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William Nylander and overcoming my fear of mediocrity

What lessons we can learn from our attachments to players

I have to imagine that ending up mediocre is a fear I share with some professional athletes. Being an athlete means putting your all into a sport, just attempting to make it into a league or a tournament with the best of the best, but never knowing if you’ll get there.

In retrospect, I think this fear was my reasoning for picking William Nylander as my favourite hockey player when I was 12 years old. After all, I had barely watched him play before I decided he was my favourite. 

At the time, Nylander was fourth in rookie scoring. He was behind two of his teammates, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, who were all the talk at the time. He would go on to finish the season in fourth as well, just shy of the glorified top three and a potential Calder Trophy nomination. 

The lack of attention Nylander garnered despite his consistently high performance drew me to him even more. It made him somewhat relatable, although he was a professional hockey player earning millions of dollars a year and I was a 12-year-old girl doing my math homework in front of the TV (so I could watch him play). He could do all of the things I’d watch him do, and yet, somehow, it wasn’t enough.

At the end of Nylander’s first contract, nobody had any problems with him, but he didn’t boast the largest fanbase. He was just impactful enough to be considered a good, developing player, but not enough to be one of the team’s stars. 

I always thought Nylander deserved more praise than people were giving him. Even if he wasn’t putting up as many points or wasn’t making showstopping plays, he wasn’t getting enough credit for the effect that I saw him having on the team’s success. He was not some average player. 

To a certain extent, I was projecting my feelings about myself onto Nylander. I saw him try hard and never get close enough to being considered the best. Despite his confident persona, I thought maybe he had the same fears as me. 

At that point, Nylander had an equal chance of becoming a standout player past his rookie years as he did becoming one of the many first-round draft picks floating around between a few teams’ third or fourth lines. I was confident he would be the first. 

Then came the dreaded holdout. 

A test of loyalty and belief

The fall of 2018 was the worst time to be a Nylander fan. After his contract ended the season prior, Nylander refused to sign for what the Leafs were offering him, choosing to hold out until he got his preferred deal, earning him $6.9 million a year

But, by the time Nylander finally signed his deal, it was minutes from the deadline, and he had missed 28 games. When he came back, he didn’t look like the player he used to be. 

The consensus around the Nylander deal moved from fans being happy he got signed, to being angry at a horrible deal for the Leafs overnight. The mere seven goals Nylander scored that season didn’t do much to support his case. 

A lot of people lost faith in Nylander at this point, but I tried hard to stick around. Nylander was a player I had projected onto all of my fears about disappointing everyone by not being good enough. 

I cheered louder than ever for every single one of Nylander’s seven goals that year. Seven, 20 or 40, I didn’t care. I wasn’t about to abandon him when he was having trouble figuring it out. 

Where we are now

I like to believe I was right when I first decided Nylander was the best player on the team. This season is the last of that controversial post-holdout deal and the joke has become that Nylander has made himself too expensive for the Leafs to resign. Tied for fifth most points in the league, he’s proven he’s worth the money. 

However, it’s not Nylander’s success that has taught me anything about my approach to failure. Sure, he persevered through the hard times to get to this level of greatness, but so have many other players. It’s my own reaction to that success.

Nylander had his highs and lows, but I was always rooting for him. In fact, it might have been during the worst of it all that I was the most invested in his success. Had he never returned to being a great player, I would still be proudly wearing my jersey with #88 on it. 

I often worry about whether I’m going to let everybody who loves me down and end up being what hockey commentators would call “a bust.” But, what I’ve learned from following Nylander’s up and down journey throughout these six years is that mediocrity is nothing to fear. 

If someone really cares about my success, the last thing they care about is me always being the best.

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