Hockey is a game of mistakes. No player is immune.
The greatest defenseman in Flyers history, Mark Howe, used to play 30 to 32 minutes a game every night at the height of his prime. He has said that he used to challenge himself to play a perfect game: no unforced turnovers, no bad gaps or angles, not a single pass into skates or behind someone, no misreads on a coverage, no missed nets when he had an open look.
By Howie's estimation, he accomplished the feat four times in his entire Hockey Hall of Fame pro career. That's four times out of 1,531 pro games: 929 NHL regular season games, 101 Stanley Cup playoff games, 426 regular season games in the old World Hockey Association, and 75 Avco Cup playoff games.
It doesn't sound like much, but it's actually an outstanding number of completely flawless games. Only Hall of Fame types get into that realm.
Most players never do it once their entire pro career. Eric Desjardins may have accomplished it a time or two. I came pretty close once; a game in my hometown of Ottawa where everything just seemed to click all night, shift in and shift out, although I kept things simpler in my game than Rico or Howe.
Roger Neilson said to me the next day, in the professorial rasp that was his speaking voice, "Chris, if you could play like that every night, you'd be an All-Star every year."
I wish. Such nights are magical and cherished but almost impossible to duplicate. Besides, I was more of a complementary piece to Desjardins than the go-to guy on the blueline, and I tailored my style to work with Rico's.
In the vast majority of games, there's a few plays you'd like to have executed a little better. From a defenseman's standpoint, maybe it was an outlet pass you made that you wish had more zip on it. Maybe it was losing inside stick position on an attacker but, fortunately, the other team didn't score. Maybe it was an icing that you didn't mean to take.
The fans may or may not notice it, but the coach certainly will on video and the player will know immediately. The ones that fans notice, or at least the ones they remember. are the mistakes that end up in your team's net.
It's a rotten feeling when a mistake that you make, whether it's with or without the puck, ends up causing or contributing to an opposing goal. Sometimes it seems to happen in several straight games, where it feels like every error you make winds up in the net.
Every player who has ever played in the NHL has gone through it, particularly defensemen and most especially young ones. Those are trying times. So how do you handle the adversity and prevent a bad play, a rough shift or an isolated subpar game from snowballing to where your spot in the lineup is in jeopardy?
1. Keep competing. Coaches know that there will be plays that don't go your way, and some of them will be costly. It's how you respond to those situations that matters more in the big picture. Let's say you go back to retrieve a puck in the corner, turn it over to the forecheckers, and there's a point-blank goal scored after a quick centering pass. On your subsequent retrievals, do you execute it with the same confidence you did before? Or do you lose your poise, play it like you hear the footsteps coming and turn another one over because you were overanxious?
2. Don't panic. This goes hand in hand with the first point. Everyone gets beat sometimes. Everyone turns some pucks over. Every defenseman in Flyers history -- even ones the caliber of Howe, Desjardins or Chris Pronger -- had the occasional glaring mistake. Part of what separates the very best ones and the ones who achieve longevity in the league from the guys who don't last for long is the ability to recover from an initial mistake and make a good second-effort play. Stay with it. If that particular play still ends up in the net, make the next shift a much better one.
3. Communicate with your D partner and the goalie. A lot of defensive-zone errors come about because of failure to communicate and read off one another. When an attacker splits the D through the middle, you know there was failure to communicate. Same thing when one D fails to rotate on a cross-over or when both D are flushed to the same side along the half-boards. Same thing with puck exchanges with a goalie that get garbled. Strong communications are a must. If there is an isolated breakdown, talk it over afterwards to make sure it doesn't happen again.
4. Don't take criticism personally. I got booed at times in my career. Took some heat in the newspapers periodically, too. When I played, sports talk radio was at the peak of its popularity. Then came internet message boards. Nowadays, both of those still exist but online social media rules the roost. My advice to players is not to take any of it personally. That can be hard, but it's necessary. Lean on your teammates, because they've been through the same thing. Call home, talk to your folks or an old buddy. Realize that fans in general, and Flyers fans in particular, are passionate about the team and unable to do anything about the outcomes, so they vent when things don't go as hoped.
5. Be honest with yourself. At the end of every game, a player has to ask himself: Did I do everything that was within my control tonight to have, all in all, a positive contribution to our team? If the answer is no, be honest with yourself about what you need to work on to do better.
A player can have all the natural talent in the world, but if he doesn't have resiliency, self-confidence, assertiveness, poise and the professionalism to take accountability and embrace coaching, he's going to struggle with inconsistency. While some of this is just par for the course with youngsters in the NHL, it becomes less acceptable if the same patterns continue even after he gains experience.
Back when I played with the Flyers, we had a defenseman named Karl Dykhuis, who I'm sure many of our fans remember. Dyker had incredible physical tools. He was big. He was physically strong. He could skate like the wind. He was extremely skilled with the puck.
Unfortunately, and I don't mean this as a slight because I like him personally and would have loved to have his pure skill level, Karl was habitually inconsistent.
Annually, he'd put together streaks of multiple games where he played at a very high level. Karl's A-game ceiling was higher than mine because he had more natural puck skill. He was originally a first-round pick (by Chicago) for a reason: there was very little he couldn't do on the ice.
However, Dyker would also sometimes struggle on both sides of the puck for weeks at a time. Within games, he was often very up and down from shift to shift. Why was the case?
It was because Karl was not the most self-confident of players, so he'd get down on himself. He'd dwell on mistakes and lose his poise. Next thing you knew, things snowballed and rolled straight downhill on him.
With more confidence and bounceback resiliency, Karl might have had a 1,000-game career in the NHL and have been an All-Star a few times. The flashes of brilliance and stretches when he was in a groove spoke to that potential. It was the game that goes on in the player's own mind in tough times that he couldn't quite conquer.
There are many stories like Karl's; guys who made it in the league and had lots of talent and were earnest and likeable guys but whose careers were something less than it could have been due to inconsistency.
Another former Flyers teammate of mine, Kerry Huffman, is another prime example. Part of what makes Huffer such a good coach and mentor to young defensemen nowadays as an assistant coach with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms is what he learned from his own experiences as a player. He knows he had star potential but had a lesser career than that.
Every player needs to find an identity; a niche. Most NHL players, including role-playing forwards and defensive defensemen, were once regular offensive contributors at lower levels of the game. As they get to the top level, they have to simplify their game and embrace doing the little things right and being a complementary piece of the puzzle.
It took me time to find my exact niche but, starting in my third NHL season, I started to do so. I figured out who I was as a player, what was expected of me, and the means by which I had to do it. I wasn't going to be a star or an offensive standout at the top level. My niche was a big-framed complementary defensive partner who also skated well. In the skating department, I wasn't quite the skating equal of next-generation Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn or current player Phil Myers -- both huge-framed guys who can fly out there -- but mobility was one of my main assets during most of my career.
Finding my niche enabled me to play 764 regular season games and 104 playoff games in the NHL (753 regular season and 99 playoff games as a Flyer). It's why I was a starter for six different head coaches in Philly plus Dave Tippett in Dallas.
The ultimate example of finding a niche: Brad Marsh. People forget that he was a first-round Draft pick and was once a point-per-game defenseman in major junior hockey for the London Knights. In the NHL, he rarely found his name on a scoresheet. But he lasted 1,086 regular season games plus 97 playoff games and was a mainstay on the second pair of two Stanley Cup finalists.
How? He did it by finding his niche as a shot-blocking, positionally sound defensive defenseman, competing his tail off night after night and knowing how to put a bad play or a bad night in the rearview mirror right away.
For an NHL defenseman, it's not just what you do when things go well that matters. It's how you respond when they don't. That took me several years to get a grip on. I had great veteran partners that helped me.
Fast-forward to the current Flyers. I see the same process going on right now. Prime examples are Travis Sanheim, Myers and even Ivan Provorov. You can also include Shayne Gostisbehere in that, although he's now in his fifth NHL season. Each is still learning lessons in resiliency and bounceback.