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You’ve Got to Want the Pressure

Aug 5 2020
Photo by
Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Photo by
Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
James Neal
Edmonton Oilers
Aug 5 2020

(and 5 More Thoughts from Inside the Bubble)


I’ve been on playoff runs before — but none like this. 

I’m here in the bubble right now, in Edmonton, and I’m ready to go. Just hoping for a chance to keep this ride going for us and our fans. Everything about this season is different….. but that’s part of what’s making it fun. We’re staying safe in our hotel, and between games there’s been a lot of time to kind of just sit and think. So I figured I’d take this chance to put down some thoughts — and say a few things that I’ve been meaning to say.  

Thanks for reading, and thanks for sticking with us.


Winning the Stanley Cup — that’s been my goal my entire life.

Last season in Calgary was, for me, the toughest of my career.

I’ve been a goal-scorer my whole life. I’ve always known that I can find the net, even if other elements of my game weren’t on. But it just never happened for me in Calgary. Just didn’t work out. I started second-guessing myself, started changing sticks and tape jobs. I really wanted it to work. Wasn’t my year.

The two years before, I’d gone to the Cup finals with Nashville and Vegas….. and lost both times. I didn’t really realize it until last season, but that whole run took a toll on me. Physically, my body was tired from all that extra postseason hockey. And then mentally, it’s just rough, man. You know, the guys who win the Cup — they have these amazing summers. They’re out there partying, and living it up, and really just letting their minds and bodies recharge. But when you lose? It’s pretty much the opposite. It burns you up.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Winning the Stanley Cup — that’s been my goal my entire life. 

Even before I ever said I wanted to be an NHL player, I told my parents I wanted to win the Cup.

And to tell you the truth: Losing two years in a row, being so close, it probably impacted me a lot more than I knew. That’s no excuse for what happened last season in Calgary — it wasn’t the outcome both parties were hoping for, and that’s on me. But I think it was just the wrong fit at the wrong time.

So when the chance to move to Edmonton came up, I was excited. Obviously it’s one of the greatest franchises in the league’s history, and has an incredible fan base. But I also knew it meant I’d get to play with a group of guys that is one of the best in the league.

Going into the season, I finally felt like my mind and body were back to where they needed to be, too. I remembered everything that had been said about me when it wasn’t happening in Calgary — and that motivated me more than anything to make the most of my chance here in Edmonton. I know what type of player I am, and what I can bring in the playoffs. 

That’s what I want to show Oiler fans. 


Connor just didn’t want to embarrass us.

McDavid….. yeah….. decent player.

No, I’ve known Connor since his early days, when he was coming through juniors — he’s been really special for a really long time.

It’s funny, back when Connor was 16 and playing with Erie, he was training with Gary Roberts, who I work with as well. And one day we were doing some on-ice drills, me and Connor and some of Gary’s other guys. And I remember watching Connor run through his stuff — and in my head, just thinking, like, Wait. This….. this is Connor McDavid?? This is it??

I looked over at Gary and I said to him, “What’s Connor doing out here? Is he going to turn it up a little bit?”

Gary pulled him aside for a second.

He skated circles around us for the rest of practice.

At the time, he was so young. And I think he was a little nervous to be around the other guys, since we’d all been in the NHL for a few years at that point. But what I realize now is — it’s not just that Connor was nervous. It’s that he knew. He knew that, even at 16, he was already better than all of us. Even as a junior, he was already the best player on our ice. And Connor is such a nice kid that he just didn’t want to embarrass anyone. 

I’ve played with Sid, and he’s got some unreal explosiveness in his stride. But Connor, man….. Connor is the fastest skater I’ve ever seen. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you watch him up close. Nobody should be able to move that quick. 

Him and Leon, they’re both just on another planet. Having those two as your catalysts, you know you’re in good hands. I know they were disappointed with the way things went last year, and they’ve been on a mission to get back to the playoffs. And now that we’re here, I’m excited to see what they’ve got up their sleeves. 

Those are two tough, competitive guys, who have what it takes — not just to be winners, but to be champions.


The real MVP? I think it might be Leon’s dad.

Leon should win the Hart this year. 

He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around, and he’s got an incredible amount of talent. But the real MVP in this story? I think it might be his dad. 

Leon’s dad was a great player in his own right in Germany, and I’m pretty sure he gave Leon a stick when he was young. That stick, it had a very….. unique blade. And the rest is history.

I mean, look at this thing.

Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Leon’s stick is long and pretty stiff anyway — but then at the bottom he’s basically got this paddle

It’s definitely weird the first time you see it. (And the second time, and the third time.) But he can work some serious magic with it. He’s got such a rare knack for scoring goals. I think if we’d finished the season, he’d have been a lock for 50, just like last year. Also, I remember seeing that Leon got to 50 last year without a single empty-netter — that kind of blew my mind. Not many guys can get to 50, period. But to get there without a single empty-netter?? 

Pretty damn good for a guy using a beaver tail for a stick.


We’re playing for Colby this year.

Connor and Leon aren’t just great players, of course. 

They’re also terrific leaders. 

And I think the most important duty they’ve had as leaders this season has been to make sure that Colby’s legacy — Colby’s spirit — never leaves our dressing room.

Man….. whenever Colby entered the rink, he was smiling. There’s a certain type of guy in the league where, you can just see it on them, that they genuinely love coming in to work. Colby was one of those guys. I sat beside him in the locker room, and we talked a lot before the season paused. It was always his dream to play in the NHL — and you could tell how proud he was to have made that dream come true. Anyone who played with or spent time around Colby will tell you the same thing: His passion for the game was contagious.

He loved being an Oiler.

And so we’re playing for Colby this year. 

Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

He would have been right there in this battle with us — and we know he’s still there in spirit. Everywhere you look, all over the arena, there are reminders. We have his jersey framed in our locker room. The other night during a scrimmage, we all wore his #12 as a tribute. It’s important to everyone in this organization to keep Colby’s memory alive. 

It’s still tough to talk about, though. I haven’t fully wrapped my head around it. And as hard as his passing has been for us as teammates, I can’t even imagine what his family is going through. You can’t put it into words. All that we can do is be there for his wife, Emily, and for the rest of his family, in any way possible. All that we can do is honor Colby Cave as best we can — and right now, I think it’s by giving everything we have to the game that he loved. We play hockey for a living, you know? The guy never took that for granted. 

He was living his dream.


 

You’ve got to want the pressure.

Hockey fans: We miss you guys more than you can imagine.

Trust us — we know this isn’t ideal. But that’s life. We’ve just got to make the most of it. Because we know that at the end of this….. at the finish line? There’s going to be a set of names engraved on the Cup. 

And that’s all the motivation we need.

There’s experience on this team, for sure — but we’re also a young group, learning as we go. And one of the biggest things that I’ve tried to pass down to our younger guys is something I’ve learned about pressure.

You’ve got to want the pressure. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s O.K. to feel nervous. It’s natural to have some feelings out there. But what matters is how you respond to those feelings. I’ve played with guys like Brad Richards, Sidney Crosby, Shea Weber and Mike Fisher — guys who could all slow down the game when it got fast for everyone else. And I think a common trait among them is how they chose their moments to push, to speak up. They don’t let the occasion get too big.

I look at this Oilers team and I see elements of some of the great groups I’ve been a part of. Connor and Leon remind me of Sid and Geno, of course. We’ve got the young guys like Kailer, Ethan, Tyler and Andreas, who really motivate the vets. They’re first in the gym and last out — and it just sets the mood. Every day I’m watching them go and I’m thinking, No chance I’m letting these kids work harder than me. So it just naturally pushes everyone. Good teams need that.

And then in net, we’ve got a pretty unique situation….. but one that I think gives us a pretty unique advantage. Between Mike and Mikko, we’ve got two legit No. 1 goalies. Two guys who can steal games for us on any night. And it gives us a lot of confidence — just knowing how, no matter who’s back there, they’re going to show up big.

From top to bottom, no question, this team has all the parts. I believe that.

We’ve just got to feel that pressure — that good pressure — and use it to our advantage.

We’ve got to want it.


We’re some of the luckiest people on this planet.

When Edmonton was named one of the hub cities, we were all excited. But the guys who were the most excited? The gamers.

Apparently it’s a lot easier to bring your set-up in the car than on a plane. No checked bags. More monitors. That sort of thing.

The gaming here….. I don’t even know what to say. There are guys who’ve brought every single piece of gaming equipment they own: double monitors, PC rigs, you name it. If you took it away, they’d be lost. All they do is play Call of Duty or Fortnite, or whatever, for hours. It’s how they spend their free time, since we can’t leave the hotel or go into anyone’s room — except I don’t even think they’d want to, because that would screw up their gaming.

And they’re all talking — no, sorry, yelling — on their mics. I can hear them through the walls. Total insanity. I’ve spent most of the past month listening to Andreas talk to his computer screen. I always give him a hard time about it. (Around 9:30 p.m., I’ll knock on the wall so he knows it’s time to put that thing away for the night.)

Gaming aside, everyone’s been pretty cool — but there are other teams on our floor, too, not just us. We’ve got Nashville, Vegas and Dallas here with us….. which of course are all teams I’ve played for. (Is Marriott trolling me?) But honestly it’s been pretty fun. It feels like juniors, when we would go away on tournaments with our parents. Only now I’m the parent, and I’m the one telling guys to get some sleep. 

A little weirdness aside, though, I’m just glad we’re talking about hockey again.

This situation isn’t what any of us dreamed of — but it’s what we’ve got.

And as far as I see it, we’re still some of the luckiest people on the planet.

We get to compete for a Stanley Cup.

James Neal
Edmonton Oilers