Ex-BU professor has them psyched up

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / June 2, 2011

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — He tells them when to sleep, what to eat, and they are listening. The Vancouver Canucks are buying into a sports psychology program run by former Boston University professor Len Zaichkowsky, one that is unique to North American professional sports and goes far beyond traditional sports psychology.

“Essentially,’’ Zaichkowsky said. “I’m trying to bring a scientific approach to most everything we do in player preparation and player development.’’

Zaichkowsky, who spent 37 years at BU, has consulted with various teams, from the Terriers’ hockey team to the Spanish national soccer squad. He began consulting with the Canucks when general manager Mike Gillis joined the club, and moved into a full-time role as director of sports science a year ago.

Although he’s done this before, his work with the Canucks is far more comprehensive, moving beyond sports psychology. While the Canucks were readying for the Stanley Cup finals against the Bruins this week, Zaichkowsky was in Toronto, interviewing potential choices for the upcoming draft.

“I’m a psychologist for the Canucks, but my role is bigger in the sense that I’m trying to make sure that, for example, we’re using cutting-edge research to have the best nutrition program possible for a sport like hockey, a primarily anaerobic sport,’’ he said. “Making sure that we’re using the best strength and conditioning methods that are out there. Same with using technology to develop mental skills. So I’m trying to assimilate the best science that’s out there in the world.’’

Asked where he’s seen the biggest impact from Zaichkowsky, Canucks center Ryan Kesler smiled.

“Our record,’’ he said.

“He’s been good,’’ Kesler added. “He has some strategies that have helped a lot. He’s big on the sleep thing and learning when and how to rest. That’s been the biggest help.’’

That “sleep thing’’ or sleep monitoring program, as Zaichkowsky refers to it, has been particularly important for the Canucks, who log long distances and rarely play a road game close to home.

“It’s so huge in the recovery of athletes if you’re traveling,’’ Zaichkowsky said. “Just look at right now with the Canucks going to Boston, Boston coming [to Vancouver]. You’re changing time zones, you’re flying long distances, and the body takes a beating. It’s got to recover. That’s a thing that we’ve really emphasized more than anyone’s ever done in the past. We try to instill in the players the importance of getting sleep, wherever it might be, to help recover.’’

He started with the Canucks mostly in player development, working with younger players and aiding in the draft process. Gillis wanted him to do more, work with more players, and Zaichkowsky thought he could bring that scientific approach to the entire organization. He was hired full time, and has spent the last year educating and implementing his ideas and methods.

“We try to quantify everything, measure stuff as well as we can,’’ Zaichkowsky said. “There are some things that are hard to measure, but it’s hard to argue with the success of the team. You can’t make attributions to any one thing. I think it’s a lot of things, starting with getting good players and good coaches and then we try to add value in everything that we do, in preparation and in their playing.’’

Much of the work Zaichkowsky does is making sure players know “the importance of total preparation in both mind and body.’’ It’s something, he said, that is always talked about, but is not always done. It’s his job to change that.

He’s trying to create a new culture in Vancouver. It’s one that other franchises might start copying, especially if the Canucks continue to have the kind of success they have enjoyed this season.

“I think if we can have some success with the Canucks, I think others will jump aboard,’’ he said. “Word gets out. It’s going to be slow but sure, but I’m optimistic it will happen.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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