It's cold and damp at 3 a.m. on a December morning at Boston's Logan Airport. The snow plows have temporarily halted to let the late-arriving chartered plane land, then they'll return to clearing the runway. Light snow falls softly to the tarmac in subzero weather. Steam rises from the bundled-up workers watching the plane taxi to a stop.
A group of about 30, all men, all cold and tired, deplane. Two separate from the group and meet a van pulling up to the cargo bay while the others march through the terminal, clear security and head for the waiting bus. Some of the Europeans must pass customs. Some limp, others are trying to "only partially" awaken.
They're an NHL team, any NHL team, and they're in Boston to play the Bruins. Only five hours ago, they were leaving the First Union Center after playing the Philadelphia Flyers. It wasn't easy and they'll need tonight off to relax and heal.
Depending on circumstances, they may meet again at Boston's FleetCenter for a late-morning practice or they may take the day off. That's up to the coach. A loss the night before often results in a morning practice the next day.
The results the night before weren't good and the team dressed in a hurry to make the bus that would take them quickly to Philadelphia International Airport to meet their charter. A few players had a few minutes to sign autographs for the waiting fans, but the coaches, trainers and equipment managers admonished the rest to get on the bus so they could catch their flight.
The player slips into his seat on the bus, tired and aching, and his mind goes to thinking about his wife and children back home. The player thinks as he drifts off to sleep. Ten minutes later, he's been awakened. It's time to get on the plane.
"This is no way to live," he thinks as slides into his airplane seat, ready for an hour of "solid" sleep.
Fortunately for him, when he gets to Logan, he'll be whisked to his hotel in downtown Boston, a little more than a mile from the FleetCenter. Later that day, he'll have his choice of dozens of restaurants, movie theaters or arts, sports or science museums. In some towns, they get planted in the suburbs and the cultural offerings are, "Friendly's or Friday's".
As a player, he's one of the lucky ones. When he slides between the sheets, the equipment manager's staff is unloading the van at the FleetCenter and setting up the visiting locker room. They'll get to bed about three hours after the players.
This might be a short trip for an Eastern Conference rival or part of an extended, once-a-season, five- or six-game Eastern swing for a Western Conference club. NHL teams play 41 games at home and 41 in various North American outposts. Sometimes they'll play on consecutive days and even three games in four days. Other times, the schedule may have them sitting in a hotel in Raleigh for four days.
"I played football and I played hockey and they both hurt to play," said Los Angeles Kings defenseman Aaron Miller. "I have nothing but admiration for NFL players, but when I hear people say how tough is their schedule, I have to laugh. They play 16 regular-season games, each one a week apart, over 18 weeks. They usually have Monday off and no contact on Tuesday.
"We play 82 games over seven months. We play every other night, or back-to-back, or three games in five days in three different cities. We practice almost daily, even after game nights. There's no time to let an injury heal and traveling doesn't help. From early in the season, we're hurting out there."
Travel impacts everyone in the organization. Most employee schedules are dictated by the game schedule. None more so than the team official in charge of travel arrangements. John Wolf, assistant to general manager Dave Taylor, has filled that role for the Los Angeles Kings for over 30 years.
He's in the midst of a 17-day road trip that will take the Kings to eight different NHL cities. The Kings played the Minnesota Wild at home on Nov. 4, flew to San Jose and played the Sharks the next night. They then flew to Ottawa to play the Senators three days later and flew that night to Montreal where they played the Canadiens the next night. Three nights later, they played the Toronto Maple Leafs then flew cross country to Vancouver to play the Canucks two nights later.