In 2011, Dr. Charles Czeisler was in Minnesota, waiting to give a lecture, when his phone rang. Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and the chief of the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, took the call -- and might have altered hockey history in the process.
The call came from Boston Bruins team physician Dr. Peter Asnis, who needed help heading into Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, which his team was playing in the following night against the Vancouver Canucks. Although he was unaware of it at the time, Czeisler was being dragged into a battle over sleep, with hockey's grandest prize at stake. Five years later, that battle has overtaken much of the sports world.
"He said, 'We've lost all the games out [in Vancouver] and won all the games in Boston, so maybe we're not doing something right,' " Czeisler remembered. "I said, 'Nothing like waiting until the last second.' "
Czeisler suggested that the Bruins prioritize their pregame nap before Game 7. But the time change would force the team to choose between a pregame nap and a morning skate. Could the Bruins really cancel practice the morning before one of the biggest games in franchise history?
"It's the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final. Have they not practiced enough?" Czeisler asked Asnis. "At what point are you actually ready?"
Asnis might have been late in contacting Czeisler, who has been studying the science of sleep since the 1970s. But his last-ditch effort to help the Bruins find their legs after a 3,000-mile trip paid off. Boston dominated Game 7 in Vancouver, winning 4-0 to win the franchise's first championship in 39 years.
Unbeknownst to Czeisler, the Bruins borrowed a page from their Cup finals opponents, who had been using sleep science for years. The Canucks' interest in sleep began in 2008 when they partnered with Fatigue Science, a Vancouver-area company that helps a variety of clients through their Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool (FAST), a proprietary wearable device that allows users to log their sleep patterns to optimize performance. The software algorithm used to map out a user's sleep schedule was partially developed by the United States Air Force.
"A big part of our business is fatigue risk management," said Jacob Fiedler, Fatigue Science's sales director. "Which is using the technology to very precisely evaluate an individual's fitness for duty. Whether they're flying a plane or a guy working in a mine driving a truck in the middle of the night. Our technology can quantify both sleep and fatigue impairment. So it can be used to mitigate the risks associated with that."
The Canucks were the first pro sports franchise to partner with Fatigue Sciences. But while the company assists clients in a variety of industries, sports has become a major part of its business. Today they work with roughly 40 teams in sports, ranging from hockey to football to basketball to Australian rules football. They worked with six NFL teams last season.
Vancouver approached Fatigue Science for the same reason the Portland Trail Blazers, another franchise based in the Pacific Northwest, first contacted Czeisler, in 2009.
The geographic location of these teams alone puts their players at a strategic disadvantage, forcing them to plow through the most grueling travel schedule in sports. Whereas the New York Rangers are located within 225 miles of five opposing teams, the Canucks' closest rival, the Calgary Flames, are 600 miles away.
"In the West Coast, we probably play in two, even three time zones on a road trip during the regular season," said Mike Potenza, the San Jose Sharks' strength and conditioning coordinator. "You never really get too used to it. Your physiological system is always getting moved around. So you have to help it."
San Jose's challenges balancing players' internal clocks, or circadian rhythms, were put to the test in 2010 when the Sharks started the season nine time zones away with two games in Stockholm, Sweden. They are being tested again in the playoffs now, having traveled to Nashville (two time zones away) in the second round and are now traveling to St. Louis (two time zones away) to face the Blues in the Western Conference finals. The Blues, conversely, faced the Chicago Blackhawks (same time zone) and the Dallas Stars (same time zone).
That meant working closely with Cheri Mah, clinical and translational research fellow with the University of California San Francisco human performance center. Mah has collaborated with a number of other pro teams, including the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, and helped lead a 2011 study with Stanford's men's basketball team that found more sleep helped players sprint faster and improved their free throw shooting by nine percent and 3-point shooting by 9.2 percent.
Additional research in the field also shows that sleep can help athletes become less emotionally volatile while improving physical performance, reaction time, visual field, judgment and even the ability to avoid and recover from injury.
"My thought process has expanded to what nutrients can help support sleep cycle," Potenza said. "What are we doing to guys who don't sleep really well? How is their environment? Do they need a better mattress? Are they taking Ambien?"
With Mah's help, Potenza instituted a number of changes. Special goggles were handed out to block out blue lights emitted from phones and other mobile devices. Tart cherry juice and chamomile tea with lavender became required bedtime drinking, along with magnesium and zinc supplements. Compression sleeves were used to help promote blood flow during sleep.
After introducing these changes, the Sharks made it to the 2011 Western Conference finals. They lost in five games to the Canucks, a team with a special sleep regimen that appeared to give them a strategic advantage until the Bruins called Czeisler.
Czeisler's work with the Bruins didn't extend beyond his advice for Game 7. But he earned a championship ring in 2013 when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. Before their championship run, the Red Sox collaborated extensively with Czeisler, who even had a special nap room built in Fenway Park.
"I worked with the team to address a number of sleep issues, give education to players and whatnot," Czeisler said. "I got to march in their parade and everything."