In a game marked with high-speed sprinting, hard-nosed checking, and the occasional fight, one of the most important things players focus on over the duration of the season is keeping their bodies in proper playing shape. To assure they will be ready for their next game, players focus on eating and drinking right, while making sure they get the appropriate amount of rest to let the body heal. To help them in this endeavor, Blue Jackets coaches make some practices optional.
"(At) some of the optional practices, certain players are told to stay off the ice and aren't even given a choice," forward R.J. Umberger said. "It benefits the players whether they're banged up or not to get an extra day of recovery. This schedule has been so hectic that 24 hours of rest could be a big difference right now."
"I don't get as many minutes as some of the other guys so I don't need it as much," forward Derek Dorsett added. "I guess when you see some of the other guys getting a lot of minutes, with our schedule and how often we play, it can wear on you, so optional practices are huge."
Playing in the West we're always changing time zones and catching flights, it can add up. - Captain Rick Nash
The Blue Jackets schedule, as well as the other 29 NHL teams, has been cramped in 2009-10 to accommodate the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, where many NHL stars, including six Blue Jackets, will be competing. As a result, the Jackets have been left with far fewer days to rest and recover than in years past.
In January, the Jackets had only two sets of breaks that lasted longer than one day, and none of them lasted longer than two days. During the same stretch last season, the Blue Jackets had six separate breaks with two or more days off, with the longest stretch equaling five days of rest.
The NHL tends to schedule games in clusters followed by several days of rest. This is designed to allow the body to heal and to keep players sharp through the long 82-game season. During an Olympic year, however, teams are playing less back-to-back games than before but are given fewer long breaks to recover. As a result of the difficult schedule, the Blue Jackets, as well as other teams around the league, are giving their players more optional practices.
"It didn't seem like it was this bad for the last two Olympics, but for some reason this year it seems like we're playing every other day," said Chris Clark about this year's schedule. "And in the Western Conference, it's even worse with the travel."
"For a lot of the guys on the team it's been a lot of nagging injuries that have dragged on," R.J. Umberger said. "Usually they're gone in two or three days, but now they'll last a week. It will just wear you out sometimes and cause more sicknesses just because your body is weaker.
"I think (we've had more breaks), but I bet if you go around the league a lot of clubs are probably doing the same thing,” Umberger continued. "I think it's crazy not to (have more optional days) with the way the schedules are. There have been times when we've played six games in nine nights so it's needed."
For many of the Jackets players, the decision on whether or not to take the optional practice off depends on the situation. Some players, like Chris Clark, will never take the day off because he likes to stay loose. Other players, like Rick Nash, who gets a lot of minutes, will take it to let the body heal.
"If I'm feeling tired I might just go out for ten minutes or not at all," said Derek Dorsett on the decision. "Most of the time, I go out and I like to stay loose but I've learned to take a day off if I need it. On optional game days, I like to go out and get a feel for the ice."
To add to the bumps and bruises, as well as the cramped schedule, the Blue Jackets have had to tackle the obstacle of having the most road games in the NHL up to this point in the season.
"It's been tough, the last two months it seems like we haven't been home much," Rick Nash said. "Playing in the West we're always changing time zones and catching flights, it can add up."
"Staying in hotels is getting old," added head coach Ken Hitchcock.
Following Tuesday's game in Colorado, the Jackets will play 10 of their next 13 games at Nationwide Arena between February 4 and March 19.