Playing in Toronto a huge draw

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

Does looking up at the CN Tower every day make a Maple Leaf feel bigger in a game?

Will the bustle of St. Lawrence Market work him up for a big hit? Can scrambled eggs at home, a glance at The Sun and Harold Hossein's weather forecasts help get two points that night? How much motivation does a sold-out ACC and a national television audience provide?

An old adage is that home ice is worth a goal, but the stakes have been increased this summer. The culmative effect of bringing in three prominent players who all craved to come back might be the missing link to the Stanley Cup.

Toronto-born Jason Allison and Jeff O'Neill and London-born, Toronto-raised Eric Lindros all campaigned to be Leafs on the strength of the homecoming factor, and leading sports psychologists agree there are plenty of benefits.

"It's likely to work one of two ways," said Dr. Patrick Cohn of the Peak Performance Sports Co. in Orlando, Fla. "A veteran athlete (the three new Leafs are at or over age 30), will feed off the home crowd, which helps them focus and get in their zone. They can use the extra incentive of the cheerleading.

"The culture of knowing where to go in town, how to get around is important. It can be something as simple as a home-cooked meal.

"But for younger players or rookies, playing at home can cause fear of failure. They don't have the experience to deal with disappointment. They don't want to be embarrassed in front of their friends and family and most of them interpret (home ice) as pressure."

That might explain why many of those Toronto kids drafted high by the Leafs through the past 15 to 20 years did not match expectations, such as Rob Pearson, Steve Bancroft, Drake Berehowsky and Jeff Ware.

On the other hand, Peter Zezel, Mark Osborne, Jamie Macoun, Curtis Joseph, Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Steve Thomas and Tie Domi are among native players who gained fame elsewhere and maintained or elevated their game upon returning.

"Studies have been done that document comfortable, familiar surroundings give the home team clear advantage," said Leafs development coach Paul Dennis. "Then you factor in the familiarity with the arena and its idiosyncrasies, such as the bounce of the puck off the boards and glass and the energy of the fans."

CUP DROUGHT

But Dennis, who holds a Ph.D in sports psychology, says toiling here in a 38-year Cup void can present challenges unique to any other sports' town. Players who've been overwhelmed by the expectations and attention of fans and media have come to him for assistance.

"One term is the 'catastrophe effect.' If a player at home is anxious and energized, and then does something wrong, he'll crash emotionally and it doesn't matter what happens the rest of the game.

"So we use imagery to try and deal with it. You create or re-create the situation, the feelings, the the crowd, try to activate the brain to flood the emotions. A person chooses how to interpret the event, to be pro-active or to crumble under the pressure."

Dennis supervises off-season sessions for Leafs' prospects to better adjust, which includes a primer on life in Toronto and media awareness.


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