Creatures Of Habit
When Nino Niederreiter arrives at the rink prior to every game, he takes a few moments for himself. He grabs his sticks, some tape, two bananas, and heads up into the stands. He walks up to row 15, moves to the middle of the row, sits down and tends to his sticks.
It’s not a superstition; it’s a routine.
“Usually as soon as I get to the rink I take a shower and go right up in the stands,” Niederreiter said. “I started it in Portland when I played in the (Western Hockey League). Ever since then when I get to the rink I like to be with the team obviously, but there’s always a certain time before the game that I want by myself, to focus on things and focus on myself a little bit.”
Every game he makes sure to plop down in row 15, right in the middle. That’s the way he likes it — with plenty of rows in front of him and behind him, and the rest of the rink stretching out around him. The first time he chose the spot in preseason, it felt good and he’s kept it that way ever since.
For Charlie Coyle, those quiet, individually focused moments are reserved for when he is getting dressed. Otherwise he just wants to keep things loose.
“If I find myself getting too detailed and stuff, I try to get away from it,” Coyle said.
When it comes to pregame routines, “loose” is a term that is casually thrown about like money in a high stakes poker game.
Whether it’s getting the muscles warmed up and ready for 60 minutes of action, or keeping oneself emotionally and mentally in check, keeping things light is a key part of the pregame process.
“In junior we had a whole team stretch and it was all organized,” Marco Scandella said. “It wasn’t my style. I like to get loose before the game and focus on the game. You’re a hockey player, you know what you have to do out there. I just like to do my own thing and play with the guys and have some fun.”
Come game day, each player has his routine. Most of them consist of some sort of down time during the day, a pregame meal — normally with teammates — a nap, warming up at the rink, taping sticks and, finally, getting dressed for the game.
Some guys have a unique twist to their day or little things that must be done or it won’t feel right. For Niederreiter it’s those moments in the stands. For Scandella, it’s two pieces of spearmint gum before the soccer game.
“I’m not someone who is super, superstitious,” Scandella said. “But I have a little bit of superstition in me. I’ll always go play soccer and take two gums. I don’t know why two, but it’s important to me.”
No matter what, a handful of players come together after the team’s pregame meeting for a little game of two-touch.
The rules are simple: you can only touch the ball twice, don’t let it hit the ground or you’re out and try your best to get other people out.
“Some guys get a little carried away with it,” Coyle said. “There’s a lot of complaining and stuff when guys get out and they think they shouldn’t have. It’s all in good fun. It’s a good warmup too. Everyone is moving. It gets your legs and hips going. Everyone has a blast doing it. There’s always a lot of laughs, just to stay light for a little bit and not too serious before the game.”
It doesn’t matter who wins, though a few wins on a given night can mean good karma for the night’s contest.
“We don’t keep track or anything, but I think it helps the confidence,” Coyle said. “If I win two or three games that day, I’m going into the game feeling pretty good. But if I’m the first guy out like three times, I’m going to have a bad game and I know it. No I don’t try to think of it that way. But some times I do.”
“It’s important,” Kyle Brodziak added. “If you sit and dwell a little too long, it can have a negative effect. To get out there and just loosen up a little bit and get a productive warm up out of it. I think it’s a great idea.”
As important as the soccer game is, so is the game day meal. Each player has their specific plate from a specific restaurant they’ll go to each and every game day.
Many of the players, particularly the younger guys dine in one of two Saint Paul restaurants, while the cohort of players in surrounding suburbs dine closer to home. And once again, the game day meal is about routine and staying loose.
“We’re a little crew,” Scandella said, but kept his game day meal a secret. “It’s like a family atmosphere. It’s nice.”
“Same pasta every time,” Darcy Kuemper added. “They actually wrote our orders down so when we walk in they’re already making them. It’s perfect.”
Coyle eats elsewhere, a tradition he and Jason Zucker started last year. Every day it’s the same: chicken parm, mostaccioli, Italian garden salad, and a chocolate milk — a main course he’s eaten every game day dating back to his time at Boston University.
From the meal, to how their whole day is shaped each guy has their little routines, though they won’t call them superstitions — their teammates will do that for them.
“I know a guy who’s very superstitious,” Niederreiter said. “You should talk to Zach. Zach (Parise) and (Jason Pominville). They’re very superstitious. They always go to Starbuck’s together like a couple. It’s pretty funny.”
Are they the most superstitious guys in the room? “Absolutely.”