It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, you can’t break it down on video.
But just because it’s elusive doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien often speaks about intangible qualities like character, poise and maturity. It might be simpler at this point to apply a catch-all term: This is a team that has developed a quiet sense of indomitability.
While it may seem unfathomable to many that a conference bottom-dweller from a year ago has managed to keep its nose ahead of the powerful Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins atop the standings for much of the season, it’s not that big a stretch for the men who are pulling it off.
“When we played well last year we played basically as well as we’re playing now, but when we were bad we were much worse than we are this year when we don’t play our best,” said forward Lars Eller.
A resurgence, then, whose hallmark is an even keel.
There are multiple explanations for the Habs’ new outlook: healthy veterans, organizational depth, the presence of Therrien and new general manager Marc Bergevin, the addition of rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, the ongoing development of young veterans like Eller, P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty.
But some of it doubtless has to do with a diminutive man who doesn’t wear a jersey and won’t be spotted behind the bench.
As the team’s sports psychology consultant, Sylvain Guimond deserves at least some of the credit for the play of young centres Eller and David Desharnais, to name just two players who say they have benefited from his counsel.
“The way he talks to you, the comparisons he’s able to make, it just made sense to me … he’s helped with confidence and putting the focus on the right things,” said Desharnais. “Mostly, it’s about creating reminders to not worry too much about negative things, sometimes you want to do the right things mentally and you think you are doing them, but you aren’t. He can help you see that.”
In the season’s early going, Eller was banished to the press box and challenged to play with more intensity – with the help of techniques learned from Guimond and a mental coach he works with in Sweden, he has responded by playing the best hockey of his young career.
“Every guy needs to be told something different. Some guys need to listen, some guys need to speak, some need to write things down,” the 23-year-old said after a game last week. “It’s helped my confidence, my belief in myself and my hunger to be better.”
While the Habs have worked with a sports psychologist for the better part of a decade, the difference this year is that the Montreal-based Guimond is around the team more regularly – he often attends practices – and has evidently developed a rapport with both the players and coaches. (Therrien reportedly got to know him as a television analyst with the French-language sports channel RDS, where both men were fixtures of the network’s flagship talk show.)
The team declined to make Guimond available for an interview, citing patient confidentiality.
It seems clear the players have a fondness for the man in charge of ensuring their mental focus, although that relationship hasn’t yet been tested by a lengthy losing string.
But if there was ever a stigma attached to consulting a head shrinker, there isn’t any more.
“Stuff can pile up in your head … no matter where you are in the lineup, or what kind of player you are you have certain pressures, sometimes it’s tough to deal with if you don’t know how to do it, how to work through things in your mind,” said winger Colby Armstrong. “[Guimond]’s a great guy, he’s been a great help to us.”