Brooks Laich of Washington Capitals finds his hockey obsession can be blessing and burden


ARLINGTON, VA - NOVEMBER 19: Capitals' Brooks Laich tosses a pillow as he gets comfortable at his home after practice on November 19, 2013 in Arlington, Va. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)
November 28, 2013

The drum set is there, in the basement of Brooks Laich’s home, because something has to be. There is a dartboard on one wall, photos of celebrities across another, James Dean and Elvis and Katharine Hepburn, tantalizing with a cigarette. There is a pool table whose cover comes off only when folks are in from out of town. There is a marble-topped bar, unstocked. And there is — or will be — a home theater, as evidence by the wires hanging from the ceiling and the framework of a giant television stuck in the corner. Mostly, there is bare beige carpeting blending into bare beige walls.

There is hockey when he wakes up, checking out TSN on the flat-screen in his living room, digesting who did what the night before and how that might affect the Washington Capitals in the day to come. There is hockey at the rink, at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, less than three miles from where he rises. There is hockey again at night, whether the Caps play or not, because he likely will flip on something — Ducks vs. Stars, Jets vs. Sharks, X vs. Y — if he’s left to himself.

“I wake up in the morning,” Laich said, “and I want to play hockey.”

The drums and the sky-blue electric guitar, ear-splitting in an Arlington basement, aren’t so much distractions. “More a release,” Laich said. On practice days, when he has only the empty spaces of the afternoon to fill, he can head to the basement, slip his iPhone into a docking station, open up the strains of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” or Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” run the sound through speakers in the ceiling, and pound the skins or rip through chords for an hour at a time.

“How loud do you want it?” Laich asked one day last week, barefoot and in jeans, as he leaned over the amp he bought after he signed his first pro contract, a $1,000 gift to himself to help foster a hobby that separated him from hockey.

That has always been the difficulty for Brooks Laich: the separation. He has five bedrooms, five baths, a $27 million contract and one nagging obsession. His passion is his profession. For anyone, custodian or cook, that should be a blessing. But at 30, Laich has discovered it can also be a burden.

“I think my love for hockey has probably been my greatest strength,” Laich said, “but also my biggest weakness. It’s the reason why I’ve made it to where I am, and also it’s caused me a lot of, uh — distress? Is that the right word? A lot of angst and distress. A loss of sleep. Some frustration.”

His coach, Adam Oates, recognizes the issue. With some players, motivation is a problem. With Laich, the problem is flipped on its head.

“How can you tell a guy,” Oates asked, “to not be so dedicated?”

But he had to tell him. This season has not begun the way Laich would like, the way he is accustomed. Oates had to say something. Only then might Laich play better.

‘He’s a really driven guy’

One morning earlier this month, Laich poured himself his normal bowl of cereal — Special K or Cheerios, no sugar — at his house. He drove to the Capitals’ training complex for practice, another day in another season, his ninth full NHL campaign. There, Oates summoned him for a meeting. A Hall of Famer as a player, Oates believes one of the attributes he could bring as a coach was an acute and astute understanding of what players experience.

Last season, Laich played just nine games because of a groin injury that eventually led to surgery. He spent much of his time a continent away, in Vancouver, rehabbing with a specialist, apart from the team, alone in a hotel. “A lot of dark days,” he said. At times, he would go three or four days without answering his phone, because the simple and obvious question a caller might ask — “How ya’ doin’?” — could elicit a depressing answer.

“I felt bad for him,” Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. “Some guys you have to push to do the right things. We never had to do that with this guy. It was hard on him. We’re all like that. We love this life. We love the hockey life. It’s what we chose. When things are going well, there are a lot of great days. And when they’re not — you’re not playing well or you’re not playing — those nice sunny days can be gloomy.”

His return this season was supposed to be a boost to the entire lineup, given Laich’s history of being both durable and flexible — just four games missed in a five-year period, able to play on either wing or at center, an important part of the penalty-kill unit. But Oates, obsessive about his sticks when he played, wanted Laich to abandon the stick he had used for a dozen years in favor of one that differed in every aspect, all of which are important to hockey players: lie, flexibility, rocker, radius, curve. It would eventually, Oates believed, make Laich a better player.

Over the summer, too, Laich rebuilt the way he skated, changing the source of his power and explosiveness and, he believes, taking both short-term and long-term strain off his groin area and lower back. A couple of weeks ago, he stood in sneakers in the Capitals’ locker room and demonstrated the motion.

“You’re trying to load through your heel and your fourth toe and drive your hip,” he said, taking off.

An athlete who examines from which toe he extracts his power leaves little to chance, nothing undiscovered or unpondered. When Oates called Laich in to chat, Laich had gone seven games without a point. Twice a 20-goal scorer, four times a producer of more than 40 points, he didn’t have a single assist on the season.

These things ate at him at the rink. They ate at him on his drive home. They ate at him once he opened the door, because there is no one — no kids, no wife, no roommate, no dog — to greet him, no natural place to turn his attention. So his struggles could easily hop out of the passenger seat and follow him up the stairs, past the lone pumpkin marking the season, and into the foyer, kicking off their shoes and taking up residence on the couch.

Oates knew all that. His message: Chill out.

“Within the confines of the team, you always got to be careful that you don’t affect the other guys,” Oates said. “He’s a really driven guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But not everybody is the same. They measure their drive not the same way that he does.”

So one guy beating himself up in a corner could cause others to waver, regardless of the intent. It was something for Laich to think about, because hockey has so long dominated his life. Growing up in the southeastern Saskatchewan town of Wawota (population: 591), the son of a government worker and a schoolteacher who missed three days of work in 34 years, Laich wasn’t unlike many Canadian kids, spending the daylight hours skating outdoors, the darkness playing floor hockey in the basement, the NHL a dream. Or, rather, an insistence. When he was 12 or 13, his father would debate him on his plans for the future.

“What if the hockey thing doesn’t work out?” Harold Laich would ask his son. The answer was always the same.

“There is no Plan B,” Brooks would say. “I’m going to make it to the NHL. If I don’t get there, I’ll deal with it later.”

“After a while, after we had two or three of those discussions, we just sort of let it be,” Harold Laich said. “My answer always was, ‘I guess, Brooks, you’ll figure it out. You’ll figure it out, and you’ll do what’s best for yourself.’ ”

At maybe 13 or 14, his parents began driving him to a gym on the outskirts of town so he could lift weights a few times a week. He began on-ice training with a local man who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, hoping to improve his skating. His workout sessions now — be they in the offseason for six hours at a time, or lifting in the late-night hours after games — are legendary.

At 17, when Laich went off to play major junior hockey with the Moose Jaw Warriors, his focus sharpened. One or both of his parents still drove more than three hours each way to all his games, but he was, in a very real way, on his own, beginning his career. And if he really wanted to play in the NHL, why would he allow any form of temporary satisfaction — a girlfriend, buttered mashed potatoes, a television show instead of a workout — to get in the way?

“I didn’t want to be a guy who, at the age of 20, 21, 22, was a bubble guy that was being distracted away because he was missing a week of working out because he had to go to a girlfriend’s uncle’s wedding,” Laich said. “I didn’t want any excuses for why my life never turned out how I wanted. There were certain things that I had to do to make myself happy. And the personal stuff, I sort of maybe put it on the back burner until I made myself happy.”

So the groundwork goes back a decade or more. Hockey comes first. Hockey. Hockey hockey hockey.

Searching for balance

Last week, when the official portion of a practice had wrapped up at Kettler, Laich remained on the ice, working with Oates. The coach had noticed a couple of instances from the previous game against St. Louis in which Laich could have used a little move to serve the puck off the boards to himself, then push it up the ice. They worked in the corners. They skated against each other. They debated about how they liked to receive passes on their backhand side: Oates with one hand, Laich with two. While other Capitals fired pucks at the net or headed for the showers, two hockey junkies talked hockey.

This is where Laich works out what he needs to work out, where he scratches every hockey itch he can find. If he doesn’t take this time to control what he can control, then it will impact how he relates to people away from the rink. Recently, he went to a high-end Dupont Circle men’s shop to order custom-made suits. As the tailor fit him — precisely, eliminating even the slightest tug or pull — he couldn’t help but pay a compliment, because he admires such expert craftsmanship. It is how he wants his hockey: perfectly tailored.

“I find it tough to really be myself or to be relaxed when I haven’t made things right at the rink,” Laich said. “If things are right here, I can relax outside the rink and be a lot more calm, because I’m just by myself here [in Washington]. I don’t have a family and I don’t have kids. I don’t have people that depend on me at home waiting for me, people that don’t care what’s going on at the rink.”

The search for work-life balance is something Laich has begun to explore with his teammates, even as his work is his life. Defenseman John Erskine has mastered it, Laich believes. Forward Jason Chimera, with two young kids, excels too.

“I know for me,” Chimera said, “I became a much better hockey player when I became a dad.” Scoreless streak? His kids don’t care. Take a bad penalty? Read a bedtime story.

“For me, that’s an area that I have to work on, and I mean work on,” Laich said. “Like, it has to be a concentrated effort to balance that for me.”

Friday, with the Capitals hosting the Canadiens, Laich will wake up in Arlington and head to Kettler for morning skate. He’ll eat lunch at Kettler, return home, get in a nap, grab a banana, dress in a suit, and drive to Verizon Center, where his pregame bagel with peanut butter and honey awaits. The Capitals have played 25 games, approaching a third of a season, and he has six points: four goals and two assists. He has a minus-9 rating, on pace to be, by far, the worst numbers of his career, just as he thinks he should be peaking. Oates is trying to get Laich to divorce what his stat sheet says from how he is playing away from the puck, how he is improving as he becomes accustomed to the new stick.

“He might not see it, but I’ve seen it,” Oates said. “He’s already better, but he’s got to not measure success by production, because I want to coach the guy for five years. I don’t want to coach him for this week.”

Laich, though, has to live through it this week, then next. When will the goals come? When will the process be over? Maybe it will be March. Maybe April. But he still has to endure December, January. What will they bring, and where will he turn?

“I don’t think you can do anything about it until your life eventually evolves where there’s somebody involved in your life that takes precedence over some of the stuff that goes on at the rink,” Laich said.

Until then, there are the drums, there is the guitar. There is that Arlington basement, where hockey — and all the joy and misery it brings — can be put aside, even if only for an hour, and the music thumps through the amps, drowning everything else out.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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