Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith opened training camp ahead of the 2019-20 season enjoying a brand-new, three-year contract extension and what he thought would be the job security that came with it.
What he got? A one-way ticket to Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton.
“Obviously the hardest and the lowest point was right after preseason when I was told I was getting sent down, after I thought I had a really good year,” DeSmith said. “I wasn’t really worried about potentially being sent down. And then it happened. It was kind of a shock to the system a little bit.”
Concerned about losing Tristan Jarry for nothing on waivers, the Penguins chose to instead send DeSmith to their AHL affiliate. That unexpected setback could have been the start of a downward spiral for some players.
Instead, it became a spring board.
After toiling in the AHL for the entire 2019-20 season, DeSmith rejoined the NHL roster this season. He’s done more than provide solid backup goaltending, with a .912 save percentage and 2.54 goals-against average in 20 appearances. At one point in early April, DeSmith shot up the leaderboard to claim the NHL’s best save percentage.
For his ability to respond to the adversity and work his way back to the NHL, DeSmith has been selected as the Pittsburgh PHWA’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is given to a player that best displays qualities of “sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to hockey.”
“To be here now, I feel very fortunate,” DeSmith said. “I’ve come a long way since the first year of my pro career. I think perseverance has played a big role in that.”
To respond to this latest test, it took DeSmith’s own mental fortitude, some guidance from goaltending coach Mike Buckley … and a special assist from a former Navy SEAL.
—-After three deployments to the Middle East, TC Cummings knows very well about unexpected shocks to the system. As a Navy SEAL Special Operator and Corpsman, he weathered many three-day, three-night evolutions with no sleep and no external support.
“For some reason, the intel is always wrong and the equipment breaks,” Cummings said. “But you’ve still got to get the job done.”
What Cummings went through in the military often turned into a real life-and-death situation.
Stopping a hockey puck is not that. And that’s the point.
Cummings, who has been working as DeSmith’s mindset coach throughout his seven-year professional career, translates what he learned as a SEAL into something that can help a hockey goalie stay focused. One of the biggest things he discussed with DeSmith last year is something he calls “turning on the light switch” to find perspective.
He asked DeSmith last year to consider, what is the worst-case scenario?
“For many reasons he wants to play in the NHL,” Cummings said. “The worst-case scenario is he gets to play hockey for a living. When you put things into perspective, it doesn’t stop the pain. But it changes things.”
Since 1994, Cummings has been working with CEOs and business owners to create a culture based on teamwork. He’s applied the same approaches to the athletes who participate in MMA, baseball, football, golf and hockey.
Goalies in particular fascinate him. They are often perfectionists by nature who irrationally believe one goal is too many. Perhaps in no other position in sports is mentality and mindset more critical than for a goalie.
“The No. 1 most-challenging relationship a lot of times is with ourselves,” Cummings said. “This is why I love working with goalies. Goalies are left by themselves a lot. There’s a lot of time to have internal dialogue. If that internal dialogue starts going south, we’ve all seen what happens.”
Cummings will be the first to admit he doesn’t know anything about playing goal. He doesn’t even know how to skate. But he understands how being in the right frame of mind can elevate an athlete’s performance. He’s worked with DeSmith to perform various breathing exercises, recite mantras and focus on other techniques that change depending on the circumstance.
“I give him a Batman type utility belt,” Cummings said. “You give him your Bat boomerang. Here’s your Bat grappling hook. Here’s your Bat pepper spray. You use them for different challenges.
“If it’s going to be effective, it’s got to be unique to the individual. What kind of things can help you snap back into being yourself as fast as possible?”
This year, DeSmith did just that. He did more than reestablish himself as an NHL goalie. By April 2, he led the NHL with a .933 save percentage and was second in goals-against average (1.84).
How’s this for perspective: Here was a guy who spent the entire 2019-20 season in the minors. And he had stats just slightly better than legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate and $9.5 million a year man Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The next start? DeSmith allowed six goals.
Cummings joked with DeSmith. Okay, you can’t be any worse than that. Now you’ve got that out of the way and can get back to being you.
“I give him a lot of credit for keeping me positive and helping me make the best of last year and then leading into this year keeping my confidence high,” DeSmith said. “Whether it’s different exercises or mantras that we’re doing, it’s all about positivity and making the best of the situation that I’m in. Maybe I’m not the starter on the team. But just trying to be the best teammate and bringing the most I can to the rink every day.
“The positive mindset and just having fun at the rink with whatever I’m doing, I think that’s a big part of being able to persevere even when things aren’t going my way.”
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