When the Tampa Bay Lightning arrived in New York City on Wednesday night, their bags were packed for an unprecedented 12-day road trip that will take them through six time zones.
For a team still looking to build chemistry, the timing couldn't be better.
"They don't know each other the way that they will after the trip," Vice President of Hockey Operations Brian Lawton said. "They need to spend time together. That's why we're so excited about it."
After playing the New York Rangers on Thursday at Madison Square Garden, the Lightning boarded their charter flight bound for Prague, Czech Republic. After two nights in Prague, they'll go to Berlin for an exhibition game.
From Berlin the Lightning will travel to Bratislava, Slovakia for their final exhibition game, then return to Prague on Oct. 1 to prepare for their first two regular-season games against the Rangers as part of the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008, Oct. 4-5.
Considering the Lightning could have as many as 14 players in the lineup for the regular-season opener that weren't on the team last season, the long, winding road trip presents a unique opportunity to get to know each other and build an identity.
"So many people said, 'Oh what a hassle to go to Europe,' but notwithstanding the fact that on a macro standpoint when they look back on their careers this is something they'll remember as much or more than anything, on a micro standpoint it's just fabulous for our club," Lawton said. "Really it's like a 12-day outbound reach-type project."
Prior to Thursday's game in New York, the players were eager to take off for their journey. While veteran forward Martin St. Louis agreed it should be a great team-bonding experience, the goal of the trip should not be ignored.
"It's not like the fair is coming to town," St. Louis said. "We're preparing for a really important season for this organization. Yeah, we're going to have fun over there, but our main focus is on our two games against the Rangers and whatever we have to do to lead up to that. This isn't only a showcase of the NHL. It's more than that. It's four big points for two teams that are going after it."
Still, to coach Barry Melrose, watching his team come together is as important as those four points up for grabs.
"Our goal is to win the first two games, but we also want to make it a positive experience for the guys," Melrose said. "It's something they're going to remember for the rest of their lives. We want them to spend a lot of time together. They're not going to have a lot of friends over there and a lot of places to go, so they'll have to stay together as a group and that's what we want. Hopefully we can get a lot of positives out of it.
"At the end of the day I want them to say, 'Man, we had a good time over there and boy did our team ever come together.' "
Despite Melrose saying the players won't know many people in Berlin, Bratislava or Prague, defenseman Andrej Meszaros does get a chance to return home. During the offseason Meszaros lives an hour outside of Bratislava, in Povazska Bystrica.
Meszaros, who the Lightning acquired from Ottawa on Aug. 29, said he expects to have 15-20 family members and friends at the exhibition game Sept. 30 against HC Slovan. He already has purchased a lot of tickets, and is in the process of scooping up the ones his teammates don't plan to give away.
"Before (the trade) happened Miroslav Satan invited Slovakian NHL players to play against this team we're going to play, HC Slovan, in a charity game," said Meszaros, who began his pro career six years ago in the Slovak Extraliga. "At that time I knew Tampa Bay was going there, and a week to 10 days later I got traded and signed here. I said to my family, 'I guess I'm coming back.'
"It's pretty neat to get to go there again to see my family and friends, because I won't see them until June, hopefully."
To quickly get accustomed to the six-hour time difference, the Lightning don't plan on wasting any time once they touch down -- they plan on being on the ice Friday afternoon in Prague.
"We're on a super incredible luxury plane that will be just a fun experience in itself for the players, but we're flying all night and we arrive on our time clock at around 7 a.m., but 1 p.m. Prague time," Lawton said. "It'll be in the middle of the day, so we'll go to the hotel, check in, get our stuff and head over to the rink for a workout."\
"Our goal is to win the first two games, but we also want to make it a positive experience for the guys," Melrose said. "It's something they're going to remember for the rest of their lives.." -- Lightning coach Barry Melrose on what he would like his club to get out ot the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008
"Generally where it hurts the most on these trips is coming back, but the nice thing for us is we come back Monday morning (Oct. 6) at like 6 a.m. and we don't play until the following Saturday," Lawton said. "We're very pleased with the way the schedule worked out."
Even so, it's not as if trans-Atlantic travel is new to hockey players. Most of the Lightning's players have some sort of international experience, especially the youngest player on the team.
Steven Stamkos, the 18-year-old who was the first pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, has played in Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia for various Canadian national teams. He said he has played a game in HC Slovan's home rink of Samsung Arena.
"I played two under-18s and the World Juniors," Stamkos said. "I've been to a lot of places, so for me it's nothing new."
However, most things around the Lightning these days are new and different, which is why the timing of this trip is perfect.
By the time the Lightning return to North America, Lawton, Melrose and all the team executives hope to see the mixture of talented players they put together in the offseason turn into a team ready to contend for a playoff spot.
"It's going to be a great team-bonding experience so we can know each other better because we're going to be together for a long season," Meszaros said. "This is just the beginning."