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Inspirational tools: Panthers players open up about what motivates them before taking the ice

Some guys turn to music to get pumped up, while others go somewhere much deeper

Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers during an NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on February 25, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. The Panthers defeated the Coyotes 2-1.
Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers during an NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on February 25, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. The Panthers defeated the Coyotes 2-1. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – In this new normal that many are referring to as quarantine life, a growing trend is the difficulty to become motivated and find inspiration in these repetitive days of self-isolation.

Just knowing there is hope on the horizon that live sports may resume sometime this summer provides an encouraging boost of energy for most of us, especially those (like me) who have been catching up on random games they vaguely remember from the 80's, 90's and so on, and drooling over the Michael Jordan 'Last Dance' documentary series. There's also the added bonus of live (or pre-recorded, but new) horse racing, bowling and, yes, cornhole, that have started popping up on our favorite sports networks, in addition to professional baseball games in Korea.

With all that swirling around in my mind, in addition to a newfound exploratory mindset on finding motivation, it felt like a good time to dip into some unused quotes from the still current, yet currently paused Florida Panthers season.

Thinking down that inspirational rabbit hole, it reminded me of several conversations with a handful of Panthers players about what their routine was to get ready before a game, and how some of those chats transitioned to how they'd find ways to pump themselves up before taking the ice.

After digging through a few months of locker room chats and quotes, a collection of pregame motivational tactics, some more interesting than others, began to emerge.

A recurring theme among many of the players was music. No surprise there.

While some guys have much more specific ideas than others when it comes to the selection, there is peace among the players with what gets played in the locker room.

"I think the guys here do a good job of having a good variety of music before the game," said Panthers winger Brett Connolly. "For me, what I enjoy before the game, is just listening to music, but nothing specifically. Some guys have specific things that they'll tell themselves, or some specific songs they like, but nothing really crazy (for me)."

Keeping with the lowkey guys, Florida forward/defenseman/Swiss Army Knife Mark Pysyk also said he keeps things simple when preparing to take the ice, leaving it to his teammates to provide the right tunes.

"I'm a pretty calm guy, usually," Pysyk said. "There's nothing I do to go out of my way. The music they play in here is about as far as it goes for getting pumped up."

An admittedly big music guy is Jonathan Huberdeau, and while he's definitely into some new-age tunes, he has a wide-range of taste and appreciation.

"I change it up," Huberdeau said. "It's not like one music that I have that gets me going. I like EDM (electronic dance music), it's what I listen to in the car before I come in. When I get to the rink, I listen to the music in the dressing room. That's about it."

Then there's defenseman Keith Yandle, who started out with a simple enough explanation, but then after giving it some thought, took it to a much deeper and more profound place.

“Probably music, the main thing,” Yandle began. “Certain songs can get you fired up, whether it’s during warm-ups or while you’re getting dressed. Also, a big thing for me is before the game is just scanning the room, looking at guys getting ready to go to war. Just seeing guys getting ready and knowing what we’re going out to do and play in the NHL. That’s something I always like to do.”

Just being in the moment, that you’re in an NHL locker room about to play an NHL game?

“Yeah, that’s what it is. You try to soak in as much as you can and pinch yourself every once in a while. But I think for me, watching guys get ready and knowing what they’re going to bring and what you’re going to bring, it’s always fun for me.”

Keith Yandle #3 of the Florida Panthers prepares for a face-off against the Chicago Blackhawks at the BB&T Center on February 29, 2020 in Sunrise, Florida.
Keith Yandle #3 of the Florida Panthers prepares for a face-off against the Chicago Blackhawks at the BB&T Center on February 29, 2020 in Sunrise, Florida. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Another interesting response came from fellow-defenseman Mike Matheson, who, like Yandle, started out talking music but ended up somewhere a little deeper.

“In the past, I definitely tried to listen to more pump-up music before a game,” Matheson started. “I find that as I’ve gotten older, it’s less of that and more of just a calm focus. I don’t know if it’s like that 'Till I Collapse song by Eminem, that sort of thing.”

Well, there’s a reason everybody has their own special pregame playlist.

“Yeah, and mine tends to be pretty chill and just gets me into the frame of mind of a relaxed sureness, and confidence and focus, so that’s where my mentality is at. The motivation part of it is just all there to begin with, to want to be your best and to want to perform every night.”

Young forward Aleksi Saarela has a similar mindset. Having played just nine games in the NHL, he doesn't have to look very hard to find his drive.

"For me, the motivation is here, to play in the NHL, Saarela said after a late-February morning skate in Arizona. "I want to be as good as I can, every night, every day, so I can stick here. That's my motivation. I don’t need any movies or anything to get motivated. It's more like a mental thing for me."

As he does with most things, veteran forward Brian Boyle gave a detailed, thoughtful explanation when the topic of motivation came up.

Boyle, an extremely devoted family man, explained that, when it comes to his success on the ice, he feels he owes it to others to perform at the best of his abilities.

"A lot of that comes, I think, from within. No one gets here without having that certain drive and motivation. There are reasons to play; your teammates, the franchise you're with, the community of people and the fans, it's always big with them. Day to day, you come home, you see what you have, all that you have at home, and you want to continue and keep that and be successful for them.

"I see what my wife does, and the sacrifices that she makes every day at home and when we go on road trips, especially. And my folks too, because they brought me up. None of us are here without the help of our parents and the sacrifices they made. You want to do as good as you can. You want to perform, you want to be professional, certainly. But I guess if there's extra motivation, it's that family element, that other people are counting on you and hoping for the best for you, so you've got to give them everything you have. I honestly think to be blessed with a God given ability, we owe to him to do our best at. We all have our gifts and we strive to be as perfect at those things as we can be, because we've been blessed to do these things."

Keith Yandle, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman of the Florida Panthers celebrate Boyle's game tying goal against the New York Rangers on November 10, 2019.
Keith Yandle, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman of the Florida Panthers celebrate Boyle's game tying goal against the New York Rangers on November 10, 2019.

Keeping things somewhat scientific were a pair of Panthers forwards; Evgenii Dadonov and Erik Haula. Dadonov has a certain way he likes his gamedays to go, and when things go well during the day, he feels they'll do the same that night when he's on the ice.

"I try to do my routine all the time," said Dadonov. "If everything goes perfect, it kind of motivates me, like everything should be good in the game. But I usually try not to think too much before a game, just be in my own world. Just be prepared mentally, maybe think about some plays during the game, and nothing else."

Said Haula: "I try to do a lot of visualization. That's how I get ready. Just kind of see things and visualize, play back goals that I've scored or anything like that. That's how I prepare. There's no real secret to anything, but that's what I like to do."

One of my favorite answers when talking about motivation came from Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. It wasn't so much what he said, but the way that, as he went through the progression of a gameday in his head, he began to lean forward, his shoulders lifted and his head raised up; he was putting himself through the gameday process in his head. For a hockey nerd like me, it was a cool thing to witness. It was a reminder that, just because these guys don't always show emotion or react a certain way, they are still just as aware, and awe inspired to play hockey for a living as any of us would be.

“Just the game day itself,” Barkov said. “You wake up, it’s a game day. It’s a big day for you. That makes me ready, like, I’m ready in the morning already. Obviously, there’s some routines you do during the game day, those things remind you that you have a game tonight and you have to be ready. I don’t think I’ve ever had any problems with that. Then you come to the rink, you see these guys getting ready for the game, it’s like, contagious.”


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