As we saw numerous times throughout these rather long-winded Stanley Cup Playoffs, when we play hockey there are no shortage of clutch moments. For me, and for many of us, we watch and we love hockey because of these moments. The moments that inspire us, the moments that get us up on our feet. It makes us cheer for people we’ve never met, wear hats and t-shirts and jerseys of our favorite teams, and creates life-long bonds with friends and family. We oftentimes come to idolize these players that show up in these moments.
Growing up in Minnesota, as the youngest of three children, I started playing hockey because my brother and sister did. I remember the first time I went on the ice. My dad brought me to the Super Rink in Blaine Minnesota, for open skate. I wore my brother’s old skates that were about three sizes too big, a yellow, blue and red snowsuit, and a bright yellow ski helmet. My dad fished out the old blue metal skating trainer, so that I could stay standing on the ice. We went around once or twice before I quickly refused to use the trainer any longer. From that day on, I was hooked. I went skating as often as I could.
Me, refusing to take off my hockey gear as a kid
My parents signed me up for mites, I wore my hockey gear almost every day in the house and in the neighborhood. (see picture) Clearly, as I am now 24, and about to begin my 3rd year of Professional hockey, the bug stuck. Hockey has brought me around the world, given me some of my best friendships and memories I have, and challenged me in more ways than I ever could imagine. Above all, hockey has allowed me a safe arena to face adversity, learn about resilience, and how to stay calm and perform in the difficult moments on the ice, and in life.
All sports create the opportunity for athletes to learn and grow their character in a safe and valuable way. Performing in the difficult and intense moments creates future leaders, better people, and more resilient human beings. Learning how to operate and “show-up” in the toughest parts of the game is a difficult and ominous task for any athlete, but there are many ways to prepare and practice so that when you hit the ice in the big OT game, you’re ready to have the extra edge.
There are intense moments at every level of the game, within every period, within every shift. I have been the player that is playing every other shift, and the player cheering for my teammates from the bench. No matter the role, at the end of the game, it is about the team winning, not the individual getting ice time. I’ve been the hero that scores the game-winning goal in playoffs, and the reason we lost the game. That is the double-sided sword when playing in those games; either side can win.
As I rose in the hockey world, from youth to high school to college and eventually professional hockey, my role has grown and adapted. I had some fantastic teammates in college that allowed me to have free reign offensively, so I was always in the rotation when we needed a goal at the end of the game. In the higher leagues, however, I’ve had to work on and compete to be more defensively sound, because the game has a lot more back and forth, so having great positioning in 3v3 overtime can be the difference maker in the game. For me, whether I am the player on the ice, or the one on the bench supporting my teammates, I have realized I am equally as heartbroken, or elated when the game ends. The most important thing I’ve learned in my years of hockey, is that the more I cared about the overall outcome of the game, and the good of the team, the better I performed. It’s not up to me if I’m going to play, but if the coach puts me out there, I will do the best I can for my teammates. I’ve learned to trust that the coach will make the right decisions in the game and put the best people out to succeed.
Becoming that player that scores the OT winner in the NCAA final doesn’t happen by luck. It doesn’t happen by sheerly hoping you will. Becoming that player takes a village. It oftentimes takes a great defensive play, a wonderful pass, and hard work by the players on the ice before to build that momentum to get you to that point. The game may seem like it’s played in these highlight reel, miniscule moments, but really the play develops seconds, even minutes before the goal. Learning that it takes every single player on the team to win a championship is the first step to becoming THE player. Being a great teammate and having coaches and players that believe in you, that want you to succeed as much as you want them to, is the ultimate way to grow into the player that shows up in the big moments.
Of course, hockey requires amazing amounts of preparation and practice. Skill transfers from off-ice practice to on-ice execution takes hours of repetition. We practice hard so that we can play the game, so that it becomes second nature. Incorporating games into practice plans that replicate real-game intensity can help to give great experience to players. It allows athletes to be competitive with each other, and for the coach to see which players rise to the challenge, even in practice.
Visualization is another fantastic way to prepare for the moments in the game. I remember in college; I went through a slump. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t score. I would hit multiple posts a game, I would stress myself out, and the pressure was building. One day, the assistant coach and I sat down to talk. She and I came up with a specific plan to help me relax during games. From then on, I’ve sewed a green triangle onto the inside of my left glove, which reminds me to reset and smile. Before games I would put on my headphones for about five minutes before I got my gear on, and listen to a pre-recorded voice memo of myself, describing a breakaway with a lot of sensory imagery, so when it happened in the game, I wouldn’t panic because I had done it before. It was incredible how much it helped me relax and not stress so much about the game. To this day, before every game I will close my eyes and visualize for a few minutes. Team USA practiced visualization to beat team Canada, by “watching” Poulin score against them. When she did in the gold medal game, they didn’t get down, because they had “seen” her do it before. It can be a wonderful tool and asset to incorporate into the game, so that when the time comes, you’ll have been there before. Reading the book Mind Gym by Gary Mack is one of the best things I’ve done for my mental game, and I recommend it to all of the young athletes I train and coach. It has a ton of incredible tips and exercises to practice visualization, positive mental thinking, and succeeding in the big moments.
I used to believe that my quality as a hockey player was completely reliant on how many goals I scored. As I grew up, I’ve learned that being a good teammate is incredibly more important. No one will remember how many points you had in your sophomore year of college second semester, but they will remember how you made them feel. Working hard, being dedicated, and doing everything you can to help yourself and your teammates succeed is the ultimate way to become the best player you can be. Hockey is an amazing sport because it demands every aspect of the human condition to be successful. It forces players to be graceful, powerful, fast, intelligent, emotional, reactive, calm, and controlled all within a matter of moments. It requires decision-making in the blink of an eye, laying out and sacrificing the body to block a shot, all while balancing on two thin blades. Oftentimes we forget how fundamentally sound a player must be, even to compete at the highest level. The game is filled with contradiction, which is what makes it incredible. The team with the most talent doesn’t always win, the player with the hardest shot isn’t always the advantage. Hockey has a way of leveling the playing field, and having so much variety, we can never get bored of it.
Even in the greatest moments of hockey, as a fan, coach, player, or parent, we all have seen the heartbreak of losing a game. Of being so close, and watching the puck slide into the back of your own net. We’ve seen the other team elated as they succeeded in your failure. Even in the heartbreak, however, we learn. We gain experience, we gain resilience. A hockey player never forgets. Its why teams try to trade for veterans in the NHL when they make a big playoff push. Having been there before, provides the experience that can be priceless in a Game 7. It allows the younger players to have a sense of calm on the bench, provided by the older, more experienced players. To be the player that is considered clutch, the Justin Williams, the Patrick Kane, takes time. It takes confidence, preparation, calm, and execution. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that being yourself and trusting your training and practice and teammates and coaches is the best way to be THE player in THE big moments. It means being happy for your teammate who is chosen to go out over you, it means knowing that the team comes before yourself. You have a whole bench filled with your friends and teammates that all want the same thing, to win. You know what to do, and you’d be amazed what taking a deep breath and playing your game will accomplish.