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Photo Credit: © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

A Q&A with sports psychologist Dr. Saul Miller about the Vancouver Canucks’ recent struggles

The Vancouver Canucks are in a slump and it’s not a pretty sight.

The Halford and Brough show put it best on Monday morning. “If you never watched the Canucks in the 80s, this is what it was like. It was embarrassing; they got blown out a lot.”

Speaking of the 80s, Dr. Saul Miller, a sports psychologist, was called on to help the Canucks in his first of several stints with the team, helping the team reach their first Stanley Cup appearance.

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Throughout his career, Dr. Miller has worked with teams and athletes worldwide, including stops in all four major North American sports. With eight books to his name, such as Hockey Tough and Why Teams Win, Dr. Miller has a vast knowledge of making athletes and teams excel. With his help, we will take a look at how what the Canucks can do to help their psyche.

Q: Team cohesion is massive; losing guys that meant so much to them, like Troy Stecher, Chris Tanev, and Jacob Markstrom, from the core, can be challenging for a group. How would you deal with athletes who lost friends to another team? While we know sports is a business, there is a human element to it, especially losing Markstrom and Tanev, who many of the younger players looked up to. What would you say to the younger players on the team to help gain confidence?

A: You can win and lose with a coach, but you need the core group of guys (to win), but it can be difficult if you pull out from the core. The current core group has young blood (Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes etc.) and veterans, and it’s only a matter of time before they come together. Especially on how hard Pettersson works in practice, I’ve seen him practice, and that kid works hard, and with hard work, his game and confidence will come.

Q: Pre-game routines play a significant role for players, but in a COVID-19 world that can be turned upside down, what would you say to players who consistently have to change their routine?

A: Be focused, work hard, use imagery see yourself making good plays. Set goals in each practice and game, have positive talks with yourself and put in the work.

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Q: Before, if a team was slumping, they would hang out with each other and bond, but with COVID-19 restrictions, that’s impossible and could be very lonely on the road and with new players on the team bonding and getting on the same page as they would have earlier in the season. How would you get everyone on the same page to end or break loose of their slump in a covid world?

A: Yes, definitely a factor; it limits the opportunity to come together. Meeting face to face or having meals together is an easier and great way to be social, but in COVID times, the best thing is to have Zoom meetings. It’s difficult to gel as a team (especially with a new group) with no preseason or bonding experiences, so the next best thing is Zoom. Take goalies for an example. The goalies need to read and learn the team’s defensive tendencies are, but without preseason and the ability to bond normally, this will take time to adjust.

Q: Body language can say a lot about how a player is playing. With the recent players who haven’t performed as they did last year, what would you say to help guide them to the path they were on last year?

A: I have a saying “super tv” has in; if you don’t like what’s happening, just change the channel. The same goes with players if you have frustration or make a bad play, just change your mind’s channel. Learn how to handle the under pressure moments and learn how to deal with emotions. Hockey is a fast sport, so you need to forget about a bad play and let it go and refocus.

Q: The team looks as if there is something off with them. Do you think a new direction or voice is needed in the room? If so, we know change won’t come overnight with the COVID-19 protocol. In your expertise, what would you tell the team right now as a whole?

A: The team is well-coached. As for the players, I would tell them to work as hard as they can and ask questions. Look at Tyler Motte, the hardest working player on the team, and he is playing well. They have good guys in the locker room who put in the work. They need to play better defensively, not just the defence but the forwards as well. I think the team needs some time to gel, and they will be better.

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If time is what the Canucks need to find their game, they might be running short. If they don’t pick up their game soon, they could find themselves playing meaningless games come early April in this short pandemic season.

A special thank you to Dr. Miller, who took time out of his day to chat about hockey and Canucks.