If you build it, they will score

From 20 years ago when Felix Potvin and Damian Rhodes were stopping a young Teemu Selanne all the way until Alexander Burmistrov scored out of the box, Winnipeg and Toronto always play each other hard.

The start of the season brings 82 games of unknowns for every NHL player. For Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets, beyond the big ones—what kind of season is the team going to have? What kind of season am I going to have?—there were some niggling ones, too. Such as: Is this new stuff going to work?

He didn’t have to wait long. At the 5:26 mark of the second period in the Jets’ season opener against the Boston Bruins, Scheifele gathered a tidy drop pass from Dustin Byfuglien and in a single subtle sweeping motion tore a wrist shot from the top of the right faceoff circle over the blocker of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rusk, who didn’t move until he glanced over his right shoulder to confirm what he already suspected.

The next night, Scheifele used the same motion—starting with the puck set outside his body before pulling it in close to his skates then letting it go—to score against the New Jersey Devils on a laser from the top of the left faceoff circle. In game three, Scheifele scored from the slot against the New York Islanders after receiving the puck at a virtual standstill.

Three shots, three spots, all perfect.

Miles away, watching the highlights, Darryl Belfry was nodding in approval. To the untrained eye, Scheifele looked like an elite NHL player doing what elite NHL players are supposed to do. But Belfry saw the puzzle pieces of a young player’s game coming together, thanks in part to work done in the summer under his careful watch.

The 42-year-old from Ridgeway, Ont., is a former goaltender whose undistinguished playing career ended before it could register on Hockeydb.com. And yet he’s carved out a career for himself as a hockey whisperer to the stars. When the likes of John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Matt Duchene have maxed out their fitness, skating and puckhandling, they come to Belfry to figure out how to apply their skills in ways they might not have thought about, or to massage existing skills in search of three- or five-percent gains—the difference between good and great.

“In the NHL, it’s not that the top player in the league is a million times better than everyone else,” says Scheifele, the No. 7 pick in 2012 who was introduced to Belfry by teammate Andrew Ladd. “So you’re always looking for that edge, whether it’s in the gym or on the ice. No matter what it is, the smallest things make the biggest difference.”

At first it seems incongruous—what more can the best in the world possibly learn about making plays with the puck? And how can you teach what most believe comes naturally? And why would they turn to a former goalie with no competitive hockey pedigree to teach them?

It’s because Belfry has mastered the art of explaining the unexplainable. “Once you get to work with the best players, one advantage you have is they’re all driven to be the best. They want to max out,” he says. “They have a burning desire to find new pathways to be more effective. What I offer them is an unbiased view of their game, which illustrates areas of opportunity.”

Belfry got his start as a 19-year-old teaching skills sessions with nine-year-olds in the Niagara region. One of them was Nathan Horton (who went on to score 203 NHL goals), and Belfry quickly realized he’d need to keep learning in order to keep challenging the gifted youngster. He’d videotape Hockey Night in Canada and painstakingly deconstruct the moves and patterns the best players used.

He’d then figure out ways to explain them to kids. As the kids improved, word spread, and over time, Belfry became one of the most in-demand instructors in the sport. The Toronto Maple Leafs hired him last year as a player-development consultant to work with their young athletes, although he keeps working with other clients. His Twitter feed is a must-follow as he routinely breaks down, frame by frame, the intricacies of highlight-reel goals and clever defensive plays alike, revealing the building blocks of hockey genius.

It’s cutting-edge stuff. Before working with a player, Belfry will create an analytical profile of his game, shift by shift. By the time he’s done, he knows more about how the guy plays than the guy in the sweater does: Where he touches the puck—not to mention how often and to what effect—and what adjustments he needs to make to get better results.

“It’s not like I say, ‘Hey, if you added a quick-release shot you’d score more goals,’” says Belfry. “It’s more like, ‘Do you realize you get a large percentage of your shots from this area of the ice and you don’t score on X percent of them? Maybe there’s a different shot you can shoot here. Maybe there’s a new approach—let’s back it up a few steps. There’s a pattern you have that is generating shots, but it’s not getting results. What can we do?’”

For a player like Scheifele, it’s music to the ears. One of the ironies of playing in the NHL is that there is very little time to work on your game. For that reason, summers are precious, and for the second off-season in a row, Scheifele made time to spend with Belfry alone on a sheet of ice, a video camera recording his every move.

If your image of a hockey coach is all spittle, screaming and bag skating, Belfry’s approach turns the stereotype inside out. Think of a PGA Tour player working quietly at the far end of the practice range, deliberately pursuing perfection, and then imagine that on ice.

Watch one of their sessions and you’ll see Belfry quietly explain what he wants Scheifele to do, demonstrate it and then let Scheifele try. After a few repetitions, they gather at the video camera, watch the drill in slow motion, look for things to correct and repeat. The adjustments are subtle—changing a release point by a few inches or altering the angle of a skate blade before the shot—but when trying to pick a two-inch slot over a goalie’s shoulder at game speed, every detail matters.

“It’s how specific he is,” says Scheifele about what sold him on Belfry. “He’d point out things I could do differently, and I’d be like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never thought about it that way.’ It’s so cool to see how he thinks about the game—it’s incredible.”

Belfry says his goal is to have those who collaborate with him play in a state of “expectancy”—knowing where their opportunities will come from and having a strategy to execute when they do.

Put another way, Belfry’s goal is to impart the most important skill of all: belief.

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