes."
The difference is immediate.
"You increase the difficulty and at the end you take the goggles off, do it with nothing on and he'll be rifling the balls off there and you catch everything," Dubnyk said. "It's great to see that change."
Dubnyk doesn't get in to see Tucker as much as he did in the past. Last year, he was going "a couple times per month."
"It's hard when you got the growing family, the days off become important to spend time with them," Dubnyk said. "The nice thing is Josh gave me a bunch of stuff to use at home and in my hotel room to stay sharp."
Like what Dubnyk does to help his eyes converge and diverge more easily. At True Focus, Tucker has a series of slides that feature images, like a person riding a horse or bowling, shown twice and in different colors. The person viewing the slides tries to use his eyes to make the two duplicate images converge. Tucker then asks a series of questions about the new, melded image. After doing it for a while, the task gets easier.
This is what Dubnyk is doing when he is zoned out before a game — training his eyes to converge and diverge easier.
"Sidney Crosby might get a breakaway against you first shift. Is your body ready to do the splits? But also: are your eyes ready to make a fast save?" Tucker said. "Something like this, it's like a weighted bat. You do that and the bat feels light. You do this, now the ball seems slow or the puck seems slow."
It's hard to quantify how much this helps Dubnyk. They can track his reaction time, but it's hard to say how that improves his goaltending abilities. It's all about how Dubnyk feels, and he said he plays better when he's confident in his eyes.
"I'm not going to start telling you that hitting a lightboard is going to stop a puck for you. That's certainly not the case," Dubnyk said. "I think the most important thing is staying sharp, keeping your brain sharp as your career goes on. I'm just being honest, you get older and you have to work harder to stay sharp with everything."
His eyes are one thing Dubnyk can keep sharp, even if other skills begin to dull.