When Gardiner’s agent Ben Hankinson tweeted out his cheeky request this week he inadvertently spoke to a commodity as precious as oxygen to the minor league hockey player.
Never mind the agent. How does the young professional hockey player cultivate a quality that so often eludes men in general and young men in particular?
How can a young player watch colleagues with comparable skill levels earn millions while the prospect watches his best-before date grow closer with each day?
How does the minor-league player accept his circumstances while never being satisfied?
Here then are the five successful personality traits from people who know…NHL players.
“That’s the word,” said Korbinian Holzer, a 25-year-old defenceman who logged 142 Marlies games before finding his way to the Leafs’ blue line this season.
There is plenty of time for doubt in the minor leagues.
“Sometimes it would be easy to think that maybe they don’t want you or maybe you’re not in the right place,” said Holzer. “I experienced it myself. But you will get your chance if you keep playing well. People will notice. If you focus on your game you’ll be fine. You’ll be rewarded if you’ve been patient.”
Mike Kostka was never drafted into the NHL and worked for four organizations before playing his first big league game at 27. He is a Maple Leaf because he played well for Norfolk against the Marlies in last year’s Calder Cup final. “When you play professional hockey,” Kostka said, “someone is always watching.”
An ability to recognize doubt but foster realism.
Doubt, of course, is often grounded in fact. While most NHLers played in the American League, most American Leaguers never play in the NHL. The lives of players turn on the coin flip nature of injuries – theirs or someone else’s. Some players really are too slow, too small, too unskilled, too timid.
Doubt lives in every heart and absolute confidence exists only in retrospect.
Doubt, said the personable Kostka, comes with the turf. It is the first step toward resilience.
“It’s like anything else. You are going to go through dark times and you’ve got to go through them,” he said. “You’re better off if you can do that on your own because it will help you learn how to do that.”
A willingness to work toward the greater good.
The collaborative element of team play is delicate. Players can become embittered. Losses pile up and players aim to boost their own stats.
It takes dynamic internal leadership for a team to weather bad results. When a player talks about a great bunch of guys with whom he shares the dressing room, he is really talking about a culture of unselfishness and sacrifice.
“At the end of the day, these are your teammates and your brothers but they’re also your competition,” Kostka said. “On the best teams I’ve been on – last year when we won the championship in Norfolk and with the Marlies this year – that never became a factor.”
It sounds trite but it is nonetheless true; the best way to triumph over doubt is to be a good teammate. “If you stopped playing hard because no one was watching you would have never made it past midget AA,” said goalie Ben Scrivens who spent two and a half years with the Marlies. “You rely on your teammates. You rely on your friends in the room. It’s a mental battle at times but when you have a good team, a good group of guys, you want to compete hard for them.”
Humility. Coaches know things.
“I can remember playing in the Central Hockey league in 1976 and 1977 and having (future Leafs coach and Hall of Famer) Roger Neilson as the coach,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. “The things I had to change were brought to me by him. I thought I knew a lot more than I really did at that point of my life and there were things I had to change to prove to management I was worthy of the recall.”
Consider the road to the NHL taken by Leafs’ goalie James Reimer. He didn’t play organized hockey until he was 12. He was an afterthought, a fifth-round choice in the WHL midget draft by the Red Deer Rebels. Reimer was twice cut by the Rebels and won seven of 34 gamers in his rookie year in the Western League. He thought so little of his prospects that he didn’t attend the NHL entry draft where the Leafs selected him in the fourth round. Ten goalies were chosen ahead of him. He started out in the East Coast League with South Carolina and Reading.
“You have a goal of making the NHL or winning the Stanley Cup but you’ve got to have more of a desire and a passion to be good in the moment,” Reimer said. “I know that sounds like a cliché but if you keep thinking about the end goal, every little thing that happens, it just gets farther and farther away.”
For Reimer, having faith means religious faith. Secular faith goes by different words: optimism, resilience.
“If you go to the religious side, patience is a virtue that you want to have,” Reimer said. “If I’m meant to get to the NHL then I will get to the NHL. All I have to do is work hard and honour God by how I handle myself and by how hard I work. If he wants it, it will happen.”