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Flames strength and conditioning coach has plan in place to help players excel in China - and when they return home to start the season

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

The 9,802 kilometres of flight distance isn't what has Ryan van Asten's attention.

It's the 9,802 back.

"Obviously it's imperative you start the regular season strong,'' says the Flames' strength and conditioning coach. "We've seen that time and time again.

"We'll have two weeks after we get back to get ourselves ready and I think that's enough.

"But you can make return jet-lag problems worse by not structuring those two weeks properly. It's going to be a busy time for everyone.

"So just prioritizing when guys play is important - that's a coaching decision, of course, but I would definitely give some advice on that.

"Certain guys are just resilient. Mark Giordano, for instance. He can pretty much do anything and he never gets fatigued.

"Other guys are on the opposite side of the spectrum and you have to really be careful.

"We have a bunch of pre-season games as soon as we get back and we know some players are more resilient than others. So you have to know when to push and when to dial back."

A month-and-a-half away lies the latest instalment of the O.R.G. NHL China Games, the Flames set for pre-season tilts against the Boston Bruins in Shenzhen, kitty-corner to Hong Kong, on Sept. 15 and four days later in the capital of Beijing.

"Personally, I'm looking forward to it," says van Asten. "I know it's going to be a lot of work. And that's fine.

"But it's an opportunity to do something, with work, I've never really thought of doing on my own before."

The trick, naturally, is how to best manage a 14-hour travel odyssey, a 14-hour time difference, a vastly different cultural dynamic, do the trip and its goodwill promotional aspect justice while still being on track returning to the Scotiabank Saddledome to begin preparations for the Oct. 3 season-opener at Vancouver.

"Nutrition is huge,'' says van Asten. "Being hydrated is huge.

"It's an interesting dilemma because you're not going to be able to make jet-lag go away. But there are things you can do to help, to mitigate it, even before you leave.

"Starting, for example, with asking guys to go to bed an hour earlier every day a week or so before we leave, to try shifting their clock a little bit.

"Once you get on board the plane, there are certain dos and don'ts. Avoid caffeine. Avoid alcohol. Try to sleep at least through the first portion of that flight, when it's night-time in China. And when you're not sleeping, as difficult as it might seem, avoid getting trapped into using electronics - anything that's going to be bright.

"Make sure you're not planted in a seat the whole flight. Get up, move around.

"When we get there, eating carbohydrate-rich foods before you go to bed actually promotes sleep. When you're up, a high-protein meal, which promotes wakefulness. Exposing yourself to as much light as you can - often times teams will use light-books that provide UV light in the morning to, again, help stimulate wakefulness.

"From an exercise standpoint, this is where it starts becoming a little tricky. Once off the plane, one of the best things we can do is a little light aerobic type of work. Will be able to, based on timing, how long from the airport to the hotel? I don't know. And then gradually ramp things up, with a game three days after we arrive."

Van Asten has canvassed his contemporaries working for the Vancouver Canucks and L.A. Kings - last year's O.R.G. participants - as to potential pitfalls.

"What I've been advised from them is: don't overthink it. Go, play, do the best you can. If you're trying to make everything perfect all the time … it's just not going to happen.

"There are a lot of logistical constraints, potentially nutritional constraints."

They've also been advised to take along items unavailable in China: Natural peanut butter, for example, along with gluten-free breads and pastas for those requiring them.

Team services manager Sean O'Brien and assistant coach Martin Gelinas are in China this week to help promote the upcoming games and also get the lay of the land. 

Van Asten has given O'Brien the team protocol for the journey and he'll act as a guinea pig, trying the ideas out.

Also consulted were the staff at the Canadian Sports Institute for their input on travelling overseas.

In the final analysis, the best thing to take along on this trip, van Asten says, is an open mind.

"You plan as much as possible, have everything dialled in as much as you can while understanding there are going to be a few wrenches thrown in that you just haven't anticipated.

"So you deal with them the best you can.

"That's just the way it's going to be."

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