Sleep, shakes and short memories: How rookies like Connor Bedard handle the NHL grind

WASHINGTON — Alex Vlasic is usually in bed around midnight after a home game, but no matter how early that practice or video session is the next day, he’s still wide awake for another couple hours.

Maybe the Blackhawks won, and the adrenaline is still coursing through the rookie defenseman’s veins. Maybe the Blackhawks lost, and he’s endlessly replaying a botched assignment or a turnover that led directly to a goal. Maybe he’s got a nagging injury, something minor enough to play through but significant enough to keep him uncomfortable. No matter the cause, Vlasic’s usually not drifting off to sleep until 1:30 or 2 a.m.

So like a new parent at the mercy of a baby’s whims, Vlasic has taken to squeezing in a nap whenever he can. And not just the traditional pregame nap on game nights. If he’s got a vacant window of an hour or two in the middle of the day, it’s straight to bed.

“Yeah, makes me feel old,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve never really been a napper, but napping has been my best friend this year.”

For rookies, adapting to the NHL is more than just understanding systems and learning opponents’ tendencies. It’s about handling the unceasing grind of the NHL season. It feels like there’s always a game the next day, always a flight to catch, always a meeting to attend, always an interview to do, always a bump or a bruise to manage. With so little time in between games, and so much pressure inherent in those games, that means self-care becomes more than just a recommendation — it’s a necessity. It’s a job.

Physically, that means more naps, more carefully constructed protein recovery shakes, more healthy meals, more dips in the cold tub, more time on the massage table, more time stretching before and after games. Mentally, it means more time talking to support staff and veteran teammates, more time away from the rink, more cutting yourself a little slack and giving yourself a little grace. An extra “20 or 30 minutes a day, which is nothing, to try to feel your best,” as Connor Bedard put it.

“You’re always working,” defenseman Kevin Korchinski said. “Whether it’s a good game, a bad game, a good practice, a bad practice, there’s always something the next day. You’ve just got to prepare for that. Honestly, it’s kind of nice. There’s no time to (sulk).”

For rookies Connor Bedard, Kevin Korchinski and Alex Vlasic, the NHL grind is more mental than physical. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Any hockey season is a grind. In college, a player only has 34 games on the regular-season schedule. But he’s also got a full class load and all the social obligations that come with being a student. In junior leagues (Bedard and Korchinski were both in the WHL last year) and in the American Hockey League (where Vlasic spent most of last season), the games are mostly bunched up over the weekends, giving players frequent breaks of three, four, even five days off in a row. But all those long bus rides take quite a bit more of a toll than an all-first-class private jet, and those weekends can be pretty brutal. Last season, Bedard played three games in three days four separate times for the Regina Pats, and Korchinski did it twice for the Seattle Thunderbirds. Throw in some four-in-fives, and you can see why they need those extended breaks during the week.

So while everything is ratcheted up in the NHL — the pressure, the physicality, the number of games and the relentless pace of the season — you won’t hear the Blackhawks triumvirate of star rookies complain.

“It’s been good, it’s fun,” Bedard said. “For me, what I want to do is play hockey games. We’re playing a lot and I’ve really enjoyed it. Obviously, it’s been frustrating sometimes with how we haven’t gotten the wins, but it’s good to be with this group learning and growing. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Coping with the losses has made this grind unique for Bedard, who’s never experienced anything like this. Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Capitals was the Blackhawks’ 48th loss in 64 games. And Bedard’s frustration has been evident at times this season, whether he’s slamming his stick on the bench or punching the boards. He expects to win. And he expects to score. When he doesn’t, it infuriates him.

It’s reminiscent of Jonathan Toews’ early years in a Blackhawks uniform. Toews was famously competitive and hard on himself and his teammates, often shouting on the bench between shifts. He always took his work home with him, stewing into the wee hours about a missed opportunity or a poor decision in transition. It took years — and multiple Stanley Cups — for Toews to take it easier on himself, to be able to flush a bad night or a bad shift and move on.

Bedard believes he’s got a handle on his emotions, though. He unleashes them, yes, but he doesn’t dwell on them. After all, it’s never bad to care, to be passionate about what you do.

“If we lose, or we lose and I don’t feel like I played great, I’m mad,” Bedard said. “There’s a balance to that, for sure. I don’t feel like I’m terrible, but I’m competitive and this means a lot to me. It’s better to be maybe a little frustrated for (a bit) than wash it away right away.”

Physically, all three rookies said they feel good. Vlasic has some nagging things, but nothing major. Bedard just had five weeks off as he recovered from a broken jaw. And in Korchinski’s words, “I’m 19. I’m good.” On Saturday morning in Washington, only six Blackhawks took the ice for an optional morning skate. One was Arvid Söderblom, the backup goalie. Two were Andreas Athanasiou and Nikita Zaitsev, both working their way back from injury. Another was Reese Johnson, who’s a frequent healthy scratch.

The other two? Bedard and Korchinski.

Korchinski laughed when reminded that, five months into the season, it’s OK to take a break, to skip a skate. The coaches were practically begging for them to do so with another game looming at home on Sunday against Arizona.

“That youthful energy is great,” coach Luke Richardson said. “But don’t stay out there too long, even just fooling around, shooting pucks at the end. It’s a waste of energy when we’ve got to utilize that over the next two days.”

“I don’t know, it’s a long day and I’d rather skate than not,” Korchinski shrugged. “It just makes the day shorter, and I like to get my touches on the ice and feel good for the game.”

Korchinski chalked up his good physical condition to all the physical, nutritional and mental resources the Blackhawks provide the players, which are nothing like the bare-bones lifestyle of junior hockey. He also noted that as an unmarried 19-year-old, he doesn’t have any real obligations to take up his time. “I don’t have to get the kids to school in the morning, which helps me catch up on sleep,” he said with a laugh.

Vlasic feels good, too, but said it’s been more of a challenge mentally lately, especially as the Blackhawks went through a stretch of 15 losses in 16 games.

“The last month and a half or so, losing what seems like every game, it’s a little bit tough mentally,” Vlasic said. “It can be tougher coming to the rink when you’re not really getting the results you want.”

Korchinski agreed. He never comes to the rink too exhausted to play or practice, but there are times when it’s tougher to be excited than others. As the games and losses pile up, that’s only natural. Learning to fight through it is a big part of becoming a professional athlete.

“It’s never an energy thing,” Korchinski said. “It’s more mental than anything. It’s like, you make one mistake and it’s in the back of your net. In junior, it’s not really like that. It definitely can be mentally draining. But energy-wise, I’m always showing up to the rink with a smile on my face, ready to go, having fun and being excited.

“That’s when I’m playing my best, when I’m enjoying it and playing free out there. And it’s a long season, but it’s awesome, a lot of fun. Hockey will always be fun.”

(Top photo of Connor Bedard and Alex Vlasic: Chase Agnello-Dean / NHLI via Getty Images)

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