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How the Colorado Avalanche Make Winning on the Road a Cup Capping Habit

Don Yaeger

06/28/22 | Athletes/Sports


How the Colorado Avalanche Make Winning on the Road a Cup Capping Habit

To win the NHL’s coveted Stanley Cup, which they did on Sunday, the Colorado Avalanche had to win four best-of-seven series. They did so and, what’s more, they finished out each of those series with wins on the road.

Logic – and oddsmakers – have always said it is “easier” to win at home, yet in each of the most important moments this post-season, the Avs did it “the hard way,” winning while entire arenas filled with fans jeered their every move.

So what’s their secret?

Most people who think about such matters as home field or ice advantage have focused on the logistics and other matters external to the team’s mindset. Professional sports travel is intense and tiring for athletes who must move between time zones, sleep in different beds and eat out more than they’d like to. In the past, visiting team locker rooms could be smaller and have fewer amenities than the home team enjoyed. And, of course, once the game started, visiting teams might be victimized by referees and umpires who could feel pressured by the home crowd.

Even seasoned pros cannot be immune to having so much love directed at someone else—and at their expense, right?

Some of these impediments to away-winning still exist, although to a lesser extent as teams have refined travel, nutrition, and overall fitness to mitigate some of the worst effects of life on the road. In addition, statistics show that teams with better overall records often have better away game records as well.

Perhaps, then, the vaunted home ice advantage relies less on making home teams play better than on making visiting teams play worse? And if this is so, what does a team like the Avalanche do that makes it victorious both at home and away? Finally, what does their success have to teach us about leadership—on the ice or in an organization where we work?

The answers seem to lie in mental toughness, particularly in those situations in which your team has to deal with adversity. In hockey, that adversity might take the form of 18,000 fans vigorously questioning the legitimacy of your birth origin, or even your membership in the human race, every time you hit the ice. In business, adversity might come from a run of lousy online reviews of your product or service, even though you believe in yourself; it might come from feeling pressure—lots of pressure—from a new competitor that threatens to disrupt your market.

In any case, the best way to triumph over adversity is to be prepared to deal with it. Here are three ways the Avalanche kept their performance skating-sharp when they entered the adverse circumstances of playing away:

Controlling the controllable: Even the best coaches need on-ice leaders to keep the team focused on the fundamentals, not just during playoffs but all year. Nathan MacKinnon is that on-ice leader for the Avalanche. “You need someone to push everyone,” said teammate Logan O’Connor. “When guys aren’t sharp, or they’re sleepy, because it’s a long season, he’s always there to refocus people and keep them accountable,” O’Connor continued. “I think that’s the biggest thing with our team. The accountability throughout the lineup. Everyone has high standards for each other, and he’s one of the guys who keeps those standards up.”

Adopt an underdog mindset: Colorado began the 2021-22 season with 6-1 championship odds and remained the favorite at the majority of sportsbooks throughout the year. But you’d never know it from hearing the Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog after the game. “What motivated all of us is to make each other champions,” said Landeskog to Sportsnet after the game. “To do it in this building against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions… it’s pretty special.”

It’s even more special when you accomplish it in front of those hostile fans we noted earlier. Nothing takes a player out of a contest more easily than a crowd that gets inside his head; but nothing takes the crowd, itself, out of the game better than letting all that animosity fuel the chip that lets your performance (and not, say, your mouth or middle finger) do the talking.

Focus on the game—and each other: Adversity-busting teams focus not only on the game but also on each other. Ironically, the perceived discomforts of travel—the ritual team meals and travel and practice schedules—might strengthen the bond between teammates and focus them on their shared mission. Perhaps away games work in much the same way as corporate retreats, which rely on freeing teammates from the comforts and complacency of the familiar in order to focus them on the possible and how they can collaborate to make the possible happen?

The Avalanche’s Cale Makar doesn’t love attention, so after he was named the Stanley Cup playoffs’ most valuable player Sunday, he skated the Conn Smythe Trophy to the Colorado Avalanche bench without so much as raising it above his head.

Just after Makar took his lap around the rink with the Stanley Cup, Landeskog was asked by ESPN’s Emily Kaplan what other teams could learn from the Avalanche championship run. “Find a Cale Makar somewhere,” he replied.

That’s comradeship to a high degree. Maybe it’s true: the team that sups on the road together brings home Stanley Cups together.

Now, what is your team doing to stay focused on the fundamentals of their game and working with each other?