Before Madison Bowey leaves for the rink on game day, he has to take a shower at home. Once he gets to the arena, he has to put his equipment on his left side first before his right. For Dmitry Orlov, part of his preparation involves a warm up with just his hands. Jonas Siegenthaler used to have to wear a team sweatshirt all the way up until the moment he put his shoulder pads on and, if he was wearing a hat, he could not take it off even when getting suited up and had to poke his head through his pads to make sure the hat stayed in place.
If you’re a sports fan, chances are you have some superstitions you follow to try to help your team. Maybe you have a jersey that you swear is lucky or a certain place you have to sit to watch the game. Some people have a pair of socks that you better not wash during the playoffs nd no one better say the word “shutout” during a game or it will jinx the goalie.
These things are nothing, however, to the depths in which the actual players are willing to go to gain an edge.
Professional athletes are notorious for being a superstitious bunch. These individuals are some of the most competitive people on the planet so if there is even the faintest hope that some bizarre ritual or action could somehow propel a player to a good performance on any given night, some players are more than willing to try.
The Washington Capitals are certainly no exception.
Nicklas Backstrom, for example, may be one of the top players in the world, but before a game he needs his tape brought to him specifically by teammate Devante Smith-Pelly.
“I deliver his tape, yeah,” Smith-Pelly said. “Into his hand.”
“I picked it up for somebody last year, it worked all the way so I just kept doing it.”
For some players, superstitions can amount to little more than just pregame routines. They’ve become accustomed to doing things a certain way leading up to a game and they try to stick with it as much as possible.
For others, it can be sticking to little things after a win or a particularly strong performance in the hopes of replicating that result in the next game.
“I do things like, if we win a game and I got a piece of gum right before the coach talks to the team, I'll do that again,” Matt Niskanen said. “That kind of little stuff.”
And then there are some players for whom these superstitions mean so much more. Those players develop rituals to be performed down to the tiniest detail and just how well these practices are followed will determine if the supernatural powers that govern the game will allow a player to perform well.
“We had one guy [in Switzerland], he had to be structured,” Siegenthaler said. “His spot [in the locker room] had to be clean and everything. Let's say in the intermission, we're sitting just taking a breath and someone tries to shoot something at the garbage, didn't hit it, he would stand up, go pick it up, put it in the garbage. He had to fold his sweat towel exactly that many times. It was kind of weird.”
While almost every professional athlete has some sort of routine or belief that could be labeled as a “superstition” the ones who take it the most seriously are typically in the minority.
The 82 games of an NHL regular season is a long grind. It can become overwhelming for players to have to keep sticking to those pregame rituals for that many games. The result is, for most players, they begin cutting back when they progress up from juniors or college into the NHL, many of those players begin dropping some of their superstitions.
“As hard as it is to play 82 good games on the ice, I tried to get rid of a lot of stuff off the ice,” Nic Dowd said.
“It's better if you don't have too many superstition,” Siegenthaler said. “If you have too many, you're kind of like in a prison. You have to do it and if you don't do it, you're mind is kind of f----- up. You start think you're going to play a bad game and everything.”
When superstitions start to become detrimental, then it’s time to cut back. For most, superstitions don’t stem from some deeply held belief in the supernatural, but rather they are a matter of comfort.
“I think like everybody try to use superstitions and sometimes not even think about it or just maybe just feel comfortable and get prepared and feel better in the game time,” Orlov said.
For most, this means developing a pregame routine that they try to follow as closely as possible. They feel comfortable because it is familiar. Maybe circumstances will force a player to shift something on a specific day, but it’s not the end of the world and they just try to stick with the routine as best they can.
There are still those outliers among the players who tend to take things a bit more seriously, however, and there is no one on the Caps who takes his superstitions more seriously than Andre Burakovsky.
Burakovsky has a laundry list of items in his routine that he goes through before every game and it is constantly changing based on how he plays.
“It's a moving target too so he changes little things,” said John Carlson who takes part in helping Burakovsky prepare for games. “Maybe the only time he won't change anything is if he scores or something.”
Before a game, Burakovsky will work with certain trainers at certain times to get specific treatments. Then there’s a role play he does with Calrson.
“We use this kind of, I would say heat kind of thing, warm up your muscles and it just comes in a bottle,” Carlson said. “He needs to pretend to look for it and makes me tell him where it is and go get it over there.”
During the team’s pregame power play meeting, Burakovsky refuses to sit and instead goes through the meeting on one knee. Afterward he shares a few handshakes with his teammates and that’s before he’s even gotten onto the ice.
“When we get on the ice, I'll skate a couple laps and shoot and then all of us stretch exactly the same way,” Burakovsky said. “In the gym, I'm doing just exactly the same warmup drills at exactly the same time. I always eat the same food before a game. Preparation during the whole day is kind of exactly the same and that's kind of a superstition. Then you have some crazy ones that you're having fun with too like [Carlson] is always throwing a Gatorade gel from the other side of the room that I'm going to catch in my mouth.”
That pregame meal Burakovsky always eats? It consists of salad, broccoli, salmon, gluten-free pasta and a meat sauce all mixed together.
Burakovsky has become notorious within the locker room for his pregame antics which his teammates try to have fun with.
Remember Backstrom’s routine of getting sock tape from Smith-Pelly? As it turns out, that used to be Burakovsky’s job until Backstorm and Smith-Pelly decided to pull a prank on him.
“[Burakovsky] used to have so many superstitions so at first me and Devo were just f------ with him,” Backstrom said. “We started like a new thing and [Burakovsky] panicked. And then we just kept going.”
If this all sounds funny to you, that’s because it is. A game is not going to be decided based on whether Bowey puts his left skate on before his right. It’s not going to be decided by who delivers Backstrom his tape. And it’s certainly not going to be decided by whether Burakovsky can catch a Gatorade gel pack with his mouth. Deep down, the players know that too. So why have them?
The purpose of these superstitions is not so much to appease some faceless hockey gods, but rather to find a level of comfort heading into a highly competitive and pressurized game. If the players have to convince themselves that hand delivering sock tape is why they have success, then so be it. There’s no real reason to it.
Afterall, things certainly seemed to work out for the Caps last season.
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