Tyler Robertson doesn’t know why he does it, but he knows he has to. He doesn’t remember why it started, but he’s much too invested to stop. He isn’t quite sure if it helps, but he’s certain it can’t hurt.
So Sheehan High’s senior goalie has decided it’s best to submit to his impulses because it’s simpler than worrying that one movement, out of order, left instead of right, wheat instead of white, can lead his life, his game and his team into disarray.
“Am I captive? Very much so. I think I am one of the odd ones. I do some really weird stuff,” said Robertson.
Consider the life of a goaltender, the last line of defense on an island of ice. The place to guard is six feet high, four feet tall. There is a mask to wear and pads to layer and peril is there. The working environment is as unpredictable as it is hazardous.
To survive, some goalies seek an edge by trying to control what’s uncontrollable. They introduce precise order and routine into their lives in the belief the quirkier you are, the more married to thought and action, can lead to success.
“Starting when I was a sophomore, I liked to be the first one to arrive at the rink and sit alone in the locker room with a six-inch vegetable sub,” said Robertson. “Then I stickhandle with a player’s stick for about 15 minutes to get my hand-eye coordination.
“After every period, before every game, I chew Juicy Fruit gum. I have tried every type of gum ever invented. I never had a favorite, but our goalie coach is obsessed with Juicy Fruit. He’ll go through two packs a night and he got me hooked. I tried it as a freshman and pitched the first shutout of my career and that was that. Anytime we are losing, I will switch the gum to Swedish Fish.”
Should something happen to interrupt Robertson’ routine, he tends to panic.
“When I get thrown off my routine pregame, I can never recover. . …I hate change. So if something gets screwed up before a game, I need to let it go before I get on ice.”
In leading Fairfield Prep to the CIAC Division I State Championship last season, former Jesuits’ goalie John McGee adhered to a well-rehearsed routine.
“If we had a late game, between 6 and 7, my mom always made me steak and eggs in the morning. That was a big staple,” said McGee. “Then before the game we’d usually go out and I would never eat bread. One time in my junior year I had some bread at Bertucci’s in Darien and it was so good. Then I didn’t play well at all. I figured it was the Darien bread that got me.
“Then I buy a gallon of Poland Spring water and drink it halfway. If we have an earlier game, like at 1, we will go to Chip’s (Pancake House) and I will always have oatmeal and a bacon and cheese omelet – again, no bread. I know it’s tough, but I like winning better than eating.
“And I don’t like anyone talking to me on game day. I’m like ‘don’t talk to me.’”
That silent treatment is not something limited to young goalies. The older some guys get, the more difficult they are to deal with.
“I played with a goalie in my rookie season in Rochester [the AHL] named Darcy Wakuluk,” said Dave Baseggio, a former Yale defenseman and AHL coach who is now a scout for the Anaheim Ducks. “We couldn’t talk to him, beginning with the morning skate until after the game. You could try, but he wouldn’t acknowledge you. He’d come to the rink in the morning with his newspaper and sit in his stall, do his stretches, go on the ice and take his shots and go. He’d come back at night, all business. Nobody talked to Wak. We all just left him alone.’
“Everyone has their own routine that brings them the piece of mind to perform. Even when I played, I always dressed from the left side first. Why? There is no logical explanation.”
There is not. As critical as talent is to performance, mental preparation and constancy is likely just as important.
“Having belief in certain things is a very natural and important aspect about how we learn. It can help us zone in and nail it down. Whether it’s accurate doesn’t matter if it helps someone function at that moment,” said Dr. Rajita Sinha of Yale’s department of psychiatry. “We all have rituals. You have to go a certain way when driving or do a certain routine in the morning.
“Beliefs are things that do work for people. Having a positive attitude about your sport, feeling you need to be a certain way and having rituals related to that, gives a level of comfort, brings them back to a certain baseline. Familiarity grounds people and it helps to focus one’s attention. When an athlete is ready to perform, they know they need focused attention so they do what they have to do.”
During his 10-year AHL career, Jeremy Smith of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, has embraced what some night consider his personality disorder.
“I am a pretty normal person. At least, I think I am normal. But maybe I’m not,” said Smith. “For example, if we are at home, I will wake up at the same time every day. Then I’ll go to the rink where we will have breakfast. Usually, that’s a light breakfast of eggs, fruit and maybe a little oatmeal.
“Then I will go into the gym and begin rolling out specific muscles. And when I say a specific time, I mean I roll out a specific muscle at a specific time in the same order every morning. Left hip, right hip, right groin, left groin, left IT band, right band. I know I need to give myself enough time to do all these things. It takes a lot of time to go through my entire pre-skate routine. I don’t know if you would call that crazy, but I like to think of it as a recipe that works.
“Now, once I get into the locker room, I put my right sock on before my left sock. I put my pads on the same way. I put on my skates the same way. I put all of my gear on the exact same way every single day. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a game or practice. The preparation is where the ritual is. You have total control over that. I’ve been doing it during the 10 years of my pro career. Nothing has changed.”
There does eventually come a point with some goalies when the regimentation becomes more burden than benefit.
“I have a lot of (superstitions). Sometimes I feel like I have way too many,” said Tomas Vomacka, a freshman goalie at UConn. “I was working this summer to try to get rid of them. I did, but not all of them. And it’s helped me prepare better for the games. I feel great now. I feel I can get my mind set on just hockey. I don’t need to worry about whether I did everything.
“Right skate before the left skate. Right pad before the left pad. Helmet first, then glove and then blocker. They are things you don’t even think about after a while, but they are there. Sometimes you are on the ice and find yourself thinking, “God, I didn’t put my glove on first.’ Sometimes it does get into your head, but I am trying my best not to worry about it anymore.”
“If things didn’t work out [routine], I might have been a little worried about performance when I was younger. But then I realized it’s [performance] not about superstition. Sometimes you might feel it helps you, but mostly you just find yourself getting caught up in it. It doesn’t help you at all. In fact, it’s basically the opposite. I’ve tried to get away from the feeling that something is not right and just play my game.”