If Fayetteville happens to score early against Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs goaltender Tanner Creel on Friday or Saturday night, fear not.
Few have more resources to remain mentally tough.
Creel’s post-hockey ambition is to become a sports psychologist. The SPHL rookie has been accepted into a three-year graduate program in Chicago that eventually would certify him in the field.
But in the meantime, he’s moonlighting as a mental skills coach for the University of Connecticut hockey team while drawing upon his studies between the pipes for the Dawgs.
“It’s something that I wish I had when I was in college,” said Dawgs winger Jesse Schwartz, who played with Creel at UConn and is his current roommate. “It’s basically somebody just to talk to if you’re having problems or issues and things maybe aren’t going your way. He’s that guy to talk to.”
Creel’s had that reputation since college, where he played hockey while earning dual degrees in psychology and communications. This past summer, he developed his own mental skills training program in collaboration with James Gary, who serves as the mental skills coach for the Chicago Blackhawks.
His former coach at UConn, Mike Cavanaugh, hired Creel to work with the Huskies while he’s playing in Roanoke.
“We do it on Facetime, generally,” Creel said. “We’ll talk over some things and they’ll give me a rundown of what’s going on in their life. I’ll keep it hockey-specific and try to help them as best as I can.”
Creel also uses what he’s learned to help his own game. He’s come up with a variety of triggers and methods of self-talk that can snap him back into sharp mental form if he ever feels like he’s slipping.
“Oh, it’s huge,” Creel said. “Part of the reason it interested me is I can apply it directly to what I’m doing. So it’s definitely a two-sided advantage there.”
Creel, who has a 3.05 goals against average in 15 appearances for the Dawgs, earned both victories in back-to-back wins over SPHL heavyweight Macon last week. He stopped 34 of 35 shots in a 2-1 road triumph last Friday.
“Technically, he’s really good,” Dawgs coach Dan Bremner said. “He moves really well in the net. He tracks the puck very well.
“On Friday he was incredible. I think we played an average to below-average game and he really stole that one for us.”
Creel also had a starring role in Roanoke’s 5-4 victory over Fayetteville in December. He came off the bench with the Dawgs trailing 3-0 and stopped 22 of 23 shots in the 5-4 victory.
Moments such as that are when he finds his mental training particularly helpful.
“Sometimes there are specific games where you know the team’s going to need you,” Creel said. “On Friday, we went in there with nine forwards and five [defensemen], so I knew it was going to be a tough game. It’s just that mentality where you step in and take it. It’s fight or flight.”
Even on days off, Creel takes action to keep his mind sharp. He’s an avid hiker who’s tackled many of the region’s signature routes — Sharp Top, McAfee Knob, the Cascades — on Sunday mornings.
He’s occasionally gone with teammates or family members, but he doesn’t mind hitting the trail on his own, too.
“If we’re coming back from a road trip or something like that, the guys aren’t really wanting to get up at that time,” said Creel, who cites Roaring Run near Eagle Rock among his favorite treks. “Sometimes I’ll just go and clear my mind and walk and hike. It’s a great active recovery day. Instead of just sitting around the house on Sunday, get out and do something and sight-see.”
For now, Creel is content trying to help the Dawgs continue their ascension in the SPHL standings. But he knows that Chicago program is waiting for him when he’s ready to take his sports psychology to the next level.
“I think it’s definitely growing,” he said of the industry. “Just look at the pressures of sports these days. Even on top of that, you’re hearing more about the mental side of things and people are speaking out about it.
“I know there’s been a couple articles in the Players Tribune where players have talked about mental health, and it’s going to continue to grow.”