Ever since the teams and sites were announced at the All-Star Game in Atlanta eight months ago, talk of the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 has been just that – talk.
The New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins are just days from boarding their charter planes for various European destinations. Five exhibition games in four different cities come first, and then the teams head to their final destinations, be it Prague or Stockholm, for the real thing.
The players can feel the excitement and are ready to get on those aircraft and experience hockey in a different culture.
"It's coming quick," Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips said. "We still have some games left here and guys are still trying to earn a spot on the team, but this will have a great following. The fans are going to be great. I'm certainly looking forward to it."
The Lightning leave Thursday for Prague after playing the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Penguins leave Saturday evening for Stockholm. The Rangers depart for Bern, Switzerland on Saturday after playing that afternoon against New Jersey. The Senators leave Sunday night for Gothenburg, Sweden.
Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008, which kicks off the 2008-09 regular season, takes place Oct. 4-5 with two games apiece in Stockholm (Penguins vs. Senators) and Prague (Rangers vs. Lightning), but the teams will play throughout Europe beforehand.
The Lightning will play Eisbaren Berlin on Sept. 28 and HC Slovan in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Sept. 30 before going to Prague. The Rangers have a pair of exhibition games, Sept. 30 and the Oct. 1 Victoria Cup game against Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Bern, before making their way to the Czech Republic.
Pittsburgh will practice in Stockholm and then fly to Finland for an exhibition game against Jokerit Helsinki on Oct. 2. They'll return to play the Senators, who also play an exhibition game Oct. 2 in Gothenburg against Frolunda HC Goteborg.
"Training camp in Europe," Rangers center Scott Gomez said. "I like it. There is only an upside for us."
For some, such as Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky, the trip will be their first to Europe. Dubinsky said the European journey should be as much about hockey as it is about history.
"I'm getting excited to not only play some good hockey, but also to get a chance to soak in some history and kind of get a taste of the other side of the world," he said. "I have played with many guys from (the Czech Republic) and the one thing they say is it's a real beautiful place to be. I'm excited to get over there to see what they're talking about." Why they're going isn't lost on the players, either.
The travel may be different than they would have for a normal road game and a bit more taxing, but the reason behind the journey makes it worthwhile.
"The schedule is going to be a little different, but we're pro athletes and the travel is good," Gomez said. "Trust me, you can't use that as an excuse. We're promoting the game and helping the League out, plus other athletes have a much tougher travel schedule. Look at a tennis player, for instance. They're used to that. When people complain, it's not right. We're doing our part for the League and as a team we're excited that we all get to hang out together."
Of course, as is the case with any long journey to a foreign land, there is some trepidation involved. Senators forward Jarkko Ruutu, who is from Finland, said he can sense some of that from his teammates.
They have an idea, though.
"For the fans over there that don't get to see many games live, there are so many good things about this," Ruutu said.
Added Dubinsky: "I fully anticipate we'll go over there and treat the games the same way we would any game here as far as our preparation with pre-game skates, meals, naps and everything like that. It'll all be right on schedule, but we might be playing at noon here (Eastern Standard Time) and 6 (p.m.) there. That's the only thing, but we're going over there long enough beforehand to get acclimated to it."
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