I've always said that nothing is going to replace playing the game for me.
On the blueline for the national anthem, I still feel it today. I would have my checklist: 'Did I do my preparation? Did I do everything I could to feel good tonight?' For me, going into a season, I learned to love preparing to play. It is 100 percent your preparation on a daily basis that builds the confidence and the mental capacity needed to go out there and know you did your homework to prepare for the test.
With what I went through in my career, with the injuries and ups and downs, having the opportunity to help players like James Neal, Mike Smith and Connor McDavid have the success that they're having in the NHL is very gratifying. It's been amazing for me and life after hockey.
To have an opportunity to help players perform at the NHL level is number one, but giving them the information I think they need for a chance at longevity has given me a reason to sit back at home and enjoy watching the game with my family.
I have young boys, so what do you think we do at night? We sit at home and we watch all the players we work with like Connor McDavid, James Neal, and Mike Smith play.
ames Neal is walking with an unconscious swagger in his step these days. Outside the visiting dressing room of the Prudential Center in New Jersey the morning after an October stop for the Edmonton Oilers in Uniondale to face the New York Islanders, the man they call 'The Real Deal' around the NHL is busy making his morning rounds with the media that were quickly becoming a staple early on in his tenure with the club.
It's only fitting for the 32-year-old who lit the lamp four times in a 5-2 win over those Islanders to put himself at six goals on the season through three contests and one goal shy of his previous campaign's total of seven, an outlier year by his standards, that took 63 games to register as a member of the Calgary Flames.
The perennial NHL goalscorer, who's dressed in the embossed hooded zip-up and shorts expected of an Oilers player tasked with media, would be the only one not suiting up to join his teammates on the ice to prepare for the second of three games in the Big Apple against the Devils the following evening. And no, he's wasn't injured.
His former head coach as a rookie with the Dallas Stars, Dave Tippett, who had come full circle to coach him in Edmonton a decade later, strolled towards the media backdrop in place of Neal as the sharpshooter vacated the barrage of questions in front of the camera he was becoming accustomed to.
The bench boss chimed in with an inquiry of his own that strayed away from the regular line of questioning expected relating to his off-season acquisition from Calgary, new faces and a new general manager in the organization, the team's hot undefeated start, or the play of his summer training partner and now captain Connor McDavid after being subjected to an extended rehab process for a knee injury Neal witnessed as a member of the opposition in the last game of the most forgettable season of his 13-year professional career.
"Hey Nealer, did you tell them about the rule?" Tippett asked.
"Yeah. Four goals and you don't have to practice," Neal responded.
"That's right. Four goals and you get the day off," Tippett finished with a smile.
All in attendance shared a laugh before attentions turned back to business. By the time the Oilers would depart for Chicago to wrap up four games on the road, they'd add two more victories to sweep all three New York teams for the first time in franchise history and sit atop the NHL standings at an undefeated 5-0-0.
There's a certain level of confidence and influence needed for a new acquisition to re-write the dressing room rulebook, but the on-ice pedigree of James Neal as a 20-plus goal man of 10 campaigns in the League is well documented. It's one that was re-established through five o'clock morning wake-up calls and a meticulous attention to detail within the limits of the St. Andrew's College campus and Gary Roberts High Performance Training in Aurora, Ontario under the tutelage of a mentor, friend, and former NHL veteran after two-straight Stanley Cup Finals appearances and a lost season with the Calgary Flames.
It's the age-old question of 'Where does confidence come from?' manifested in the rejuvenated legs and hands of a talented competitor keen on proving that an off-year was nothing more than a hiccup. It's a line of thought older than the confines of the Nassau Coliseum where the league's Mr. Consistent announced with his four-goal performance that the '18-19 season for him was nothing more than an outlier, and that the Oilers players feel this thing, and this season, could be for real - the real deal.
The question and the answer remain up for debate to this day. If someone had cracked the code by now, there'd be a lot fewer stories like the one Neal is currently writing in an Oilers uniform.
"It's just a really hard thing to describe because if you could do it, you'd want that high confidence all the time," Neal said. "When you get off to a good start, the puck's going in for you. A lot of that confidence is in your head. It comes and goes, and the longer you can hold onto it and try to replicate what you do, it helps out there."
The Dealer worked a double shift, dealing long into the night of the Stanley Cup Playoffs each time.
He did it once with the Nashville Predators before having his deck shuffled in 2017 during the NHL Expansion Draft and having his chips fall on Las Vegas and the upstart Golden Knights, who re-wrote the North American history books for an expansion side by posting 51 regular-season wins and falling in five games to the Washington Capitals at the final hurdle. Neal notched 23 and 25 goals respectively during those seasons, along with six more in each postseason campaign.
Despite lacking hockey's ultimate prize, Neal was confidently doing what he did best. But the impact of two-straight appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals on the body and psyche of Neal couldn't be understated as the scrapes, bruises and everything mentally that goes along with the quest for the cup began to snowball.
Players around the league who missed the playoffs, and even the ones who fell in the first or second rounds, are getting back into the gym in June. Those who are fortunate enough to compete for Lord Stanley's holy grail have the hidden disadvantage of being upwards of six weeks behind their counterparts when it comes to preparing for the coming year.
"It's a quick turnaround," Neal, who played through a broken hand for the final two rounds of Nashville's 2017 playoff run, said. "If you ask any player that goes to the Stanley Cup Final, it's gruelling on the body and it's hard on you mentally when you lose. You go the same distance as the guys that won. You don't win one game and you're going home with nothing, while the other guys are enjoying the best time of their life."
Neal signed a five-year, $28.75 million pact with the Flames on July 2, 2018 with the goal of continuing to provide the scoring service that helped uphold his 'The Real Deal' label. But as the season progressed, production began to lag behind. Injuries, slowly but surely, piled up. On-ice roles were diminished. The wear and tear caught up to him in a 19-point season of seven goals in 63 games that marked a career low for his offensive output in the NHL.
Finding himself a healthy scratch in Game 5 of Calgary's short-lived playoff push that ended in five games to the Colorado Avalanche was the icing on a forgettable campaign.
The science says: those things can weigh you down.
"The way that you feel valued, the way that you're reinforced, is going to have a massive impact upon the extent to which you believe that you can jump over those boards and go and perform," said Dr. John Dunn, a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport & Recreation at the University of Alberta whose research in the field of sport psychology has focused primarily on perfectionism.
When he's away from teaching undergraduate Kinesiology and a graduate course in sports psychology on campus, Dunn can usually be found lending his knowledge on motivation, team building, self-awareness, and pre-competitive routines to elite international and professional athletes as a sports psychology consultant.
"Confidence is your psychological suit of armor. It doesn't matter what level you're at. If you don't look after that suit of armor, it's going to let you down," he said. "I do not believe there's an athlete on the planet that's confident all the time, because when you're going through a slump in performance and things aren't going your way, those doubts start to creep in."
Whether it happens over the course of an entire season or from something as simple as giving away the puck, confidence is something in elite athletes that changes regularly. One of the most effective methods for athletes to re-establish their confidence when it wavers has been resorting back to what first allowed them to be confident in the first place.
"The greatest way to build your confidence then is just to keep things simple; go back to the basics. Why? Because the basics were the things that got you there in the first place," Dunn said. "There are hundreds of strategies people can use to rebuild their confidence, but at the end of the day it's something that needs to be maintained."
Neal's first season in Calgary was a tough confidence check, but one that stressed an emphasis on the little details of rest and recovery that he hadn't been able to address in recent years. To him, checking off those boxes would involve putting himself back into the hands of those who helped groom him for the NHL since the age of 15.
Over lunch with Neal while attending a minor hockey tournament in Nashville, Gary Roberts, the former NHL veteran of 21 seasons whose post-career emphasis on training and nutrition stem from his own battle with injuries in the game, made his case for Neal to commit himself back to the program that helped him build a platform to become a 20-plus goalscorer for 10-straight NHL seasons.
It wasn't going to be an easy road to recovering his fitness and confidence, but it would come in the comfort of the familiar at the same gym near his home of Whitby, Ontario he joined as a member of the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League's Bowmanville Eagles.
"I said: 'Listen buddy, you've got to come back home. You have to come back and train this summer,'" Roberts said. "'You've had a tough couple of years with injuries and your playoff run, and we've got to get you back on a regular routine in a regular location that's comfortable for you.'"
"James seems like a pretty loose guy maybe when you meet him, but he really loves to play. He's competitive, he's driven, and there's no doubt that what happened to him in Calgary has given him a chip on his shoulder or a little bit of a wake-up call to pay a bit more attention to his details."
Confidence and preparation breed performance within the hallowed walls of Gary Roberts High Performance Training.
Whether it's James Neal, Connor McDavid, or the 16-year-old kid they both used to be trying to make their next year in the Ontario Hockey League their best yet, the first step of preparing for the next season is preparing yourself to train before getting to the bulk of strength training.
Each program designed specifically for the individual athlete starts with recovery and finding the imbalances in the body from a long, gruelling season. "As the guy that's overseeing the programming, I'm looking at the impact of the season, I'm looking at the injuries, I'm looking at the age of the athlete, and I'm looking at their history of training and what their winter was like," Roberts said.
For Neal, it entailed a recovery regiment of soft tissue work, acupuncture, proper nutrition, and additional work aimed towards on-ice work from a diminished role the previous season.
"For someone that's gone to the Stanley Cup Finals, there's not a chance you're finishing the year at 100 percent," Roberts added. "That's the thing with James - he finished both of those years injured on top of it. So that impact is great, and you take two years away from a guy who's a big guy, has great endurance, but really didn't do a lot of speed training off the ice."
Neal immediately bought back into the program placed in front of him with every massage appointment, every corrective exercise session, every antioxidant and micronutrient, and every powerskating drill as he felt his body working out the imbalances.
"Feeling you've done the work is probably the greatest weapon that you have in your arsenal in terms of building your confidence," Dunn said. "It's not just your preparation - it's also the social environment you find yourself in."
Spending hours at the gym and observing the dedication of friend, young phenom, and Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who like Roberts to Neal he'd observed since he was a teenager, certainly fits the productive environment mould.
"Think about being a young player that's in the gym with Connor McDavid," Roberts said. "We train in groups of eight, and that young player in the gym that's maybe played either no NHL games or 50 has an opportunity to watch how diligent and committed he is. Especially through his rehabilitation process on his knee."
"We love all our boys, but Connor's 'Please and Thank You' over-the-top humility is one of the biggest reasons he's so great."
Over the next two months, through the little conversations and observations in the weight room, the kitchen, and the rink, Roberts witnessed his protégé's strength and confidence grow with the help of his facilities' endless list of resources and the players in the gym who all mirrored his improvement mindset.
"James would come to the gym and say 'Robs, I haven't felt this good in years,' or 'my skates feel great,' so he just gained that confidence from getting back into the gym and on the regular routine that helped make him successful in the first place."
But in a summer about consistency, there was still a major shakeup to come.
Arriving on a Friday back in Nashville ahead of former Predators teammate Roman Josi's wedding, Neal switched off Airplane Mode on his phone only to discover he wouldn't be heading back to Calgary come time for the start of training camp. A trade to the opposite side of the Battle of Alberta and the Oilers made for a different type of reunion with the likes of new teammates McDavid and Mike Smith once he returned to the gym on Monday.
"It was really exciting for me," Neal said. "(Connor and I) talked about it lots before in the lead up hoping that it could get done, and coming back in after the weekend it was good to see him and we were happy to be teammates. Mike's in there as well, and it was kind of funny seeing the Oilers take over the gym a little bit."
Oilers General Manager and President of Hockey Operations Ken Holland bought into the pedigree of Neal with his first major trade at the helm of a new organization, confident the sharpshooter could rectify his past season's lapse in an Oilers uniform playing significant offensive minutes and a key role on the club's powerplay. After receiving the platform to work his way back into shape, Neal now had the stage to showcase it.
To date, Neal's paid back that commitment at a rate of 11 goals and 13 points in his first 15 games as an Oiler.
"I put that pressure of being a goalscorer on myself, for sure," he said. "I've done it my whole career and you want to be the guy that steps up in big games and gets big goals for your team. It's a good feeling, and I think coming here and being put in the right situations has helped me a lot and helped me get back to playing the role I know I can play."
All the hard work and momentum culminated in one of the last on-ice sessions of the off-season with Neal, McDavid, and Smith all on the ice, sharp as knives, skating together for the first time as teammates and revelling in the excitement. Even Leon Draisaitl was in town for a few skates before the quartet departed for Edmonton for the start of informal skates and Oilers Training Camp.
"James at this point is feeling really good. We could see it. I could see that James' confidence was building," Roberts said.
"He was getting back to being the player that he was."
Neal pulls back his long dark hair as he occupies his stall in the visiting dressing room after dancing to the tune of a four-goal performance on that memorable night at Nassau Coliseum, awaiting the oncoming barrage of a post-game media avail that was about to stretch into overtime.
"I've scored my whole career," he reiterated when asked to pinpoint exactly what it was between April and October that enabled a guy who scored seven goals in 63 games the previous season to nearly match that total in only 180 minutes of hockey.
"I've put pressure on myself to be a goalscorer and wanted that pressure. Last year was a tough year, and I wanted a chance to prove myself."
He's taken his opportunity and run with it, projecting confidence on a new team as a veteran leader of poise and influence in a locker room more than welcoming of his talents.
"I think obviously I put in the work during the summer to feel good and feel confident again, knowing that I could come in and be the impact player that I want to be," Neal added. "But I think with all the change here with management and Ken Holland coming in, and then Tipp coming in, I think things are changing around here. This team wants to win. We've got guys right from the top to the bottom that want to make a difference and want to be a playoff team and contend for a Stanley Cup. Right from Day 1, it was pretty easy to fit in and I felt comfortable here."
Even learning the detail that he'd set a new club record for the most goals in the opening three games of a season couldn't shake his team-first mentality, but a chuckle and a smile brimming cheek to cheek signalled satisfaction with an off-season process that's paying dividends.
"I didn't know that, thanks," Neal said to Oilers TV Host & Reporter Tony Brar. "That's definitely pretty cool. It feels good to put on an Oilers uniform, and like I said, I love the way our team's playing so far."
With a strong sense of self-belief and confidence, who knows where this train can take him and a team that shares his sentiments for proving to the doubters that a real deal could be in the works in Oil Country.
"Winning's fun, and we wanted to get that belief that we could do that around here. It's early, but it's a good start for us."