VICTORIA, B.C. — On rare occasions, when they are really fortunate, athletes get into the space they call ‘the zone.’ Everything slows down. There is clarity, awareness, simplicity.
Vancouver Canucks winger Sven Baertschi would seem to be a long way from the zone. After “living in a fog” while missing most of last season with a concussion, the 26-year-old is trying to restart his National Hockey League career.
But after a summer of acquisitions by the Canucks, including a pair of wingers who now slot in ahead of Baertschi, the Swiss scorer will be scrambling this month for a place in coach Travis Green’s lineup while trying to prove to everyone that he can still take a hit and stay healthy.
That’s a difficult spot for a player who, until he got injured last Oct. 24 on an unpenalized hit-from-behind by Vegas Golden Knight Tomas Hyka, was a regular top-line partner for centre Bo Horvat.
Baertschi, however, told Sportsnet he is already in the zone — not only in hockey, but in life.
After missing 56 games last season and wondering at times if he’d ever play or just “feel like myself again,” Baertschi was not saved by neurologists or physiotherapists or Canucks doctors, although he is grateful for the help of all of these.
Baertschi was saved by meditation.
“I started feeling anxiety,” he explained after his first session here at Canucks training camp. “Not depression, anxiety. I’d never felt that before. I didn’t understand it. You fall down a dark hole, it’s hard to get out. I haven’t talked about this, but I started feeling better after I started this (meditation). Not just better, but great. It’s like healing yourself from within.
“What I started doing was mindfulness meditation. I had six weeks of training to get to know my body and how I can deal with certain situations. It was a crash course. Ever since that day, it’s become part of my routine every day. I started feeling better and better and it got me to the point where I felt really comfortable.”
Baertschi said the team put him in touch with a psychologist, who introduced him to mindfulness, which has its roots in Zen and Buddhism. Many athletes, including basketball star Klay Thompson and Canadian tennis sensation Bianca Andreescu practise meditation.
When Baertschi’s concussion symptoms returned in February, 12 games into his comeback, he was desperate to understand why his head and body felt the way they did.
“Why do I get headaches, why is my neck sore?” Baertschi said. “A lot of those things can be connected to anxiety.
“It’s just understanding your body. It’s trying to be present. I think that’s the biggest thing. As humans, we spend so much time in the future and the past. We worry. We think ahead. We look backwards. But we’re never in the right now. We forget to enjoy the moment.”
Baertschi said his daily meditations can be 10 minutes or 45 minutes.
“You’ve got to be alert and you’ve got to be awake and be able to focus on just being there,” he said. “You go into a quiet room and go through certain body scans (visualizations) and just sit there and focus on breathing. That really puts you in that present moment, and that’s when your brain functions the best. In sports, people call it the zone. That’s what that really means — guys are in the here and now, they’re present. That’s what I’ve learned through mindfulness meditation.”
Baertschi said his symptoms began to abate as he meditated.
His recovery was further boosted on April 18, when his wife Laura delivered the couple’s first child, a boy named Callan.
“Playing hockey is still my passion,” Baertschi said. “But once my son was born, priorities changed. It was kind of like: Now I’m doing everything for you. My dream is for him to see me play hockey.”
That dream is complicated by an uncertain future with the Canucks.
In the 26 games he did play last season, Baertschi scored nine times and added four assists. When healthy, he has been a fairly consistent secondary scorer in the four seasons since his trade from the Calgary Flames.
But the Canucks traded for top-six winger J.T. Miller in June, then signed potential 20-goal scorer Micheal Ferland in July. Winger Tanner Pearson was acquired last February and scored nine goals in 19 games after replacing Baertschi on Horvat’s wing.
It’s unclear where Baertschi fits in this new landscape.
“It’s kind of wait and see for a lot of our guys to see where they fit in,” Green said. “Players from last year, they need to be better.
“I’m not saying Baertschi is going to get pushed aside, but some guys are going to get pushed aside as you get better. That’s just part of the progression of a team that’s trying to get better and improve and bring new guys in. Someone’s not going to make the team and someone’s going to be disappointed. That’s just the reality of where we’re at right now.”
Baertschi has two years remaining on his contract at an annual cap hit of $3.37 million. On a team that may have to contort to stay under the salary cap this season, that number does not help Baertschi if he falls into a depth role.
“That’s the part I’m trying to get away from — that worrying and overthinking things,” Baertschi said. “My head is feeling good, my body’s feeling great, and I’m coming into camp with confidence. I’m not worried about anything.
“Like we’ve talked about before, where I end up, who knows? Whatever it is, it’s the coach’s decision. All I can do is leave it all out there and make sure I let them know, ‘Hey, you know, I can still play.’
“J.T. coming in, he’s obviously a great player. Ferland, he’s a great player as well. But you know as well as I do, things happen throughout a season. I just want to be ready for any role I get. All I can do is put my stamp on it and make sure they haven’t forgotten how good a player I can be. That’s my job now — to let them know I’m still here and I’ll do anything I can to help this team.”