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Milan Lucic's state-of-mind, Leafs' implosion prove mental side of sports is a massive influence on winning

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said Monday Boston winger Milan Lucic "wasn't in the right frame of mind" this season – and the struggles of Lucic (and the entire Leafs team, for that matter) prove how vital any athlete's mental approach is to their chances of success on the ice.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

In the wake of the Bruins' shocking fall out of a playoff spot, GM Peter Chiarelli shared this tidbit of information that won't please Bruins fans:

The idea that any player – let alone one like Lucic, whose game is predicated on physical aggression – could have their performance waylaid by mental struggles is one regularly derided by some fans who believe multi-million-dollar salaries are a panacea for all athletes. If only it were that easy. If only an NHLer could strap on horse blinders and focus solely on the task at hand, the Stanley Cup would go to the team that had the most talent every season.

But these guys aren't robots. Nothing is guaranteed with any player. And you don't just have to take Chiarelli (or Lucic) at their word to see how what happens between the ears has a direct effect on what happens between two ends of a hockey rink. The evidence of it is all around.

The evidence is there in Toronto, where Maple Leafs players pulled a giant blue-and-white chute on the 2014-15 campaign in about as transparent a manner as I've ever seen. From mid-December on, the Leafs made a routine out of pulling up in corners to avoid hits, fading fast soon after they trailed an opponent, and showing none of the joy for the game team president Brendan Shanahan spoke of Monday at his post-slew-of-firings press conference. This is why this particular edition of the team was so dislikable: Toronto has seen more than its share of not-good-enoughers and just-missed-it-agains, but for the most part, previous Leafs squads showed some sort of effort and personal pride. I'm not saying it had to be easy coming to the arena every day knowing management was about to embark on a major rebuild, but you can still be prepared to give it your all, and the Buds were rarely, if ever prepared for that.

Contrast the situation in Toronto with the one in Calgary. Nobody is going to argue the Flames benefit from revolutionary and proprietary coaching tactics, nor will they accuse them of having the most skill and size of any NHL team. But it is a joy for Flames players to come to work this year. You can see they want to play well not for themselves, but for one another. That's why, when the predictions rolled in and only TSN's Aaron Ward had them making the playoffs, it didn't matter. That's why, when Mark Giordano was sidelined for the season by a torn biceps tendon in late February, they didn't fold like a Gap employee and allow their strong start to disappear into the ether.

A strong work environment is an invisible safety net for the falls almost every team goes through at one point or another every season. It's for this reason modern teams know the days of the one-speed-only authoritarian head coach are long gone, and why bench bosses are tasked with weaving the assorted personalities into a championship tapestry as much as they are to figure out an advantageous Xs-and-Os system on the ice. Is there any better example this year than the Vancouver Canucks? John Tortorella was a total disaster behind the bench for that franchise last season, an old-school throwback Vancouver fans realized needed to be thrown back a.s.a.p. His replacement, Willie Desjardins, has a degree in social work. And although some changes were made to the roster between last year and this season, Desjardins took more or less the same group from the third-worst team in the Western Conference and made it into the fourth-best team in the West this year.

Belief in yourself, your teammates and your team's plans to win – genuine belief, not the awful, empty cliches about winning all athletes learn at an early age – is as crucial an element as there is in any championship blueprint. When you have a letdown in one of those areas, as Lucic did all season, and as the entire Leafs team did for their final 50 games of the year, you're going to be mincemeat for the franchises who do have their collective mental game operating at peak capacity.

And when things are going well for you on the mental front, there aren't too many obstacles you can't get around or through.


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