For fans and journalists, the phrase, “We're just going to take it one game at a time,” is one of the most irritating cliches there is. For hockey players, however, this outlook is as natural as putting on their jerseys and skates.
Living in the now, embracing the moment, or whatever you want to call it, is particularly important in a competition like the IIHF World Championship.
In our daily lives and places of work, most of us suffer no immediate ill consequences when we drift mentally into the past (“Deep Purple at the Budokan in '75: best show ever!”) or speculate wildly about the future (“When I get a divorce, move to Switzerland, and win the lottery, I'm buying a BMW!”).
However, a hockey player who falls into these habits usually also falls on his rear end. Either literally, when Anton Volchenkov or Shea Weber crushes him with an open-ice bodycheck as he admires a lovely pass he made (which is already in the past). Or metaphorically, when he and his teammates look beyond a weaker opponent and suffer an upset loss because they weren't focused on what they were doing. Because they didn't take it “one game at a time”.
Do the Americans fall 5-2 to Denmark in their 2003 Worlds opener if they're taking it “one game at a time” instead of looking ahead to a presumed Preliminary Round showdown with Russia three days later? Do the Czechs crash and burn on home ice with a shootout loss to the USA in the 2004 quarterfinals if they're taking it “one game at a time” instead of planning how many bottles of Pilsner to buy for the gold medal party in Prague?
And in the final stages of the IIHF World Championship, unlike in life, there are no second chances, due to the single-game elimination format. So “one game at a time” really resonates.
For hockey players, it doesn't pay to be too contemplative or speculative. That's why you'll almost never get a straight answer to the question: “So, which team would you prefer to face in the playoffs?”
The biggest stars often have little insight to offer about their glorious past triumphs, simply because they have mentally conditioned themselves to stay in the present, concentrating on the business at hand at all times.
Canadian players are particularly successful at this, and it's reflected in the number of titles they win. They usually dish up pedestrian quotes about respecting the process and taking it “one game at a time.” But it's not just to sound humble or make their opponents feel like they're receiving due respect. It's also to reinforce that mental approach for themselves, and thereby increase their chances of winning gold. (Conversely, Canadian teams usually flop in bronze medal games because they're still preoccupied with having failed in their championship quest.)
Michael Peca, who played with Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, and Joe Sakic on Canada's 2002 Olympic gold medal team, once described what he learned about mental toughness and focusing on the present from those veteran superstars: “The biggest key I learned from those guys is that they just go out and do the same thing. Shift after shift, game after game. Regardless of how big the game is. They continue to be strong and they always seem to come up big in big games, because they don’t come down a level. They still play at the same level. It’s not about going up a level. It’s about playing at the same level they’ve played at their whole lives. A lot of people succumb to some of that pressure and tighten up, and are afraid to make plays. But guys like Lemieux and Sakic, all those guys who were there, it doesn’t matter. And you learn that. Regardless of the situation, go out there with confidence and play your game, and more often than not, you’re going to be successful.”
Failure is frequently rooted in getting caught up in things that may never happen. Instead of “taking it one game at a time”. Think of the 2006 Olympics. If Finland had competed versus Sweden in the final with the same kind of here-and-now confidence and intensity that it brought to the 4-0 semi-final win over Russia, the gold medal party would have been in Helsinki.
But as any Finn (or Swede) will tell you, the Finns have a mental block about Tre Kronor, a deep-rooted assumption that something has always gone wrong and will always go wrong in crucial games against the blue and yellow. Of course, there are exceptions, but getting dragged down by that dread of disaster has surely doomed Finland more than once.
It's only human to worry and speculate. Yet as that well-known sage Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back: “Control, control! You must learn control.”
“One game at a time.” That's the route to World Championship gold.
Lucas Aykroyd is IIHF.com’s Vancouver-based correspondent. Aykroyd has covered every IIHF World Championship since 2000, as well as the 2002 and 2006 Olympics.