Chess, books, Netflix: Hockey goalies try anything to unplug

Colorado Avalanche goaltender Alexandar Georgiev blocks a Seattle Kraken shot during the second period of Game 1 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series Tuesday, April 18, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
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AP Sports Writer

To keep his racing mind in check, Edmonton goaltender Stuart Skinner sometimes turns to the chess board. Anything to unwind and not constantly dwell — even obsess — on stopping shots.

In an effort to escape a bit from their high-pressure jobs, goalies take different approaches. It could be picking up chess (Skinner’s move), reading a good book (a novel approach by Colorado’s Alexandar Georgiev ), binging a Netflix show (Carolina’s Antti Raanta ) or just taking the dog for a walk (Seattle’s Philipp Grubauer).

The point is to find a way to slow things down to make sure their dreams aren’t haunted by high-speed shots flying at them from the likes of Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon or David Pastrnak.

Because at this time of year, every save — or non-save — takes on greater importance. Replaying the goals in the mind can become an occupational hazard.

“That balance between not being 24/7 hockey is really important for their mental health because they need to learn to manage the stress,” explained Aimee Kimball, a mental training consultant who’s spent 16 seasons working in the NHL and is currently the Washington Capitals’ director of organizational development. “If all you ever did was eat, sleep and dream about hockey, then when your career ended, or maybe you had an injury, it’s harder to transition into that next phase of life. Having their hobbies, having other interests, is really important not just for now, their playing days, but when their playing days are done.”

To forget about facing slapshots, Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz took up flying the friendly skies. He earned his pilot’s license during his playing days in the Czech Republic and it became his ticket to tranquility.

“You realize when you’re that high up how small things are,” Francouz said. “It gives you a different view on things.”

His license, though, has lapsed since moving to Colorado. These days, family time with his young daughter keeps him grounded.

“If you show up at home, she doesn’t care if you’ve just won or lost. She just loves you the same and wants to play,” Francouz said. “That’s the best way for me now to just not think about hockey.”

Skinner, too, has a young one at home and his son, Beau, provides a welcome distraction from the game. Skinner also began learning chess about a year ago when he was playing in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors. He saw some of the boys with a board and wanted to take part so he could “find a little bit of calmness.”

“I always thought (chess) looked too complicated,” Skinner said. “Now I’m just having a blast with it.”

Skinner’s not looking to be the next Bobby Fischer, just for some mind relief. It’s been a game changer.

“A little reset,” Skinner said. “Anything besides hockey, just to get your mind off either that save you made or save that you didn’t make. Little things like that.”

Kimball had a tip for turning it off.

“I usually tell them, whenever they change their shoes or their skates, in this situation, change their focus,” she said. “If you’re either on the ice or off the ice, when you take your shoes off, you’re home now. That’s a quick, easy way people can transition from one aspect of their life to the other.”

Georgiev grabs a novel to get away from hockey. His goal is to read — or listen to — 24 books this year. He’s already finished five.

“I’ve always read so much. But it usually was either newspapers or just wasting time on Reddit or Instagram or listening to a lot of podcasts,” Georgiev said. “Then I decided, ‘OK, I really want to have a goal and try to finish a few books.’ It’s like a game. You set a goal for yourself and track your progress. It keeps you accountable and competitive.”

Fittingly, he recently was reading a book about the benefits of sleep and how it sparks creativity.

“I feel like reading helps to relax and get your mind off of everything,” Georgiev said. “So you don’t think about hockey.”

Vegas goaltender Laurent Brossoit relaxes in the comfort of his backyard. He also likes to cook and watch shows such as “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.”

Anything to “decompress,” he said, and step away from the game. He pays close attention to mental health.

“I’ve kind of gone too far on the one end of the spectrum,” he said of maintaining a healthy balance. “I thought, work hard, and do as many reps as you can. Be as diligent as you can at the gym, and on the ice and at home, with stretching and what-not — and ended up not having a lot of downtime.”

Raanta is a fan of movies and shows. Plays some Xbox, too, if the kids aren’t running around.

For Grubauer, something like taking the dog for a stroll can help put in proper perspective what he does for a living.

“Obviously, it’s important and it’s business and it’s our job,” Grubauer said. “But in the end, it’s just a hockey game.”