‘A creative mind’: Why Maple Leafs’ Joseph Woll must prioritize his mental game

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Joseph Woll (60) saves a shot by Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens (24) during the first period of an NHL hockey game. (Joshua Bessex/AP)

TORONTO – Most 24-year-olds have Instagram or TikTok, Twitter or Snapchat, or all the above.

Not Joseph Woll. Not anymore. He has a list instead.

Three or four months ago, right around the time he embarked on the best season of his young professional career, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best draft-and-develop goaltending hope and most recent call-up decided to free himself from social media.

No, not because someone at the hockey organization advised him to. And not because the trolls had got him down or he had some old post exposed.

“It’s funny. I was just talking to my buddies about this the other day, too. It was just really a me thing,” Woll explained Monday, following his first NHL practice this winter.

“I didn’t learn anything the hard way. No one really recommended it. I just found I was spending too much time on it. I want to spend my life differently, I guess. Not spend so much time on my phone.

“The way my mind works, I’m just best served when I’m focusing on what I want to do. It just really helps me keep my focus on what’s important to me in my life.”

The one drawback of withdrawing yourself from the addictive realm of likes, retweets and followers, Woll notes, is that you risk losing touch with friends and family.

So, Woll composed a list of all the people whose thoughts and opinions he values. And he makes the effort to stay in touch with them the old-fashioned way: texts, calls, group chats.

Cutting out the nonsense, dismissing the distractions, and narrowing the focus is both a goal and a challenge all of us can relate to. But when your chosen vocation is to get your body in the way of 100-mile-per-hour pucks as swiftly and economically as possible, mental concentration turns paramount.

“I’ve always heard about the mental aspect of goaltending as being a very important part of it. And for so long I didn’t really do anything to grow that part of my game, to grow my mind,” Woll admits.

For Woll, the tipping point arrived in the summer of 2020.

The world had gone bonkers. Fear and uncertainty reigned. And Boston College’s star goaltender had suffered a rude awakening.

Woll’s sparkling .919 NCAA save percentage in 2018-19 plummeted to .880 with the Toronto Marlies in 2019-20. He went 11-16-3 his first year as a pro. Something needed to change.

“I didn’t have results like I wanted, and I just was going through some different things, mentally and stuff,” Woll says.

The Maple Leafs introduced him to sports psychologists. He dove headfirst into meditation, taking classes and using the Headspace app. He realized investing in a clear mind was equally vital as taking time to stretch, lift, and exercise his vision.

“Since then, it’s just been kind of exponential growth in that way,” Woll says. “Recently, there’s been even more of an emphasis on that for me.”

Woll now meditates multiple times daily, for reasons hockey and otherwise. He’s talked with other Leafs about the practice and its benefits, too. Woll’s routine now is free of apps. He simply finds a quiet space where he can be alone with his thoughts, or absence thereof.

“Big into meditation,” Woll says. “I have, like, a very thoughtful mind. My mind is always busy. A creative mind. And, yeah, it’s awesome. I love my mind. But at the same time, I need to be able to calm it down sometimes. Especially when I’m playing.

“If you’re thinking, you’re not playing. So, I’ve been a big proponent of that.”

The Maple Leafs are a big proponent of Woll’s, as evidenced by the three-year, $2.3 million contract GM Kyle Dubas gave him last February — betting term on a goaltender with only four NHL games under his belt.

In 2022-23, Woll’s 12-1 AHL all-star campaign kicked off with multiple injuries (shoulder, ankle). He had to root on from the sidelines as his Marlies tandem mate, Erik Källgren, became the go-to call-up this fall.

But once he got healthy and got in the crease, Woll couldn’t lose.

So, with Matt Murray on the shelf indefinitely, Woll — an easy smiler — is thrilled for the promotion.

He says it helps having the familiarity of getting his feet wet in the show last season, when he went 3-1 with a .911 in emergency duty.

And though Woll hasn’t been guaranteed a start, fans should pencil him in for a look in the back-to-back versus the Columbus Blue Jackets when the Maple Leafs return from their bye week.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have had really good results with the Marlies,” Woll says. “But my goal, win or lose, is to keep my mind the same.”

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