Learning To Win On The Ice The National Hockey League's regular season ends this weekend. A look at how one team, the Washington Capitals, and one player survived the grueling effort.

Learning To Win On The Ice

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Off the lawn now, back to the ice. This is the final weekend of the National Hockey League season.

Gemma Hooley has been following the Washington Capitals through the NHL's grinding six-month season. They'll start the playoff grind next week. She brings us this postcard from the ice.

GEMMA HOOLEY: The locker room is never quieter than after a loss. There's just the hum of electric fans on wet hockey gear and the sound of reporters waiting for someone to come out of the showers and talk. Tonight, that someone is Brooks Laich.

Mr. BROOKS LAICH (Hockey Player, Washington Capitals): I don't care what you say about talent and everything. This game is about heart. And the team that works the hardest usually is the team that's going to win. And tonight, I think they wanted it more, which is not an easy thing for us to sit here and see.

HOOLEY: Laich is a scrappy, 25-year-old forward who hovers near the other team's net and does whatever it takes: hit, get hit, duck, deflect, dive, whatever it takes to score goals. After a loss like this, he keeps his focus on what's next.

Mr. LAICH: I'll go back home tonight, get some sleep and come ready to work tomorrow. I'm sure we're going to have, you know, 45 minutes, solid hour, something like that, good practice, and just go over the systems, go over the things that we do, get back to basics, get back to work.

(Soundbite of hockey practice)

Mr. BRUCE BOUDREAU (Coach, Washington Capitals): Ready? Do you want to go? Do you want to start this?

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. BOUDREAU: Down here, two at time up the middle here. Let's get 10 passes in. Let's go.

HOOLEY: Getting back to work means tough drills and straight talk; and Coach Bruce Boudreau is ready with both.

Mr. BOUDREAU: Go attack him, attack him. That's it. That's it. Stay with him now. Pull up, (unintelligible). Pull up. Don't let him out.

HOOLEY: Just like in football, hockey coaches have a signature system. Coach Boudreau's system is fast and aggressive. It's designed, says Brooks Laich, to make other teams feel like they're skating uphill.

Mr. LAICH: Our whole scheme is when we have the puck, we want to be moving as fast as possible and be creative, but when you don't have the puck, we are going to work as hard as we can to get it back. And we don't want it back five seconds from now, we want it back right now.

HOOLEY: To blow off steam after practice, the players have come up with a friendly, on-ice target-shooting game they call Juice Boy.

Unidentified Man #1: Juice Boy. Hey Juice Boy?

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: Okay, you can go first. Shoot the puck, please.

HOOLEY: They call it Juice Boy because the loser has to serve Gatorade to everyone in the locker room. Today, after the tension of practice, Coach Boudreau joins them in the game and ends up losing.

Mr. BOUDREAU: Would you prefer a glass half full or half empty?

Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible).

Mr. BOUDREAU: It's really been a pleasure playing with you.

Unidentified Man #3: Thank you very much.

Mr. BOUDREAU: I am feeling much shame, as I entered a contest with the players, and as befits my status as a player, I came in last.

HOOLEY: When everyone has their juice, Boudreau steps out of the locker room to talk with reporters.

Mr. BOUDREAU: It's like being a parent. You keep whipping them. Eventually, it goes in one ear and out the other. I mean, I try to do everything that worked on me as a player, you know, showing video and showing where we're making mistakes and saying they're correctable mistakes, let's correct this. And then move forward and be the team that we're capable of being.

HOOLEY: This means finding balance, punishment and play, practice and rest. It also means daily maintenance. Brooks Laich throws his body all over the ice, blocking 90-mile-an-hour pucks with not much padding. That takes a physical toll.

Mr. LAICH: I usually come in early, and first thing you do is change into your underwear to head right down to the - I call it the hospital, the medical room. I hate being in there. I don't want to be in there, but sometimes you have to be. It's just a first come, first serve. And they try and just move us through like a car wash, I guess.

HOOLEY: Last weekend, in their final home game of the regular season, the Capitals beat the Atlanta Thrashers six-to-four in front of thunderous crowd. Brooks Laich had two assists and a goal.

(Soundbite of hockey game)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) scored by Number 21, Brooks Laich.

HOOLEY: On this night, the locker room is anything but quiet. Laich sits in his stall, peeling off layers of padding and holding ice bags on new bruises. He has a big smile on his face.

Mr. LAICH: This time of year, it's so fun - it's so much fun because you get into — if you're winning, you get into just a roll of coming to the rink, practicing hard, going home, getting rest, coming to the rink, win a hockey game, next day, day off.

Next day, come in, win another hockey game. Next day, day off. And it's getting nice outside, and it's the funnest time of year to play. And I think that's why, you know, it has been six, seven months already, but it's so much fun that it keeps you mentally refreshed.

HOOLEY: Heading into the playoffs next week, the Capitals are looking for the kind of alchemy they see outside in Washington, D.C., where the cherry blossoms are peaking. Good genetics, good chemistry and good timing, all the elements a team needs to hit the playoff groove.

For NPR News, I'm Gemma Hooley.

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