Last October, a team of accomplished and competitive individuals started its mission. They spent their days doing their jobs and working out. They lived together in a bubble under constant watch. They completed the task successfully this June.
Would-be travelers to Mars have a lot in common with NHL players.
Someday, humans could fly to Mars. (Suspected Martian Ilya Bryzgalov, meanwhile, has already become one of us.) Experts believe the journey and visit could take three years. That is a long time in small spaces for astronauts to work and live together.
So on Oct. 15, 2014, when the Blackhawks played their third regular-season game, three men and three women entered a two-story dome on Mauna Loa, a Hawaiian volcano. The mission, known as the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), simulated a visit to Mars. The team members did not leave the habitat until June 13, two days before the Blackhawks beat the Lightning in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Nearly three months later, researchers are studying the data from the eight-month mission. So far, their findings have uncovered that a calculated team-building approach and good chemistry within the group were critical to the mission’s success. NHL general managers and coaches would not be surprised by such conclusions.
“You can have a group of highly competent individuals who are great at what they do,” said Dr. Wendy Bedwell, assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Florida and HI-SEAS research scientist specializing in term performance. “You can put them together and it may not work out so well. We’ve seen examples of that in sports, for sure.”
During the mission, six prospective astronauts (Jocelyn Dunn, Martha Lenio, Sophie Milam, Allen Mirkadyrov, Neil Sheibelhut, and Zak Wilson) worked and lived in isolation. The dome is approximately 1,300 square feet of open workspace. Only the bathroom and small sleeping quarters are available to be closed off. There were no secrets, just like everything is on the table for the 20-plus players who stuff themselves into the cubby called the TD Garden visiting dressing room.
The six team members could not call anyone. They could shower for eight minutes per week. Their external e-mails were delayed to replicate the communications lag between Mars and Earth. They exercised daily to simulate the required workouts that are required in space to retain muscle in reduced gravity. They had to wear spacesuits to step outside onto the lava fields.
During the mission, the team members worked on individual projects, such as 3-D printing, indoor gardening, and composting. But their team objective was to endure the eight months as guinea pigs.
“When they started having normal human interaction problems that can get exacerbated in this small, confined space, they turned it into a task,” Bedwell said. “They said, ‘This is our job. We’ll do our best to make this work.’ There are parallels with sports teams. You may not always get along with everybody all the time. But you have an overarching job to do.”
NHL players are not under such extreme restrictions. But like the HI-SEAS members, they are among the best in their fields. They are competitive. They are always under the observation of teammates, coaches, scouts, and fans. They have individual jobs — killing penalties, stopping pucks, quarterbacking the power play — within their push for team achievement.
Following are some of the HI-SEAS conclusions that could apply to hockey:
■ Each crew member had a defined role. But they did not occupy them for the entire mission. They rotated their jobs to allow teammates to understand their requirements. Their work improved. “The first person might have designed a science report,” said Bedwell. “The second person thought of ways to simplify it.” Coaches could give a first-line player a shift on the fourth line. That way, the first-liner would appreciate the grinder’s job. But he could also devise improvements the regular fourth-liner could adopt.
■ Debriefs were critical following important assignments. In prickly situations, communication led to comprehension and resolution. “Research suggests if you engage in debriefs that talk about what you just did and learn from it, you can improve performance up to 25 percent,” Bedwell said. Similar spikes could take place if coaches make immediate corrections and suggestions — on the bench after a play or in the dressing room during intermissions.
■ Orientation mattered. Before entering the habitat, the crew went through weeklong exercises for familiarization. This helped them start the mission smoothly. “They were exposed to one another and could develop a rapport with one another,” Bedwell said. “Getting people socialized before they’re in a performance environment helps.” This underscores the need for a productive training camp. Even preseason team-building exercises — the Bruins have traveled to Vermont at the end of previous camps — are important. Last year, the Bruins learned the hard way that bad things prior to entering the performance environment can manifest on the ice. The Bruins traded Johnny Boychuk the weekend before the season opener. It was difficult for them to recover.
■ Leadership is flexible. HI-SEAS designed Lenio as team commander. But it was important for Lenio, at times, to cede the reins to make the team stronger and keep morale high. “It’s the notion of shared leadership,” Bedwell said. “Depending on what the team is doing, different people will rise up in more of a leadership role based on functional expertise. We did see that occur over the mission.” This is why alternate captains and other veterans must complement the player wearing the “C.” Flexible leadership groups succeed because all voices are considered.
■ It’s unknown whether a strong group can influence a newcomer. The six members were selected carefully. If a negative person had entered the habitat, Bedwell does not know how such an attitude would have affected the group. “Is there a contagion effect? If you really believe in the values of the team and if you can sway another person to see the value of them, that’s what we’re really trying to understand right now,” Bedwell said. Every year at the trade deadline, GMs struggle over whether an acquisition with questionable character will fit into the room or make it poisonous. In 2012, former Predator Alexander Radulov returned to his NHL team after playing in the KHL. Nashville suspended Radulov in the second round of the playoffs against the Coyotes because he and teammate Andrei Kostitsyn broke curfew. The Predators lost to the Coyotes. Radulov was not re-signed.
■ Teamwork is more powerful than individual performance. HI-SEAS did not necessarily choose the six leaders in their respective fields. They tabbed six people who also scored well in the teamwork principle. “If you have people who don’t value teams or teamwork, that’s problematic. We know that,” Bedwell said. “That’s one thing we really try and screen for. If you get someone who doesn’t value teams or teamwork, there’s very little we can do to counter that. They tend to focus more on individual performance and less on the team itself.” GMs, therefore, can’t guarantee team success if they build their rosters solely on good players who are also selfish. Pucks get hogged. Coaches are tuned out. Goalies rip their defensemen instead of pumping them up.
Getting to Mars will be like winning the Stanley Cup. It will be a tough trick to pull off. But the payoff will be a once-in-a-lifetime reward.
Teams making inquiries on Kane
Five teams have inquired about acquiring Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. That clubs have asked about Kane’s availability amid a rape investigation is not surprising. Teams are always looking for bargains, which is what Kane would be.
That is why a trade, regardless of the investigation’s outcome, is unlikely.
Kane has not been charged. He may not ever be. As long as the investigation is active, Kane is in limbo. It would not be wise for an organization to cede assets when Kane’s future is unknown.
Even if Kane is not charged, his reputation is in question. EA Sports dropped Kane from the cover of its 2016 video game. The London Knights, the right wing’s junior team, had planned to dub one of its camp squads Team Kane. They decided against it.
The Blackhawks would be selling low. Anybody, from a GM to a hedge fund owner, will tell you it’s a lousy way to do business. Even before Kane’s issues arose, only a handful of organizations would have been in the market to take on the three-time Cup champion because of his salary.
Starting this season, Kane will carry an annual cap hit of $10.5 million. Most of the clubs that could afford to pay Kane are already near the cap ceiling. The teams that have enough cap space to assume Kane’s salary have room for a reason: Their budgets are not built to approach the ceiling.
Consider the Predators. GM David Poile is familiar with Kane from their time in the Olympics. Nashville is always looking for offense. But the Predators are a small-market team. They already have two big-ticket items in Shea Weber ($7,857,143 annually) and Pekka Rinne ($7 million). It would be difficult for them to take on a third high-end contract, unless the Blackhawks retain some of Kane’s salary. The Blackhawks are no in position to carry dead money.
Chicago is already up against the ceiling. It already had to trade Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp and say goodbye to Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, and Antoine Vermette. The Blackhawks have yet to re-sign valuable depth center Marcus Kruger. To do so, they’ll have to trade another player off their Cup roster. GM Stan Bowman has to watch every penny on his books.
If the Blackhawks declined to retain part of Kane’s salary, the trade return would be even lower. The Penguins didn’t have to say goodbye to any of their best prospects to bag Phil Kessel from the Maple Leafs. It’s a good bet that after this season, Joe Morrow will be the only original asset the Bruins will have left from the Tyler Seguin trade.
Moving star players is a big deal. The teams that let them go don’t usually make out well.
Plekanec’s age only drawback
In some ways, the Canadiens have an easy decision with Tomas Plekanec, who will be unrestricted after 2015-16. Last season, Plekanec scored 60 points (26 goals, 34 assists), his highest total since 70 in 2009-10. The center averaged 19:09 of ice time per game, second-most among team forwards after top-line left wing Max Pacioretty (19:23). Coach Michel Therrien uses Plekanec as a matchup center against top opponents. Plekanec rarely gets hurt (12 games missed over the last nine seasons).
One problem: Plekanec will turn 33 on Oct. 31.
The Canadiens can’t afford to let Plekanec walk. He and David Desharnais are the team’s top two centers. Alex Galchenyuk may develop into a center, but Therrien doesn’t trust him as a full-time pivot yet.
But the Canadiens also don’t want to lock themselves into a long-term contract that could hurt them in the future. So far, Plekanec hasn’t shown signs of wear. But there are not many centers who produce at a high level in their mid-to-late 30s, which is how old Plekanec will be given the extension he’s sure to be seeking.
Plekanec is carrying a $5 million annual cap hit. This will be his last chance at a long-term, big-bucks score. Initially, the Canadiens can afford Plekanec’s asking price. Carey Price is under contract through 2018. Pacioretty, a bargain at $4.5 million annually, won’t become unrestricted until 2019. P.K. Subban’s $9 million annual blockbuster doesn’t expire until 2022.
But the shorter the Canadiens can keep Plekanec’s term, the better off they’ll be. Ageless centers such as Joe Thornton (36) and Henrik Sedin (34) are the exception. Time has not been as kind to Vincent Lecavalier (35), Olli Jokinen (36), and David Legwand (35). Even the wondrous Pavel Datsyuk (37) was limited to 63 games last season because of declining health.
Jets set in goal
The crease competition in Winnipeg during camp will be excellent. Ex-UMass-Lowell goalie Connor Hellebuyck and fellow hot shot Eric Comrie will push Ondrej Pavelec and ex-Bruin Michael Hutchinson. The most likely scenario has Pavelec and Hutchinson returning as the varsity tandem. Hellebuyck, who went 28-22-5 with a 2.58 GAA and .921 save percentage as a first-year pro in 2014-15, should be the AHL ace again. Comrie will be Hellebuyck’s backup as an AHL rookie. The intention is to push Pavelec.
The skinny on Thornton
Shawn Thornton was listed at 217 pounds last season. The ex-Bruin is visibly leaner heading into 2015-16. With fewer opponents left to fight in the Eastern Conference, Thornton adjusted his nutrition and conditioning to drop the pounds he doesn’t need as much for grappling. Jared Boll is probably the only pure enforcer remaining in the East. The heavyweights are in the Pacific Division: John Scott (Arizona), Brian McGrattan (Anaheim), and Frazer McLaren (San Jose).
Keep on skating
Former Devils captain Bryce Salvador announced his retirement on Wednesday. Salvador played in 15 games last season and became an unrestricted free agent July 1. Salvador may have some company among his former New Jersey teammates. Martin Havlat, Michael Ryder, and Mark Fraser are without contracts . . . Carolina hired former Hurricane Ray Whitney on Monday as a pro scout. Whitney retired last season after appearing in 1,330 games, including 372 with Carolina. The franchise is quick to hire former Hurricanes, such as Rod Brind’Amour, Glen Wesley, and Cory Stillman. Ex-Hurricanes, including Aaron Ward, have settled in Raleigh and rave about the area for its cost of living and family-oriented feel . . . Cycling enthusiast Zdeno Chara did not travel to attend the Tour de France this season. Funny, I thought I saw him in the team time trial pulling the winning BMC boys to the line. With his size and power, Chara could create a draft the size of a wormhole.
Stars have aligned
A progressive rebuild in Dallas appears to be complete. The Stars, without a playoff series victory since 2008, have spent the past few offseasons adding the pieces necessary through trades and free agency to become a power again in the Western Conference.