CALGARY, Alberta — The problem was the pressure.
Milan Lucic was worrying about the expectations and the money and the spotlight. He wanted to make sure he performed up to the zeros on the paychecks he was about to start receiving, and that overwhelmed him.
And overwhelmed and reeling, Lucic found he couldn’t play. His performance suffered. His mind suffered. He was benched.
That healthy scratch — and some healthy conversation with his coaches — proved the turning point, proved to be what the Bruins winger needed as he turned a disappointing regular season into a brilliant postseason, in which he matched his regular-season goal total with seven, and added 12 assists, in 22 games.
“You try to live up to this expectation of what your contract is and that starts weighing on you,” Lucic said. “You start putting unnecessary pressure on yourself instead of just going out there and worrying about playing.
“That’s where I got back to in the playoffs. Don’t worry about goals or assists or points, just worry about doing what you can do to help your team win. The goals and assists came with it. That’s where the meetings, talking about stuff like that, just put all that stuff back in perspective.”
Given that, Lucic should be expected to produce again this season. Even with the money and the expectations and the spotlight still upon him, Lucic seems confident that he has overcome that, that he has put those burdens behind him.
But what about the Olympics?
The 25-year-old cares deeply about representing his country in Sochi, Russia, in February, in what might be his — and possibly the NHL’s — last chance to participate. Lucic was invited to Team Canada’s orientation camp in 2010, and then wasn’t on the final roster, costing him a chance to win gold in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. That, he said, would have been a “special, special thing.” But to make an Olympic team at all would be “a dream come true.”
He was back again for orientation camp last week, along with Bruins teammates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and will have the Team Canada coaching staff — including Bruins coach Claude Julien — evaluating his play over the first couple of months of the NHL season.
“You’re here, so you obviously know that you have a chance to be on the team,” Lucic said. “I remember thinking a lot about it [in 2010], and what ended up happening is I got hurt. I missed basically the first three months of the season.
“But a lot of the focus was on just making this team, and I don’t think that should be the focus. I think the focus should be on being your best for the Boston Bruins, and if you get an opportunity to be an Olympian, that’s a huge bonus.”
Julien, for one, doesn’t appear worried. Not about the pressure of the Olympics. Not about Lucic.
“I think it’s a whole different thing with him,” Julien said. “I think last year he put pressure [on himself] because he couldn’t get himself going. There was a frustration of not being able to do what he can do so well for us. But he did that in the playoffs. At the end of the year he was the player he could be.
‘The focus should be on being your best for the Boston Bruins, and if you get an opportunity to be an Olympian, that’s a huge bonus.’
“So I think what he’s done is he’s built on that. Seeing him now, here at camp, he looks like he’s in excellent shape. He’s been working hard all summer.
“I predict he’s going to have a good start. If anything, this should motivate him to really have a good year. If he plays the way he did at the end of the year, he’s going to be in good shape and he’s going to make some of our decisions [about the Olympic team] really tough to make.”
At the moment, it appears Lucic might be a long shot to make Team Canada. His style and big body are generally regarded as not being a good fit for the bigger ice surface used in the Olympics. That’s a perception Lucic will be fighting in the coming months.
On that note, Julien said Lucic’s issue has been “having quick feet from the get-go.” Julien added that Team Canada plans on having its players keep their feet moving, stay away from staying still. The bigger problems for Lucic come when he’s not skating.
There were also questions about Lucic’s fitness after last season’s lockout ended, questions about whether that was the cause of his underperformance — with the winger scoring just seven goals and 20 assists (albeit in 46 games) after 26 goals and 35 assists the season before.
That doesn’t appear to be a concern anymore.
“I’m in a lot better shape than I was going into [last] year,” said Lucic, who added that he took just a week off after the Stanley Cup Final loss to the Blackhawks. “I was feeling really good, how I ended off on a personal note, and I wanted to keep that going.
“I went back to how I used to always train. I had some things that were kind of bothering me that weren’t allowing my body to train as hard as I used to. I rectified a couple of those problems, and it’s starting to feel better in the gym.”
While Lucic declined to be more specific, he seemed pleased that he’s been able to get past them.
And to get past the mental block that nearly killed his 2013 season. To fix that, he said, there were meetings. So many meetings. As Lucic put it, “a million.”
There was, he said, “a lot of honesty in a lot of them.” There was honesty on his part. But, he said, a lot more honesty on the part of his coaches, the people who were watching him struggle on the ice every day. The good news was there was also a lot of faith — in him, in his game.
They wanted to get back the winger who had earned that contract, and who was a vital part of the Bruins’ offense.
“One of my assistant coaches just said, ‘Let’s go back to playing reckless,’ ” Lucic said. “I think that’s what helped me the most.”
He responded, finally. And he believes that the response to those challenges, to that honesty, will continue, no matter what other pressures — the Olympic Games, for example — might come.
“I’m a positive-minded guy,” Lucic said. “So I try to focus more on the positives than the negatives. Obviously, team-wise it was a disappointment with how it ended. But personally, there were a lot of positives that I could take out of the way that I played in the playoffs.
“Sometimes you have to go through what I went through during the season — sometimes it lights that fire up again and you need that to rejuvenate yourself. I think that’s what happened last year. And hopefully I can start the way I ended last year.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.