He told them about feeling hungry, thirsty, sleep-deprived and all three at the same time. The Washington Capitals couldn’t relate to the former special operations soldier who spoke to them before the season, but as he explained the mental resolve needed in those situations, a lesson from his experiences could be applicable to theirs.
“It’s all mental,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “The only way your body will stop is if your brain stops.”
“You have to train your brain,” forward Brooks Laich said.
“It was just reminding us that you always have to be ready for the situation,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You don’t get to be tired.”
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz wanted the message of mental strength to come across, and it did. How his team reacts under pressure and in adversity has been especially harped on in his second season with the Capitals. There are the specific practical applications of that: shaking off a poor first period, staying sharp in the second game of back-to-backs or rebounding well after a loss.
The team’s 11-4-1 start can be attributed to doing those things well, but there’s a greater end game: Trotz wants the Capitals to be mentally strong for the playoffs, where they’ve been infamously haunted by an inability to get past the second round.
“That’s our mental block,” Alzner said. “We need to get past that.”
Trotz regularly brought in speakers affiliated with the military when he was with the Nashville Predators, forming a relationship with Fort Campbell, and he continued the practice here.
Alzner said previous coaches had brought in speakers, too, but he has heard from more in less than two years playing for Trotz than he had in his entire career. The message is the same one Trotz and the coaching staff are relaying, but hearing it from a different source in a different fashion often has more of an effect.
Last season, when the Capitals had two games in two nights, they typically struggled in the second game, compiling a 3-6-1 record through January. Trotz thought the experience of a special operations soldier whose training often involves having to perform while fatigued could be applicable, so he brought in a speaker to make the connection.
Trotz doesn’t think playing on consecutive nights is as much of a physical challenge as it is a mental one because of how well teams are conditioned, and the speaker’s examples of past missions or intense training also provided a healthy dose of perspective.
“What are six games in a row?” Schmidt said. “That’s when I might start saying, ‘Eh, we’re about halfway to where he might be.’ ”
Through 16 games, Washington swept its first two sets of back-to-back games before losing Friday night at home to Calgary after beating the Flyers in Philadelphia the night before.
Washington will embark on back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday nights with a visit to Detroit and a home game against Dallas.
“It’s not hard,” Trotz said. “It’s just mental. Back-to-backs aren’t that hard. It’s just, how strong are you mentally? If you’re weak, you’re going to lose. If you’re strong, you’re going to win. Collectively, if you’ve got that focus, you’ll be fine.”
Laich said when he went home after the presentation, he raved to his fiancee and called it “one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life.” He and other players have stayed in touch with the former special operations soldier, starting a group text message with him.
“He’s become a special friend and sort of a secret weapon for us,” Laich said.
Emphasizing mental strength isn’t new for Washington. Last season, Trotz introduced the Capitals to Eric Hoffberg, a mental toughness coach, through team-building events. After coaching college hockey for 14 years, Hoffberg became a corporate coach and started a business teaching executives to become better leaders, though most of his clients now play hockey, including some Capitals.
Early in Trotz’s Washington tenure, Hoffberg shared a story with the Capitals about a Cherokee chief who tells his grandson that there are two wolves, one good, one evil, battling inside everyone. The boy asks, “Which wolf wins?” The grandfather responds, “The one that you feed.” That is the genesis of one of Trotz’s favorite sayings — “Feed the right wolf” — and inspired a special playoff T-shirt emblazoned with wolf eyes.
“The main thing that we’re working on is the ability to manage thought and energy under pressure and to be able to identify when we’re not doing that and then to be able to redirect from the spot,” Hoffberg said. “Trotzy’s not looking for perfection, but what I think he counts on in terms of the discussions that I lead is that guys can get better at managing things well.”
There’s the improved record in back-to-back games. Washington also has yet to suffer consecutive losses. The Capitals have given up the first goal in the past seven games, but they lost only three of those.
At the end of last season, after Washington had squandered a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Trotz talked about how the Capitals need to develop a killer instinct and get past their mental hurdles. He doesn’t want to repeat himself at the end of this campaign.
“I absolutely don’t want that pain that we had last year,” Trotz said. “I don’t want that again. It hurts. It still hurts today. You brought it up, and now I’m pissed off. I don’t want that pain anymore, and I don’t want our players to have that pain. We need to get things done, and it’s a long season — I understand that — but it’s a long season to get better. We can get better.”