For Rand Pecknold, it's about turning the little things into big ones.
“Everything that we do, I think, is about marginal gains,” said Quinnipiac Bobcats head coach said the day before his team faced North Dakota in the NCAA men’s hockey national championship. “We need to get a little bit better in, say, 12 different categories and then we can compete with the North Dakota’s and BC’s and BU’s of the world.”
Compete they have. Top-ranked Quinnipiac took down hockey power Boston College on Thursday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa, earning the Bobcats and their 2016 AHCA Coach of the Year a seat at the table with North Dakota, even if they ultimately fell 5-1, losing the championship game for the second time in four years.
Pecknold credits some of their “marginal” improvements this season to sports psychologist Dr. Wayne Halliwell of the University of Montreal. The coach went so far as to thank Halliwell for his largely unheralded role with the team after it took down the Eagles.
The relationship started over the summer as Pecknold and his staff looked to bring in some experts to help them improve for the coming season. Halliwell works all over in sports, but has a particular affinity for hockey. A former player who saw time in the NCAA and in Europe, he’s worked with the Canadian World Junior Team, gold medalists, and NHLers such as Mike Cammalleri, Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby.
“It was important that he was a hockey guy,” said Pecknold. “It helped the team to buy in quickly. I have a very open mindset. I want to get better. I want to learn. I have this craving for knowledge.”
Associate coach Bill Riga suggested Halliwell, someone he’d encountered during his time with Union College under then-head coach Nate Leaman. The Quinnipiac coaches enjoyed their day with the doctor so much that they invited him back to work with the student-athletes.
With their first meeting in the fall, having the players invest quickly would matter. Though Halliwell wouldn’t say they’re buying in as much as hearing something that makes sense to them.
“Sometimes it can have an impact immediately,” Halliwell said the day of the title game. “The tools that I teach, number one, they’re simple. Number two, they’re practical. Number three, they’re sticky.
The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
“Like with goalies. When I work with goalies I use an acronym like ABC,” he says, as an example. “‘A,’ meaning alert, see the puck. ‘B,’ be big, out challenging the shooter. ‘C,’ be calm. Make your body soft so when the puck hits you there’s no rebound.”
“He met with our team and met with some individual players, we’ve had a dialogue with him all year,” Pecknold said. “He’s come back a couple times. He’s Skyped with a couple of our kids a few times.”
One of the big keys they’ve taken from Halliwell, said Pecknold, was helping the players reboot their minds.
“You come out the first couple shifts and things aren’t going your way. Huge turnover and they put it in the back of the net. Are you done for the game now? Are you going to dwell on that? Or are you going to hit the reset button and be great the rest of the way?
“I think he gave our players some tools and some resources to have a better reset button and that’s been very noticeable this year,” he said.
It’s hard to quantify how much a hypothetical reset button impacts a team, but it’s significant that the Bobcats were 6-1-2 this season when trailing after the first period. By contrast, fellow tournament teams BC (3-3-1), BU (5-6-1), Denver (1-4-3), Michigan (3-5-2), RIT (3-9-0) and Lowell (0-5-0) were less than successful in that department.
Halliwell’s influence wasn’t just an ongoing relationship with the players. It was with Pecknold and the coaching staff as well, who, like Halliwell, immediately jump into discussion of keywords when discussing how the psychologist helps coaches.
“‘Move your feet,’ ‘Drive the net,’ ‘Stay on rebounds,’ ‘Track back hard,’ things like that are all process oriented,” Halliwell said. “I’ve worked with lots of university teams and NHL teams and Olympic athletes and what I’ve learned, especially from the Olympic athletes, is that if you can become really, really immersed in the moment and not thinking about the outcome, it helps.
“That’s why things like ‘win the battle,’ or ‘drive the net’ work. Those are all process things like ‘push the pace’ and ‘apply the pressure.’ Don’t feel the pressure of a final playoff game. Apply the pressure. I think that’s maybe part of what helped [Quinnipiac] get off to a good start against [Boston College]… they caused some turnovers early, because they were applying pressure.”
Halliwell’s impact on the team even goes beyond keywords, accessing the present and finding a reset button. Pecknold notes details that Halliwell brought up details that might otherwise go unnoticed, helping the team engrain their identity through repetition.
That includes taking their “Attack the Day” slogan, written in large lettering in their home locker room at TD Bank Sports Center, on the road with them. They put the slogan on a board they can carry with them wherever they go. It hangs on the wall on visiting locker rooms, just as it did Saturday at Amalie Arena.
Additionally, each player also has an individualized skate mat with their number and “Attack the Day” looking up at them each day as they lace up their skates.
“He made us a little bit better in a couple small areas,” Pecknold said with a smile, returning to his “marginal gains.”
While the national championship eluded Pecknold’s Bobcats, there’s no doubt that the gains were there and that it has become a program demanding to be taken seriously as an annual powerhouse.
The 2015-16 season marked Quinnipiac’s fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance. It earned the ECAC regular season championship and the Bobcats were winners of the ECAC tournament for the first time in school history. And after opening the season on a 17-game winning streak, the longest since Colorado College went 15-0-3 to start the 1995-96 campaign, they were the first team to enter the tournament with three or fewer losses since Maine (42-1-2) in 1992-93.
Halliwell provided “marginal gains,” but the success of “marginal gains” at Quinnipiac isn’t about any one thing so much as Pecknold’s drive to explore anything that can make his team better.