Sometime this month, either the Kings or Devils will win the Stanley Cup. They will then try to become the first team since the Red Wings (1998) to repeat as NHL champions. As the Bruins learned, it’s more difficult to win a second championship than a first one.
At some point in the 2012-13 season, the champions will encounter the Cup hangover. It is inevitable. To prepare, that club must reboot its collective mental approach just days after winning the Cup.
“They’ve got to give themselves a rest,’’ said Dr. Nicole Detling Miller, a member of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology. “They have to take a break mentally, step away from hockey, and do something they totally enjoy.
“Don’t talk to your teammates or coaches. Step away from it. Taking that mental freshness is something a lot of athletes fail to do. They don’t know how to do it or what it means.
“Go to the beach. Go to Hawaii. For other people, it’s hanging out with their kids. It’s completely leaving the sport behind for even a couple weeks.’’
Miller’s clients include athletes ranging from Olympic speedskaters to high school baseball players. Regardless of age or experience, her advice is the same following a championship season: unplug.
The Bruins were aware of the hangover phenomenon. They tried to install safeguards. During exit meetings, the bosses reminded the players to recuperate mentally as well as physically.
When the season started, coach Claude Julien introduced more rest days. Instead of traveling directly back to Boston after road games, the team sometimes remained overnight in visiting cities.
But the Bruins couldn’t escape the reality of the calendar. They won Game 7 of the Final on June 15, 2011. They partied upon their return to Boston. By the time their livers flushed out the last drops of celebratory booze, the Bruins were practically returning to Ristuccia Arena for training camp.
This is what the Kings or Devils will encounter during the greatest summer of their lives. Friends and family will fete the players when they hit their hometowns. They will have their day with the Cup. But even those celebrations don’t count as holidays.
“There’s a short window of ecstasy, excitement, and happiness,’’ Miller said. “Everything’s great. You have your day with the Cup. There’s parades, parties, celebrations.
“Once that’s over, there’s a period of letdown. You say, ‘Huh, now what?’ If you don’t take a mental vacation, it leads to staleness.
“When you start the next season, you might still have a little bit of a high. But as the season drags on and on, it’s difficult to sustain the excitement from the championship.’’
Perhaps the most significant fallout from a title is waning desire.
Miller separates athletes into three categories: wanting to win, not wanting to lose, hating to lose.
The latter, according to her, are the athletes who are usually the most successful.
“Everybody wants to win,’’ Miller said. “But typically teams that hate to lose are teams that end up winning championships. The ones that hate to lose are in the Hall of Fame.’’
Both the Kings and Devils would be wise to heed Miller’s advice, which includes the following:
■Establish personal goals before the season. Sometime this summer, maybe after the mental unplugging, each player should think about what he wants to do in 2012-13.
For Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who missed training camp because of a holdout, it may be submitting a consistent performance from start to finish. For Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, it could be recording his best save percentage. Those goals, Miller explains, re-engage players’ commitment.
■Set manageable goals during the season. The hangover will strike. When it does, players can’t think about winning to bust the slump. They must aim to achieve objectives within the game, whether it’s finishing checks, going to the net harder, or making a good first pass.
“Sometimes when you focus on winning, it feels like a completely impossible task, like a chore,’’ Miller said. “When it feels like that, you lose a lot of motivation and commitment. You’re going through the motions. You still want to win. But you don’t hate to lose.’’
■Rally around the leaders. On each championship team, there are go-to players whose passion burns the hottest. For the Bruins, they are Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron. Those players, Miller explains, establish the culture for the team. They keep the hatred of losing alive. Others fall in line.
“They understand that losing is part of the game,’’ Miller said. “They know, ‘Hey, we’re going to lose. But boy, do we hate it.’ ’’
■Set a mission statement. One of the baseball teams Miller consulted with recently agreed on the following: Whatever it takes.
Those three words underscored the emphasis of family and playing for your teammates. When the letdown strikes, returning to the mission statement reminds players of the fundamentals for success.
“It’s whatever it takes today to get better-quality at-bats,’’ said Miller. “To make sure your throws are on, that your fielding is clean. It’s those constant reminders of what it takes. It integrates people more within the culture.’’
IT STARTS AT HOME
Parents have a say in gear
As a father, I naturally purchase items for my children with safety as the primary factor in my decision. But when it comes to hockey equipment (thankfully, my wallet has been spared that expense so far), such an approach might not necessarily be best.
Instead of having gear that shields them in every possible scenario, kids might be safer with equipment that isn’t designed and built like armor.
“Most parents I’ve met, when they outfit their kids for any sport, look for the most protective piece of equipment,’’ said Brendan Shanahan, NHL senior vice president of player safety. “But I think there should be some outside-the-box thinking.
“All the other kids on the ice or the field might actually be safer if the pads are made of different material - if they’re smaller and lighter. They still adequately protect the vital organs. But they don’t excessively protect.’’
The NHL, NHL Players Association, and manufacturers regularly study equipment to make products safer. However, it’s not just the pros who can push for changes to gear.
Parents can make their voices heard by demanding better equipment for their children. They can do so with their wallets. They can sink their dollars into the safest stuff. Or they can pull their money out of hockey altogether and sign up their children for other sports.
“Parents’ associations are concerned about their kids,’’ said Philippe Dube, Reebok-CCM Hockey general manager. “Going into a game, they’re asking, ‘Is that a dangerous game? Should I put my kid into the game?’ It’s happening more and more. Most of the stake-holders in the sport are concerned about it.
“Everybody wants to improve the situation. It’s a physical sport. It’s the fastest team sport in the world. But at the same time, we have to make sure we protect our players and our kids.
“Thanks to the media and parents, this topic is here to stay for quite a while. That’s good. We have to make sure the sport is considered by the parents as a fun sport, an athletic sport, and a team sport.’’
Lidstrom was the real thing
During a conversation about defensemen making first passes, Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney ticked off a list of players who excelled at the maneuver. There was only one player Sweeney described with marvel in his voice: Nicklas Lidstrom.
Sweeney praised Lidstrom for the acumen with which he tracked down pucks, processed the available options, then hit the right player with the perfect tape-to-tape pass.
“Not fair,’’ Sweeney said of Lidstrom’s skills.
The uncanny thing about Lidstrom, who announced his retirement Thursday, is that he executed just about every other part of the game with similar efficiency.
Without his gear, Lidstrom looks like a civilian, more museum director than blue line legend. In that sense, he might be the primary example of how hockey sense can trump physical gifts.
Lidstrom retired as his generation’s best defenseman and an unparalleled hockey ambassador. Teammates and opponents often referred to him as a machine.
But as good as Lidstrom was on the blue line, he was an even better person off the ice. His big heart proves he is human after all.
Svedberg fills gap
Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning described Swedish goalie Niklas Svedberg as tall, quick, and competitive. The 22-year-old Svedberg will help fill the organization’s gap between Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin and draft picks Zane Gothberg and Lars Volden. As the Bruins learned when Rask (abdomen/groin) and Khudobin (wrist) were unavailable late in the regular season, you can never have enough goalies on the cusp of NHL play. If Svedberg can acclimate to North American hockey, the 6-foot-2-inch, 176-pound puck-stopper could become an NHLer. Side note: One of Svedberg’s Brynas teammates was defenseman Lars Jonsson. The Bruins picked Jonsson No. 7 overall in the 2000 draft but he never played a game for them. Some of the defensemen the Bruins could have picked instead: Brooks Orpik, Anton Volchenkov, Niklas Kronwall, and Paul Martin.
Market appears thin
In the last few years, the trend among general managers has been to extend players before they reach unrestricted free agency. The result is slim pickings come July 1, when the castoffs go looking for paychecks. Ryan Suter projects to be the best UFA defenseman this year. Detroit projects to be the strongest bidder for Suter, to replace Lidstrom. But Suter might not even reach free agency. Nashville could re-sign him or trade his negotiating rights. With little to choose from in free agency, the trade market could be more active. “The pool gets a little lighter every year,’’ said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “We’ve made pretty good hay in the trade market. I almost like the trade market more than the free agent market. [The draft] is a real sexy time to do it, because there’s picks involved. But it’s almost after that first layer of free agency that the trade activity can pick up. We’ll be in tune with that.’’
Svedberg was the second Swedish goalie to sign an NHL contract in May. The other was AIK’s Viktor Fasth, who got a one-year deal with Anaheim. The 29-year-old Fasth played in the Elite League for only two seasons, explaining why he has been under the radar during his development. Fasth should get a crack at backing up Jonas Hiller, Anaheim’s workhorse No. 1 goalie.
Knight jousted for Cup
Jared Knight, one of the Bruins’ two second-round picks in 2010, fell one game short of winning the Memorial Cup. Knight’s London club lost to Shawinigan in the title game last Sunday, 2-1. In 15 playoff games, Knight had four goals and four assists. Unless he blows the Bruins’ doors off in training camp, Knight will start his professional career in Providence this fall.
A shift for Hunwick?
Former Bruin Matt Hunwick will hit UFA status July 1, but the Avalanche have not ruled out re-signing him. The shifty defenseman, acquired from the Bruins for former Boston University defenseman Colby Cohen, couldn’t buy any ice time for stretches of 2011-12. But he dressed in 21 straight games to close out the season.
Bob Hartley, introduced as Flames coach Thursday, can count Marc Savard among his success stories. In Atlanta, Hartley helped turn Savard into a consistent point-per-game player. Without Hartley’s influence, Savard might not have been offered the four-year, $20 million contract by the Bruins in 2006 . . . Among the many priorities of Montreal GM Marc Bergevin: Get P.K. Subban back on track. That might fall more on the action plan of the new coach, but Bergevin can help Subban by accumulating more possible partners. Subban was at his best in 2010-11 while paired with reliable stay-at-homer Hal Gill. With Gill covering on the back end, Subban was free to roam, rush the puck, and apply his offensive gifts. Bergevin might have to go the trade route . . . Interesting to watch how often the Kings play D-to-D when starting their breakouts. The Bruins used to employ this strategy more often, which led to slow breakouts and stagnation in the neutral zone. This season, they improved at using the center, swinging down low, as the primary outlet. This gives the Bruins more speed through the neutral zone and over the offensive blue line . . . If you want to know the type of hockey Peter DeBoer likes, check out his Kitchener roster from 2002-03, when the Rangers won the Memorial Cup. Three of the New Jersey coach’s top players were Mike Richards, Gregory Campbell, and David Clarkson. Try playing a few shifts against those guys. More Advil, please.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.