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How an NHL rookie prepared for the big league

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A new NHL season is underway. Across the 32 teams in the league, there are 736 roster spots, and millions of kids grow up wanting to one day earn one of them. Ahead of the season, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED went behind the scenes and on the ice to follow one rookie on the verge of achieving that dream.

And, Gabe, you're rolling.

GABRIEL SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Can I just get you to say your name for me?

MITCHELL GIBSON: Yeah. Mitchell Gibson.

DETROW: Mitchell Gibson is 24 years old, and he's hoping to become one of the Washington Capitals' goalies. Gibson was drafted in the fourth round back in 2018. In hockey, unlike the NFL and other sports, players are often drafted before they go to college. So he committed to the Capitals but then headed to Harvard to play college hockey. And now, years later, he's a pro. Gibson first talked to us from his parents' house in suburban Philadelphia, just before he drove down to Virginia for the Caps rookie camp.

GIBSON: You know, I have nothing to lose, right? I mean, they kind of - they probably already have, like, what's in their head as to where guys are going to go and where, you know, I'm slated kind of in their lineup.

DETROW: Sure. Testing one, two, three. We are standing in the bleachers looking at the Caps rookies practice. We got four goalies on the ice right now. They're all wearing red. Gibson came on and immediately went over by the penalty box, and he was stretching out. He's talking to the coaches now. All the goalies are getting together.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOCKEY PUCK THUDS)

DETROW: That thud is the sound of a rubber hockey puck that has been shot at Gibson that he is blocking with his body. It's kind of a crazy position where your job is to put your body in front of hockey pucks that could be going at this level over a hundred miles an hour.

Gibson is a chatty guy. He skates over to compliment the shooter.

GIBSON: I like your shot.

UNIDENTIFIED HOCKEY PLAYER: What?

GIBSON: I like your shot.

UNIDENTIFIED HOCKEY PLAYER: Yeah?

GIBSON: It's keeping me on my toes right now.

DETROW: After a few rounds, a coach pulls Gibson aside. He's spotted an issue with Gibson's form.

GIBSON: What's that?

UNIDENTIFIED HOCKEY COACH: When that back leg gets away from you...

GIBSON: Yeah, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED HOCKEY COACH: ...Most of - for the most part, really good job.

GIBSON: At the end of the drill, I was...

UNIDENTIFIED HOCKEY COACH: Yeah. Yeah. If you feel that back leg in shorts here, then...

GIBSON: Yep.

DETROW: During a break, Gibson skates over to the bench to grab a water bottle, and this time, he chats up a trainer.

GIBSON: How are we doing? Chugged a coffee, So I'm buzzing.

DETROW: Before practice, Gibson had walked with us from the ice rink to a nearby coffee shop. Along the way, he told producer Gabriel Sanchez and me about how he got started and when he realized he had a shot at the NHL.

When did you start playing goalie?

GIBSON: Seven. I started skating when I was 5, 8 when I was - when I played goalie. I have an older brother and a younger brother. So my older brother, we had like an old, like. Unfinished basement in my old house with. Like. Cement walls. So he just needed someone to shoot at and just pinned me up against the wall with, you know, like a pillow under my shirt and just started hammering away when I was was that age. So...

DETROW: Actually, I feel like I know a lot of goalies who just, like, came down to the fact that they were the youngest kid and got stuck in goal.

GIBSON: Yeah, yeah, basically. And just someone bullied them into doing it and it just ended up - don't regret it now. It's kind of a crazy, like, start to it.

DETROW: Mitchell Gibson progressed through youth hockey, and one day, around the time when he was a freshman in high school, he realized, whoa, there are scouts in the stands checking me out.

GIBSON: I was terrified because especially you go to those rinks and it's like youth rinks. So, like, you only see, like, a couple of guys in the stands. And, like, you know exactly - they all have the jackets on, you know what I mean? It's like that typical scout kind of look. They all have notebook, and they have the jackets on. And, like, for me, I just wanted to get to college. Like, that was really, like, I thought, like, OK, if I just get D1, then maybe I'll think about pro after. But, like...

DETROW: After high school, Gibson spent a couple of years playing junior hockey, an ultra-competitive youth setting where people trying to make it to the pros or college often go. From there, he was drafted by the Capitals, then headed to Harvard. And all along, it's been a lot of pressure.

GIBSON: I don't know. I think I'm, you know, as a goalie, you always just try to be the coolest guy on the ice, right? Like, you don't want to show your nerves or, you know, show that you're intimidated out there, which I feel like I'm never really too scared of the moment. I kind of like it and enjoy it. I stay pretty stern when I'm in that. Like, I try not to show too much emotion. So that's one of the things I try to focus on.

DETROW: Gibson spent all summer working out and preparing for the faster speeds and stronger players and longer seasons he'll face in the pros, but he's most focused on the mental game, trying to keep that cool, even when he's now playing with the best of the best and facing the toughest pressure of his young career.

GIBSON: I think for me, it's all between the ears. Like, a lot of, like, mental battles kind of go on when you turn pro, you know, other guys coming in, you know, you're competing with other goalies now.

DETROW: The right mental approach is key for every athlete. It's especially key for a position like goalie. Dwell too much on the mistake you made and the goal you let in? You lose your confidence. More mistakes follow. But get too proud of that amazing glove save and maybe you get too comfortable, too unfocused, and suddenly you're scored on twice. Gibson is big on meditation.

GIBSON: I do it myself. So I read a book - I forget - "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by Shunryu Suzuki. I read it over COVID, and then I got into meditation over COVID, and that opened up a whole new world for me.

DETROW: He's made it a daily practice now and says it helps on the ice.

GIBSON: It is what it is. You can't really - you can't control what happened literally two seconds ago. You know, the horn goes off, all that stuff, but it's almost - I - it's weird. You would think it'd be the opposite, where I have to take time and take a break and figure out what happened and kind of move on from there. But for me, it's actually been, you know, just keep moving forward, because the more I dwell on that, the more it's going to affect the next thing.

DETROW: It's harder in this setting, though. In college, everyone was in it together. Teammates lived in the dorms together. They went to class together. They looked out for each other. In the pros, it could be more cutthroat. There are way more goalies at Capitals camp than there are roster spots.

GIBSON: You don't really have to say it. I mean, we're at this point now where I'm trying to take another guy's paycheck from him, right? So I think in college, there was maybe a little bit more of that camaraderie, but...

DETROW: And there's another huge mental hurdle. We see it play out as we walk back to the rink so Gibson can get ready for practice. He's telling me about when the Capitals drafted him when suddenly our conversation trails off.

GIBSON: It's just funny how it worked out. I had a good interview with them, so...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All good?

GIBSON: He's a funny guy.

DETROW: Gibson and I are both kind of laughing nervously there, because suddenly, Alex Ovechkin has come around the corner and is watching our interview from just a few feet away as he waits for the elevator. Ovechkin, a Stanley Cup winner, the captain of the team and the player on pace to pass the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, to become the league's No. 1 goal scorer of all time.

GIBSON: It's cool.

DETROW: That intimidated me. Did that intimidate you just now?

GIBSON: Well, I don't what he was doing down here.

DETROW: The encounter reminds Gibson of a moment last spring, when he got called up to the Capitals for a one-day emergency stint as their backup goalie. He had just finished his final season as Harvard's goalie, which meant he was free to finally formally sign with the Capitals, who had drafted him five years earlier. The team's regular backup goalie was sick, and the Capitals told Gibson to be on standby.

GIBSON: They called me and said, hey, just so you know, they're on the road. But in case anything happens with the Caps goalies this week - they had like three games that week, if I remember - if anything happens this week, you're going to be the guy on the bench, basically.

DETROW: Gibson slept with his ringer on, though he didn't really expect the phone to ring, but it did. So Gibson rushed from his college dorm in Cambridge all the way to the Capitals' arena in Washington, D.C. He sat in the locker room looking around and not quite believing what was going on.

GIBSON: You know, I'm looking over. I'm like, holy s***, Ovi's my teammate now for a game. What the hell is - it's like I was definitely scared.

DETROW: Gibson didn't get into the game, but he was on the ice for warmups. When he skated into goal to get some practice, the rest of the team cleared out to make way for Ovechkin. The future Hall of Famer was resting on one knee and seemed determined to welcome the surprise rookie to the NHL in a memorable way.

GIBSON: And then Ovi stands up, kind of flicks the puck up into the middle of the zone and comes down on me. And I'm like, oh my God. My first shot is going to be from Ovechkin. And he winds up. And I think he - maybe as a rookie, he was trying to test me a little bit. And he winds up a full slapshot as hard as he can from maybe 15 feet away from me. And I'm like, oh, my goodness.

DETROW: The shot hit the post and bounced outside. Ovechkin came at him again. This time, he scored. Then a third shot from the superstar Gibson had grown up watching on TV.

GIBSON: He came down again and scored on me. And then I gloved him on the third one. So I guess I'm tied against him.

DETROW: Now, on the ice at rookie camp, Gibson is trying to earn a permanent spot on the team.

GIBSON: First day on the job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: First day on the job?

GIBSON: Technically.

DETROW: The warm-ups are over, and Gibson's in goal as Capitals players rush down the ice, passing the puck and taking shots on it.

GIBSON: Oh, you were head hunting.

DETROW: The last shot zings right by his head.

GIBSON: Oh.

DETROW: During the downtime, Gibson keeps chatting. He talks about food.

GIBSON: I want to hit, like, every place. P.F. Chang's - highly recommended.

DETROW: And stretching at center ice, he shares deep thoughts.

GIBSON: You ever just think, like, what are we doing? We're entertainers. Us and Cirque du Soleil are, like, the same type of people.

DETROW: At the end of practice, Gibson talks to another player about the microphone he's been wearing all day.

GIBSON: I don't think I gave them any content today.

DETROW: Once they get off the ice, Gibson and the other rookies board a bus to Annapolis, Md., where rookie camp continues at the Naval Academy.

GIBSON: So just like normal? Hello? Hey, Gabe. Yeah, I can hear you. How are you guys doing?

DETROW: A few weeks later, he and I talk again. Gibson survived that rookie camp and made the initial NHL squad training camp list, but ultimately, he got cut. He'll start a season in the minors. That mental preparation he talks so much about? He's got to keep working on it.

GIBSON: Yeah, being completely honest, I think I got caught up in the whole, you know - listen. I've been watching Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie since I was 10 years old - right? - from watching these guys kind of come up in the league. And to finally have the chance to see their shots on a day-to-day basis...

DETROW: It all got into Gibson's head a little too much and affected his performance in goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: With 10:34 to go in the 2nd, Mitchell Gibson will take over in goal for Bjorklund.

DETROW: Gibson went down to the minor league camp and got into a game playing for the Hershey Bears. He grew up going to Bears games. Suddenly, there he was in goal for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Pass and a breakaway. Krafska (ph) in on Gibson, backhander. And Gibson, what a star and a glove save off his right arm and into the (inaudible) net.

DETROW: Gibson says he's determined to help his team win, whether that team's the Hershey Bears or the Capitals' lower tier minor league squad, the South Carolina Stingrays. Toward the end of the interview, I asked Gibson if he set a personal goal for himself for when he wants to make it to the NHL.

GIBSON: Yeah. You know, I'll get kind of - I'll relate it back to the first time we talked. I'll get a little Zen Buddhist on you guys. It's just about like right now, you know? And I can't - you can't look too far down the line. Like, I think if you start thinking about timing to yourself, you're going to be disappointed because it's out of my hands. I have no control over me making the next team. I have control over myself, but, like, the people at the top are the ones who are, you know, deciding where I'm going.

DETROW: Wherever Mitchell Gibson lands, we'll try to check back in as the season continues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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