Thursday September 1st, 2016

I can’t say there weren’t some doubts starting to creep in.

When you’re in your late 20s with 10 NHL seasons on your legs, and suddenly you’re not scoring and your team isn’t winning, the little voice inside your head can tell you things you don’t want to hear. That was the voice that started talking to me in December.

And my lack of production on the ice made it feel like the voice had a point.

Almost a quarter of the way through the 2015–16 season, I only had a handful of points and wherever I was on the list of NHL scoring leaders, it wasn’t high. I wasn’t playing up to my expectations, but even worse, my failures meant that the team wasn’t winning. Nothing we did seemed to work. Offensively we struggled and with each frustrating loss, we fell further and further behind the competition.

Forget being in the conversation as Stanley Cup favorites, we weren’t even in position to qualify for the postseason. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one with doubts, either.

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After each and every practice and game, reporters were there to remind me that things weren’t going well. “Why aren’t you scoring?” . . . “Why can’t the offense get going?” . . . “Why is a team with so much talent struggling to win?”

Sure, those kinds of questions always come during a scoring drought, but last year’s drought — that was something different. It lasted for three full months, practically the entire regular season.

And I didn’t have any answers. At least not good answers.

Kenneth Cappello

Truthfully, I have never been one to seek out what is being written and said in the media — good or bad. I’m pretty motivated as it is without needing extra fuel for the fire. The most diehard fan or angry columnist doesn’t expect more out of me than I do of myself. No matter how much pressure anyone else heaps upon me, I still put more pressure on myself.

Maybe it’s cliché to say that, but for me, it also happens to be true. Winning and wanting to be the best while still enjoying the game have always been the biggest motivating factors for me.

That’s why when the media repeats the same questions — particularly when the team isn’t winning consistently — you already know that whatever is being said out there, it isn’t good. You can feel the atmosphere in the arena and see the look in people’s eyes. It’s hard not to hold the stick a little bit tighter. It’s hard not to want to fix it all with one big game. It’s hard not to over-think and over-work and try to make perfect plays instead of just playing.

Still, despite my awareness of the noise, I knew the game hadn’t passed me by. Deep down inside, athletes know what they are capable of, and we know what we need to do in order to meet and exceed our own expectations. And sure, I know there are ups and downs in a season, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t have to look in the mirror and answer some hard questions about my game — if only to evaluate where I was and truly understand what I needed to improve on. Honest self-evaluation comes with the territory — no matter how well or poorly you’re playing at any given moment.

Just playing. That’s what ultimately helped me break out of the funk I was in. Going out onto the ice and playing instinctively.

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Not that fixing things came overnight. It’s not that easy. You can’t just flip a switch and resurrect your best self. There were things I wanted to adjust about my own game, but it would’ve been overwhelming to take it all on immediately. Instead, my focus was to simplify things and just try to improve incrementally, piece by piece. When the little things got ironed out, the bigger stuff simply fell into place.

Eventually, the hundreds of hours we put in as a team at practice as a team paid dividends. By dedicating ourselves to preparation and development before games, we were able to play instinctively in games, confident — certain, actually — that our hard work would pay off.

Over time, we slowly developed an identity as a team based on how we wanted to play. Undeniably, that happened a lot slower than everyone wanted it to happen. As a result, a coaching change was made (which is difficult as a player to have rest on your shoulders), but the wins finally started to come.

Predictably, the scoring numbers people normally expected from me arrived in tandem with the team playing better as a whole. When you think about scoring and producing in hockey, you want chances. It’s not points so much as chances. Chances give you confidence. No hockey player can really control what his or her point total is from night to night. That’s not how the game works. What I try to do is just generate chances. I knew if I could do that, everything else would follow.

It’s simple math, really: The more scoring opportunities you create, the more of them will find the back of the net. Eventually.

As we collectively fixed all the little things in our games, the chances increased and our point totals increased along with them. The fast-paced style we wanted to execute eventually became ingrained. That became our identity. It was natural. It became Penguins hockey and the memories of those early season struggles vanished as if they had never existed.

Winning the Stanley Cup was amazing (obviously), but it was made all the more sweet on account of how we started the season. We were an afterthought, a punchline — and then we weren’t.

If I am being honest, winning it all for the second time was partly a relief, too. Making it to the Finals, taking that incredible journey together, you want to come out on top. It wasn’t just about overcoming the struggles of last season, but also what happened between the two cups, falling short in other years when expectations were high and my injuries prevented me from being on the ice. Everything we had been through made this one so incredibly special.

After the series ended, after the playoff beard got shaved off — a playoff beard that was disappointingly not much better than the one I “grew” in 2009 — I took a month off. Relaxed. Went home to Nova Scotia and got my two days with the Stanley Cup, including taking it to my hockey school so the kids could see it and touch it.

Kenneth Cappello

And then it was back to work. The start of my off-season training program began in mid-July, coinciding with a photo shoot I did for adidas’s new line of workout attire at the old Forum in Halifax. New season, new training gear. The page is turned.

I won’t rest on my laurels. I just can’t. Winning is special. If last season taught me anything, it was how thin the line is between being “washed up” and lifting the Stanley Cup. I don’t want to struggle like that again. That October to December stretch was awful; the lowest point of my career outside of injury. I’ll put in any amount of work I have to so I don’t have to go through that again.

As if outrunning the downside of my career wasn’t motivation enough, the new guys coming into the league will surely have my attention, too. These are the young and hungry guys. The guys that want to be where you are. They’re fast. They’re strong. And with all the young talent throughout the league, it just makes you want to get better yourself. That’s such a fun (and underrated) part of the game to me. I love having to adjust and adapt my game year-to-year to find ways to be my best.

The off-season individual work, the hours you put in at the gym, is for the team as well. If you don’t keep yourself strong and your skills at a high level, you’re not being accountable to the guy next to you. We have a great group and mostly everyone is returning from last season. Some Cup teams get broken up because of the salary cap, but we’ve been fortunate to maintain much of the same group that played so well together in the spring.

Naturally, winning the Stanley Cup is the hardest thing to do in this sport. The six years of postseason disappointment between 2009 and last season were a good example of that taught me that.

Still, this year’s team has as good a chance as anyone. There’s a lot of belief in our dressing room and a confidence that we all know our roles and how to play together. We know it’s going to be tough. There’s a reason no one has gone back-to-back in almost 20 years. Everyone is gunning for you and over an 82-game season and four rounds of playoffs, it’s hard to keep winning. Rest assured — even if the doubts creep back in — we’ll do our best to try to make it happen.

I don’t want the first half of last season to happen ever again. I want the second part. I want to keep the Cup.

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