Connor McDavid is a preternaturally gifted hockey player, but a slick move he made during last spring's NHL playoffs left even his biggest fans gasping in awe.
The Edmonton Oilers star stole the puck deep in the Anaheim end from Ducks defenceman Sami Vatanen, raced out toward the blueline to elude Vatanen, then suddenly reversed course at high speed and ripped a laser shot into the far top corner of the net. Boom.
It was one of the top moments of the NHL postseason and left fans asking, "How did he do that?" Turns out, McDavid had practised that exact move for years, with the help of a training system called PEP.
PEP, the Power Edge Pro on-ice player-development program, helps train players in skating patterns that sharpen skills such as speed, acceleration, balance, agility and quickness. McDavid was a pioneer of the training system, in which players develop puck-control skills by skating through an on-ice obstacle course.
On a recent weekday in Toronto, McDavid and several other NHL stars showed off their skills at an arena in Downsview Park.
In front of a crowd of gaping onlookers at a hockey camp, McDavid stepped on the ice, gathered the puck and, at full speed, nimbly skated his way around the obstacle course, sliding the puck around, under and sometimes over the low barriers that dotted the ice.
Taking passes from on-ice assistants, McDavid made numerous tight, knee-buckling turns to negotiate the course and fired a wicked shot at the goalie.
It is a scene that McDavid and his NHL colleagues repeated over the next 90 minutes until they trooped off the ice, sweat drenched and happy.
PEP was developed by Joe Quinn, a Toronto-area hockey instructor and former minor-league coach who has been an on-ice tutor of McDavid since he was nine years old.
Back then, PEP was just a growing idea in Quinn's mind when he used to throw pieces of lumber on the ice along with old tires for the players to interact with. Now, the moulded-plastic devices are about four-feet long by six-inches high, and resemble a large sideways 'C'.
And his program seems to be taking hold, with a big thumbs-up from McDavid, the winner of the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer this past season and the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
"It's very tough," the 20-year-old Oilers captain said about PEP following his workout at Toronto's Scotiabank Pond. "You've got to do a lot of stuff, moving at a good pace with not a lot of space. And you definitely have to use your head. There's a lot of stuff going on on the ice at the same time, a lot of other bodies moving around. It definitely tests that side as well.
"It's a lot of edge work, doing everything fast," continued McDavid, who has an endorsement deal with PEP. "Everything in this game happens so fast and everything is kind of in tight and in piles. This program kind of helps with that."
And judging by the number of NHL stars who joined McDavid in a three-day camp to demonstrate the training program, PEP is gaining a lot of converts.
The skaters included John Tavares of the New York Islanders, Jason Spezza of the Dallas Stars, Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils, Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, Max Domi of the Arizona Coyotes and Connor Brown of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tavares, an elite offensive force and a five-time all-star, said he first started using the PEP system as part of his training routine last year. The 26-year-old said he feels it is still helping him develop his game, even with eight NHL seasons behind him.
"It's a great program that really challenges you to get outside your comfort zone," Tavares said. "And I think, as a player, I'm always trying to find ways to get better and challenge yourself, get yourself into areas where it doesn't feel easy. Certainly, with the stick handling and the puck work, combined with the edge work and creating space by moving your feet, that's certainly something I feel is very important.
"In today's game, trying to gain any type of advantage, any type of space is crucial to be able to create plays and create offence. Those are key areas that really helps me."
Dylan Larkin, the fine young centre with the Detroit Red Wings who was an NHL all-star in his rookie season two years ago, said he discovered the program earlier this year.
"I love it," he said. "My first impression, you get pissed off at first with all those barriers getting in the way of the puck. But as you do it more and more you find you are not looking down at the puck as much, your moves are a little bit more fluid, and you feel better going down the ice."
Players seem to enjoy the training, which takes the old skate-around-orange-pylons activity to another level.
All the tight crossovers and pin-point puck control has evolved into what Quinn coined as "reactive countering training," a term he has trademarked and is the focal point that drives the PEP system.
"You're overloading their motor skills 100 per cent because they've got to move pucks through open lanes at full speed and maintain body position," Quinn said.
Quinn said he does not expect PEP to replace the need for practice.
"But if you incorporate it just once a week into the team's regular training this really gives the players a bit of a break," Quinn said.
And according to Quinn, business is booming throughout Canada and into the United States. He said many of the top teams in the CHL are converts, including the WHL's Regina Pats and Brandon Wheat Kings and the OHL's Erie Otters, McDavid's former junior team.
And he said interest is growing in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit and the Nashville Predators all having used the program, which also carries a video component that can be downloaded on an iPad for classroom study. Costs for major-league teams varies, but Quinn said minor-league hockey organizations are charged $77 for each player who steps on the ice.
"It's different, fun and the players have fun doing it."