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Oilers mental coach team's 'secret weapon' in roller-coaster season

Psychologist George Mumford who is the Edmonton Oilers mental skill coach poses for a photograph before Game 2 of the NHL Stanley Cup finals in Sunrise, Fla., on Monday, June 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette Psychologist George Mumford who is the Edmonton Oilers mental skill coach poses for a photograph before Game 2 of the NHL Stanley Cup finals in Sunrise, Fla., on Monday, June 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

George Mumford saw the notification pop up on his screen. The message via social media platform LinkedIn was from Edmonton Oilers CEO Jeff Jackson.

Hired by the club last August, the executive had an idea. Mumford was all ears.

The 72-year-old sports psychologist and mental skills coach had previously helped Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers climb to atop the NBA mountain.

Jackson wanted Mumford to assist Connor McDavid and the Oilers reach similar heights.

"We think you can help us win the Stanley Cup," Mumford recalled being told in their first conversation. "And I said, 'I'm in.'"

Less than a year later, Edmonton is a few steps away — but faces yet another daunting challenge.

Mumford has been behind the scenes throughout a roller-coaster campaign that included a disastrous 2-9-1 start, a coaching change, a 16-game winning streak, and an up-and-down march through three NHL playoff rounds to the final against the Florida Panthers.

Edmonton played well in a 3-0 loss in Game 1 and then fell 4-1 on Monday to trail the best-of-seven series 2-0 before the matchup switches to the Alberta capital later this week.

Mumford might need to dig deep into his reserves to get the Oilers out of this mess.

"My job is to help people be themselves," the Boston native said in the hours before Game 2. "There's no better feeling than to actually feel like you're being yourself."

An author of two books — "The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance" and "Unlocked: Embrace Your Greatness, Find the Flow, Discover Success" — Mumford is both a sounding board and available to offer advice.

"I try to help people unlock and express themselves," Mumford said. "When I talk about performance, I'm talking about something as profound as being able to win the Stanley Cup or just being able to have an intention and being able to achieve that intention."

A former financial analyst who dealt with substance abuse issues earlier in his life due to chronic pain, he focuses on mindfulness and staying in the moment.

"I had to learn how to self-regulate, I had to learn how to change my lifestyle, but also take responsibility for my wellness," Mumford said. "That's how I got into this — out of necessity. The best way to learn something is to teach it, and the best way to keep something is to give it away.

"That's what I've been doing."

McDavid said the quiet, unassuming mental coach has been a welcome addition.

"He was brought in for this reason — to help in these big moments," said the superstar captain. "He's done a great job of being there for guys, talking about the mindset in these pressure situations.

"Our guys have done a great job of playing through these big moments. He's been a big part of that."

Mumford said his overarching message is about the "tremendous potential" inside every person.

"Only you can access it," he continued. "To the degree that you access it, you're going to help everybody else. But you're going to be able to live life fully and creatively, whether it's a sport or whatever else."

Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch first met Mumford after taking over in November with Edmonton — among the pre-season Cup favourites — in a tailspin.

"So much emphasis is put on the modern-day player about practising and skill development and systems," he said. "So much is neglected on the mental aspect of the game. George has filled that void, has talked to the players about what it takes for each individual on the team to play well

"Trying to put those players in that right head space."

Mumford, for example, was there for goaltender Stuart Skinner in the second round against the Vancouver Canucks when he lost the net to backup Calvin Pickard for two games.

"Massive help with being able to help me refocus," Skinner said. "He's an amazing guy."

Mumford was in the background much of the campaign, but celebrated on the ice with the Oilers following their victory over the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference final.

Zach Hyman called him the team's "secret weapon."

"Really helped us in the way that we think about the game," said the Edmonton winger. "It's great because it's not hockey specific — it's sports specific, it's life specific."

Hyman said Mumford spoke to the group about continuing to trust things would turn around during the season's difficult early days.

"There was a confidence," he said. "A lot of that came down to just having an unshakable belief in our team and each other, and just seeing every day as a new day and a new opportunity."

Mumford never thought he would be part of a team making a Cup push. Now that the unexpected moment has arrived — starting with Jackson's out-of-the-blue pitch — he's soaking up all he can.

"It's an honour and a privilege," Mumford said. "And it's very joyful."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2024. Top Stories

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