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Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher has a word with his players as they face the Montreal Canadiens during third period NHL hockey action Wednesday, October 13, 2010 in Montreal. The Lightning beat the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson (Paul Chiasson)
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher has a word with his players as they face the Montreal Canadiens during third period NHL hockey action Wednesday, October 13, 2010 in Montreal. The Lightning beat the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson (Paul Chiasson)

NHL Weekend

Rethinking the game Add to ...

In Quebec's big-screen beer league spoof Les Boys, one of the characters is constantly banging on about " la dureté du mental" (hardness of the mind) - another case of art imitating life.

Or more specifically, film imitating pro sports.

Take Montreal Canadiens defenceman Ryan O'Byrne, who spent a healthy portion of the off-season working on the mental side of his game using techniques more common among Olympic athletes and golfers, those who compete in individual sports (such as gold-medal moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, a fan of using visualization and keywords to focus his attention - his mantra: "consistent confidence").

"It's something I've made a point of working on, particularly in the summer," O'Byrne said recently. "Confidence is everything at this level."

It's a testament to his effort to bulk up between the ears that O'Byrne, who played the best hockey of his career early last season but couldn't recapture it after returning from a knee injury, can now joke about the infamous occasion he scored on his own net on a delayed penalty.

Like many NHL teams, the Canadiens have a sports psychologist on retainer (so do the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes, among a dozen or so others).

But it's not just about individual players turning to more formal mental preparation programs.

One of the main selling points for rookie Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher is his master degree in sports psychology - the 39-year-old also studied biosystems engineering and history at McGill University.

John Brophy, he ain't.

Boucher likes to say that he coaches 23 individuals, not a team - he researches his players in minute detail and tailors his approach to their profiles.

"Everything he says, he's thought about," Lightning centre Steven Stamkos said.

Unlike many old-school coaches, Boucher is big on individual meetings, and renovated the Lightning locker room to make it all but impossible for players to enter and leave without passing by his office.

Tampa's players have clearly bought in to Boucher's novel ways. Veteran forward Simon Gagné went so far last week as to suggest his innovations and high-voltage intensity could launch a revolution in NHL coaching.

It's a little early for that kind of talk, but the early reviews are raves.

Legendary bench bosses such as Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour were known to exert psychological pressure on their squads, but they didn't have the benefit of advanced degrees in how athletes think.

And Boucher's approach - former players describe him as a benevolent taskmaster - also seems to borrow liberally from the "nudge" theory of behavioural economics.

"He's trying to change players' habits and the way they do things - he always says you can't do things the same way you always did and expect different results ," said Canadiens winger Mathieu Darche, who played for Boucher last year in the AHL and has been pals with him for 20 years. (Boucher went to junior college with Darche's older sister.) "I've never seen a coach who spends more time preparing, how he deals with players is part of that. He thinks as much about the top scorer as he does the healthy scratches."

That NHL teams are working with psychologists is nothing new - the Calgary Flames hired their first mental performance consultant 30 years ago.

And there is still plenty of eye-rolling among players and executives when the subject of mental performance is raised.

But what may well be changing is the way players and franchises approach their mental preparation in what remains a hidebound, tradition-conscious, tough guy culture.

If Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Dave King - the Guy Boucher of his time when he took over the Flames in the 1990s - met with considerable resistance from key veterans 15 years ago, the game has since evolved.

Michael Cammalleri, a voracious reader of mental preparation and motivation books, likens it to the attitudinal shift that toward off-ice workouts and nutrition.

"At first, no one was really doing it, and then as guys start to do it they feel like they're getting a competitive edge and no one wants to give it up," the Canadiens forward said.

But this is hockey, a sport that isn't renowned for being an early-adopter when it comes to fancy new theories.

"I think there's still a lot of people who don't believe in it. Maybe that's their mental preparation: not believing in mental preparation," Cammalleri said. "It's an individual thing, whatever works for you."

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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