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Patrick Johnston: NHL bubble life is true leadership challenge

PATRICK JOHNSTONMore from Patrick Johnston

Published:August 19, 2020

Updated:August 19, 2020 8:50 AM PDT

Inside the NHL bubble, players face a double-edged sword in managing their mental games.



Home may be where the heart is but when it came to trying to win the Stanley Cup, many NHL teams used to believe that was the last place they wanted their players to be.

On the way to their 1986 Cup, the Montreal Canadiens would have players stay over in a downtown hotel the night before a home game. The team would have an afternoon practice, then they’d have dinner together before heading to the hotel.

The Vancouver Canucks used to do the same thing. Most recently they did so during the 2011 Cup Final. When Lou Lamoriello ran the New Jersey Devils in the 1980s and ’90s sometimes he would have his teams stay at a hotel for weeks at a time.

The idea was to give players a break from home life, to let them get their brains wired in on the task at hand.

Asked about what challenges NHL teams might be facing in keeping up morale, now that they’re three weeks into bubble life, Ryan Walter thought of this old-time hotel policy that Habs management had long been following when he arrived in Montreal from Washington in 1982.

“Controlling your controllables,” said the former Montreal, Washington and Vancouver forward, who also served a stint as a Canucks’ assistant coach, and was president of the Abbotsford Heat.

“Obviously it meant you had a handle on nutrition the night before the game, though teams and players now are so much more on top of things like nutrition. They had better control over the sleep the player had the night before the game. A lot of us had babies, young families, that could keep us up at night. I always thought it was an interesting approach.”

Walter now works as a personal and business coach, and runs leadership retreats at his property on Thetis Island. Along with former junior hockey, NHL and national team coach Mike Johnston, he’s authored books on hockey coaching — the duo has a new book coming out soon called Shift, which deals with what Walter calls “future-positive” and “future-negative” thinking.

He sees a lot of potential positives inside the NHL’s bubbles in Edmonton — as the Canucks and the rest of the Western Conference are — or Toronto, home of the Eastern Conference series.

Some positives are rather mundane.

“It’s almost a little bit easier, you really have no distractions, there’s no people coming out of the woodwork, there’s no ticket (requests),” Canucks centre Jay Beagle said. “You get in a rhythm, it’s nice playing every other day.”

But others are much more emotional: Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher spoke last week of how important it’s been for him to be with his teammates so much as he grieves the death of his father.

“I thought that Stecher had a great point there, it’s really comforting for him to be around the guys,” Walter said. “And so there’s going to be safety in the bubble.”

But there’s also the reality that the players are mostly stuck in place. There are only so many activities on off-days, so much variety in meals. It’s like summer camp to a degree, but at least with summer camp you knew when you were going home. That’s the irony of bubble life: The more success you have, the longer your sentence. Winning keeps you fresh, but how long until monotony wears down even those positive vibes?

“I think we knew coming in it would be a challenge, especially for guys who have kids at home,” Canucks forward Brandon Sutter said.

At least he was fortunate to be able to drive to Vancouver from Alberta with his family for training camp and was able to go home at the end of the day to be with them.

“The guys from Europe or the U.S. I think have been here since June 26, for those guys you got to feel for them,” he said. “No question it’s tough.”

NHL teams travelled to Edmonton on July 26.

“I think everyone with a family just has to go through that, missing the loved-ones at home. You do what you can with FaceTime and Zoom, and all that. But it doesn’t seem to be enough,” said St. Louis Blues defenceman Carl Gunnarsson.

“It is something that most guys go through and we’ve just got to battle it out and know that they’re struggling at home to and having a hard time with that. It’s a tough situation, but as long as we’re here, we’ll just try to do the best we can.”

A team is already a bubble, Walter noted. The language a coach uses can go a long way in helping to buttress the players’ spirits.

“Leadership is intentional influence,” he said.

Players need to avoid negative thoughts about their own futures. Those thoughts can build-up to a catastrophic crescendo. Players need to avoid “receiving” these negative thoughts, to use Walter’s terminology, and avoid lazy thinking.

“When you receive a thought, it layers in your mind and it can become a practice,” he said. “There’s lazy thinking … when we have unproductive thoughts consistently and ruminate there and we live there, like, ‘Why am I missing shifts?’

“Laser thinking is when we’re focused on things in our future that we’re going to accomplish.”

That’s the challenge of the coaches currently. It’s also something the players can help each other out with too, certainly something they’re articulating themselves.

“Aristotle said, ‘Thoughts are causes.’ There’s our point that we’re talking about,” Walter added. “Most coaches are concerned with the energy of their team, the language of their team.”

That energy is about how the players interact with each other as well.

“We’re leaning on each other a little bit,” Sutter said. “We’ve got the guys around us to push us through … That’s been the most challenging part of that whole process.”

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