Two years ago, Calgary Flames goalie coach Clint Malarchuk introduced prospect Leland Irving to a book called Sports Psyching: Playing Your Best Game All of the Time, hoping it would be a tool for the youngster to realize his NHL dream.
The book, written by Dr. Thomas Tutko, is said to have helped thousands of athletes overcome psychological barriers to consistently play their best game, including Malarchuk, a former NHLer who had a 3.47 goals-against average over 10 seasons in the 1980s and early ‘90s.
"I read it two years ago. It talks about narrowing your focus," Irving, who made his NHL debut on Dec. 16, 2011, in a 3-2 shootout loss to Florida, said in a phone interview this week. There are so many distractions in this game. It’s important to be able to block everything out and focus. [Clint] thought it was a great book for his career and I feel it’s helped me as well."
Irving, 24, put some of the book’s lessons to use in a recent seven-day stretch that saw him thrust into action in relief of injured Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. That nerve-wracking performance was followed by news that general manager Jay Feaster had signed Danny Taylor from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate to an NHL contract.
And then on Monday, a game day, Feaster claimed veteran NHL netminder Joey MacDonald off waivers from the Detroit Red Wings.
"It’s tough," said Irving of attempting to block out off-ice news that could directly affect his future in Calgary. "I had to mentally prepare that it might be a distraction. In preparing for [Monday’s game against Minnesota] I figured, at times, I would think about it but it didn’t matter. It’s not in my control and I had to stay positive and focus on one shot at a time."
Irving kicked aside 23 of 24 shots before the Wild’s Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu beat him in the shootout for a 2-1 win. Making his fourth consecutive start Wednesday, Irving earned his second win of the season in a 7-4 victory over Dallas. Irving’s goals-against average rose to 2.93 while his save percentage was lowered to .895.
Still, first-year Flames coach Bob Hartley has been satisfied with the play of the Barrhead, Alta., native.
"Leland is playing great. We’re going to keep riding Leland. … He’s building confidence," Hartley told reporters Tuesday after hearing Kiprusoff would be sidelined another two weeks.
Irving talked to CBCSports.ca about the sometimes offensively challenged Flames, his maturation as a professional athlete and becoming a father.
1. You were the odd-man out earlier this season with Abbotsford of the American Hockey League, playing behind Danny Taylor and Barry Brust, who don’t have NHL contracts. How did that experience prepare you for playing sparingly behind Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary?
Irving: I was able to take positives out of it. I came to the rink every day with a positive attitude and tried to focus in practice and work on areas of my game that I felt needed improvement. The practice can continue playing behind a guy like Kip. I’m able to work hard every day and continue to improve, tracking the puck better, staying square to it and moving more head-first rather than body-first.
2. You relieved an injured Miikka Kiprusoff in the third period of a Feb. 5 game at Detroit, stopping all six shots you faced to preserve a 4-1 win. How would you have reacted differently last season in a similar situation?
I don’t think my reaction would have been much different. I do believe I have grown as a person. I’ve had some experiences that test you as a professional: not playing at times in the American league, going from a low point in the season to making the [Flames]. I feel like I’ve persevered and proven to myself that I can maybe have an off night and come back strong.
3. What did last season’s seven-game stint with the Flames make you realize about that stage of your development and what you needed to do to give you the best chance to play all of this season in Calgary?
Last year I didn’t know what to expect. I was able to prove to myself and to my coaches and teammates that I can play at this level and give the team a chance to win. I feel this year I still have the confidence, but I’m better prepared. I’ve made a few adjustments in my pre-game routine.
I maybe watch a little more video the night before of my opponent and get to know their tendencies. It allows me to feel better prepared and manage my own thinking. At times, I could be a little hard on myself and get negative. I’ve come to realize that doesn’t do anybody any good, so that’s been a huge focus of mine of late.
4. The Flames have scored 33 goals in their first 11 games this season but two goals or fewer in five of those contests. What do you remind yourself of when the goals aren’t coming and do you feel the pressure?
I think [you feel the pressure]. At the same, it sometimes helps you elevate your game. You really have to bear down and can’t lose focus.
Just stop the next shot. I can’t get ahead of myself. You just have to stay in the moment, can’t overthink things and you definitely can’t beat yourself.
5. How has becoming a father to daughter Halle changed your outlook on being a professional athlete?
I love this game and I love coming to work every day but it’s a job and I’m supporting my family. It makes you work that much harder. There is always a goal to win the Stanley Cup and I have all sorts of statistical goals set for myself beyond giving the guys a chance to win every night. [But] to raise a family is at the top of the list. I want to give them a good life and they’re relying on me.