Published November 20, 2014
Lacrosse has been cited by hockey players for decades as a way for them to improve their skills -- Joe Nieuwendyk and Adam Oates, among others, credit the sport for developing their outstanding faceoff skills.
Jeff Skinner, on the other hand, rode his figure skating experience to a 30-goal rookie season and an invitation to Las Vegas as a finalist for this year's Calder Trophy.
But playing the piano? How could that help a hockey player?
Tri-City Americans defenseman Zachary Yuen, No. 69 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft, played lacrosse and did figure skating, and said the skills and discipline he learned from tickling the ivories is just as important a reason he's developed into a top prospect for the 2011 Entry Draft.
"You're sitting there and doing piano for two hours and you've just got to keep focused," Yuen told NHL.com. "That's really helped me in my hockey."
Charles Yuen, Zachary's father, told NHL.com his son matched the rhythm of a piece of music with the rhythm of a hockey game.
"He told us when he was 8 years old hat the rhythm of the game he learned from the piano," he said. "He understood the timing -- you don't just go fast all the time, sometimes you have to slow down. It's a rhythm to the game."
It might not be conventional, but it's worked for the 6-foot, 205-pound blueliner. He had 8 goals and 24 assists in 72 games this past season, and his plus-41 rating led the team and was tied for eighth in the Western Hockey League, fourth-best among defensemen.
"He is full-on as focused a player, as dedicated as I've ever seen," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller told NHL.com. "The fact that he wants to be a hockey player so badly, he'll do -- and he does -- anything to achieve that. That's his greatest quality. He's a fierce defender he's an aggressive player, he's assertive, he doesn't back down. Those qualities are ingrained in him. A lot of times players will do their work off the ice and you're pushing them to bring it on the ice and he does both."
It's been a rapid ascent for Yuen, who was the Americans' first-round pick in the 2008 WHL draft. He played in four games in the 2008-09 season, and just 42 the following season.
"His 16-year-old season (2009-10), he wasn't a regular in our lineup until after Christmas," said Hiller. "He went through the growing pains. From January we played until May that year, and he was a top-four defenseman for us. There was an adjustment, but we saw him make huge strides. He added about 15 pounds of muscle this past summer going into this season. He just went from being a 16-year-old to a guy coming back strong and able to play those minutes for a 72-game schedule. The fact is he got bigger and stronger to handle all those minutes -- he played as many minutes as anyone on our team at 17. The physical strength was a big thing for him. … He was plus-41 and he played against every team's best every night."
"I was definitely more comfortable being a second-year guy," said Yuen. "You're used to what the WHL is and what the grind is. You're just used to it. It feels more comfortable."
He was comfortable regardless of the situation on the ice, and Hiller said there's no panic in Yuen's game. That's not a surprise, when you realize he's already experienced tremendous pressure of a different sort.
Yuen's ability on the piano wasn't just good. At age 13, his piano skills were good enough for him to earn a diploma from the London College of Music.
Said Yuen, who started playing the piano at age 5: "My goal was to finish that diploma, and I got it."
His final exam took place in a concert hall, with three judges flying from London to Yuen's hometown of Vancouver to watch him play.
"They sit there, three people, and adjudicate you," he said. "You play your songs. I think I played four or five (pieces). Also played scales."
Attaining a diploma from an elite international music school as a teenager isn't quite as special as the kid from the movie "Shine," but it's still pretty impressive.
In fact, there's a lot that's impressive about Yuen
"He's a very smart positional player with very good instincts," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "He moves the puck safely and smart. He's got good composure and never really panics under pressure. He'll follow up on the play at the proper times. He's a very good stay-at-home defenseman. He needs to improve his puck handling and pass the puck a little crisper. Smart players can always raise their level of play and I think he will be more of a take-charge defenseman next season."
Hiller said he's already seen that attitude in Yuen.
"He's got a lot of self-confidence," he said. "He wants to be in that situation. We talk about the piano, that probably also contributes to that self-confidence to what he's achieved in a different discipline. He's got tremendous confidence. He wants to be the guy out there. There's not a situation he can't take head on."
Hiller said the next step is Yuen improving his offensive game.
"He's established himself as an elite defender already," said Hiller. "I think that's going to be the strength of this game going forward. He does have some offensive potential. He moves pretty well, got some good agility with the puck. It's just evolving that offensive game and making better decisions with the puck when he has the chance to go. He can't get away from his defensive strengths, but an area of the game he can grow is his offensive game. There's more there than we've seen so far."
Hiller has no doubt Yuen will spend every possible moment of the offseason improving his game.
"The great thing with Zach is you know he's going to put his heart and soul into it," said Hiller. "He does work on it with extra ice sessions. I know during the summer it'll be a focus for him. That is an area, one skill he has to improve. But he'll dedicate himself to doing that."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK