Esche winning mind game with a clear one

Robert Esche may be the Flyers' goalie of the future for his ability to forget the past and the present.

Updated: December 23, 2003, 1:16 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

o·bliv·i·ous adj. 1. Lacking all memory; forgetful. 2. Unaware.

Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock speaks fondly about being oblivious, the kind of single-mindedness that makes goaltenders forget they're playing in a market that traditionally eats its netminders for breakfast and then hopes there's enough left over for a snack at lunch.

Robert Esche
AP PhotoRobert Esche's ability to control his emotions has led to better results on the ice.
Hitchcock actually prefers bulletproof oblivious, the kind of impenetrable veneer all great goalies possess and the kind of shell that must form on the backs of his goaltending tandem of Jeff Hackett and Robert Esche if the Flyers are to finally make good on lofty expectations.

"The best thing for a goalie on a good team is to be totally oblivious," Hitchcock said this week. "It's to be oblivious to what you guys write, oblivious to what I say, oblivious to what's going on. That's the best thing that can happen to a goalie."

"Look at good goalies," Hitchcock added, warming to the topic. "They're not exactly shopping at the mall kind of guys. They are the guys that are really eccentric. They're different. They're oblivious. They're either in their own world or they absolutely love the spotlight."

It's not an automatic, or innate thing, but rather something that's learned, he said.

"It's all about how you can eliminate the distractions and focus on the competition."

"A lot of times you hear bad breaks, bad bounces. Those are the excuses that, as a coach, you don't want to hear. What you want to hear is the blunt truth so you can deal with it and move on. I don't know any teams that have won that don't have that open and frank assessment of themselves," said Hitchcock who won a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 and was a part of Canada's gold medal coaching staff in Salt Lake City in 2002.

While Hackett, 35, has struggled of late, trying readapt to the pressures that come from playing on a topnotch team, it is Esche whose had a dramatic shift in mental disposition which has placed him on the verge of becoming that unflappable, winning goaltending specimen the Flyers have been searching for since the departure of Ron Hextall.

"A few years ago I was a very intense guy, very out of control, very emotional. And I'm still emotional, I'm still very intense, but at least I control myself a lot better," the 25-year-old native of Whitesboro, N.Y., told ESPN.com this week.

"Last year I was driving myself crazy," he said. "At the beginning of the season I didn't anticipate even having a chance to play, but things worked out where Hitch kept on playing me once a week. Things were great. But then after Christmas, things changed a little bit and I started to struggle and I let everything bother me and I let everybody come in and tell me what I was doing wrong and how I've got to do this different, I've got to live my life differently here, I've got to do this differently.

"I had it to the point I was living my whole on a routine. I wouldn't do anything the night before a game. All I'd do was sit in my house or sit in my hotel room. I had a scheduled time when I'd go to the bathroom, when I could eat. I was driving myself nuts. Then I realized towards the end of the year, 'What am I doing?' I've always been happy with who I am. I've always embraced the fact that I'm a type of guy that wears his heart on his sleeve."

I had it to the point I was living my whole on a routine. I wouldn't do anything the night before a game. All I'd do was sit in my house or sit in my hotel room. I had a scheduled time when I'd go to the bathroom, when I could eat. I was driving myself nuts. Then I realized towards the end of the year, 'What am I doing?'
Robert Esche
Esche credits psychologist Dana Sinclair, who works with the Flyers primarily at the draft helping assess the mental makeup of prospects, and a team-building trip to the United States Military Academy at West Point prior to the start of the season with reinforcing his current mindset.

Through the first half of the season, Esche has been impenetrable. The 6-foot-1 backstopper is 9-2-2 with a .923 save percentage. His 1.82 GAA ranks third in the NHL. He returned from a groin injury Saturday and helped the Flyers stop a five-game winless streak with a crucial 3-1 win against the Islanders.

Even though the Flyers are on a 1-2-2-2 stretch heading into Tuesday's rematch with the Islanders (they dropped a 4-1 decision to Atlanta on Sunday in which Hackett took the loss), they were still tied with Calgary as the NHL's second-most stingiest team with a 2.06 GAA and were within a point of the overall lead in the NHL standings.

But as anyone who's followed Flyers hockey in the last five or six years knows, Jennings Trophies and 100-point regular seasons don't get you a free pass to the big stage. In fact, all they do is ramp up the anticipation.

"A team is measured by its championships," said veteran defenseman Eric Desjardins, who won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. "Everybody remembers who wins the final game in the Stanley Cup final. Who finished first in the regular season, not too many people remember that."

Desjardins allows that three is significant pressure playing net in Philadelphia and that the team has tried to rally around their mates.

"You don't like to see your friends be hammered in the paper or take the fall," he said. Still, "it's the price you pay because if a team wins, a lot of credit goes to the goaltender."

While the Flyers are regularly among the NHL's leading spenders and GM Bob Clarke among the most shrewd accumulators of talent, that clutch goaltender has always been elusive.

In spite of a three-year run that saw him put up all-star numbers, Roman Cechmanek was driven from the Philly fiefdom after a less-than-inspiring turn against Ottawa in the second round of last year's playoffs.

"Roman worried about a lot of things," Hitchcock said. "He came across and told people he wasn't worrying but he worried about a lot of things, about things he could not control."

Even with the stellar numbers being posted by Esche and Hackett, who is 9-6-6 with a 2.09 GAA and .916 save percentage, there have been questions from the start of the season about whether the Flyers have the right goaltending mix to challenge for their first Stanley Cup since 1975. Recently, Clarke was once again denying he was in the market for a goaltender when he was asked about Sean Burke of Phoenix, who just happens to be Esche's best friend and mentor.

"I've got to be honest," said the candid Esche. "Sean's my best friend. And I like Roman, I love Jeff. But I'm not intimidated by them. If I start feeling like I'm intimidated by these guys, I might as well start all over down in the minors. It's not to be cocky. The only thing I can control is having a fun time when I play for 60 minutes."

Rather than shield his netminders from the glare, Hitchcock, like a professor in a laboratory surrounded by bubbling test tubes, is waiting to see how the experiment turns out.

After giving up three of a possible four points to arch rival New Jersey in a back-to-back set in mid-December, Hackett assumed much of the blame and promised he would perform much better. Hitchcock believes he will.

As for Esche, Hitchcock sees a young man embracing the pressure, not being driven under.

"Hack and Eschey are on a different curve (than goalies like Ed Belfour)," Hitchcock said. "They're just learning to deal with all this stuff now. Hack's having to relearn because he hasn't played on a really good team for a long time. They're both on different areas of the learning curve. Eschey's enjoying it. He's just being himself. He's just having a good time with it and he's told you that and he's natural with it. He's learned to change. He's changed this year. He worked very hard with people to change."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.