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China trip should pay dividends down the road for Flames

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

BEIJING - Asked to pinpoint one go-to purchase over the past eight days, Matthew Tkachuk barely wavered.

"Probably," he reckoned, "the robe I bought at the Great Wall. When I put it on the guys said I looked like Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers.
"But I like it."

The extensive planning, heightened anticipation and build-up is over, the Flames' Chinese odyssey has come to an end.

Hopping aboard a bus post-game from the Cadillac Arena and the O.R.G NHL China Games-ending 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins for the two-hour trek to Tianjin (charter flights are forbidden in or out of Beijing) and an 11-hour charter jaunt home, the traveling contingent scheduled to touch down on the home tarmac around 11 p.m. Calgary time Wednesday night.

That was some twenty-one hours after checking out of the JW Marriott, bound for the rink.

The unfamiliar obstacles thrown in their path over the course of eight days - gridlock traffic, ongoing equipment issues - in the final analysis didn't seem to matter all that much.

"Besides, when guys get frustrated, you start to understand their emotions, what bugs them,'' said Sean Monahan, mischieviously. "So you can chirp them about those throughout the season, which is always good.

"Staying together during those situations, which we did this trip, knits you together.

"Coming here, not knowing what to expect, never thinking I'd ever be going to China, has been an experience I'll never forget. A lot of other guys, too, I'm sure."

Count Tkachuk among them.

"The best part? We spend a ton of time together,'' reasoned the fan-favourite left-winger. "That's what we were really looking forward to anyway. Through this trip, we've been able to really get to know the new guys, the ones just getting acclimated to the team and the city, and that's been great.

"Not everything went as planned, definitely some things were off, but you have to deal with them together. You're in it together.

"And so many things have been awesome. The Wall. The crowds at the games. The difference in culture. How friendly everybody is."

Those are the things that will linger.

"Everyone's talked about how the schedule hasn't gone as planned but I think there have been some pretty cool things about the trip,'' said goaltender Mike Smith.

"Obviously a new team, new coaching staff, we've had a lot of time here to get to know each other. That's important early in the season. And going to the Great Wall as a team, as a group, and coming down the luge together was a lot of fun."

While largely confined to organized events, hotels, rinks and buses - this was, after all, primarily a work junket - the group was able to catch glimpses of the Chinese culture during its stay.

"It's a beautiful country,'' marvelled head coach Bill Peters. "And the people are more than kind and generous. All three rinks we've been in have been fantastic. People have received us warmly.

"For me, three things stand out:

"In Shenzhen, the market was an experience. The Great Wall is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And last night, the O.R.G. function was top notch."

In the case of icon Lanny McDonald, representing both the league he graced and the franchise he came to symbolize at various functions, a unique opportunity to hang with 12-year-old grandson Hayden so far from the familiarities of home provided the biggest joy.

"The coolest thing for me,'' confessed No. 9, "was spending nine straight days with him and seeing him enjoy himself so much, whether it was at the Great Wall, hanging out with the players or taking pictures with Smitty and James Neal.

"Just so much fun for me, kinda loving and living the experience through his eyes, seeing him at the (O.R.G.) dinner last night, watching him have adult conversations with people.

"At the market, my gosh, we went back a second day and he wanted more shoes for himself and his brother. So I told him this time he had to do the negotiating.

"I'm kind of ashamed to say I paid way more for two pairs the day before. Even the guy selling the shoes - we bought them from the same guy - said: 'Who's the boss here? This is what you paid yesterday.' And Hayden said: 'That was yesterday.'

"A born barterer, this boy."

About the only thing missing was a win.

"We prepared for a couple hiccups along the way and no doubt we were thrown a few curve balls but I thought the guys dealt with it all extremely well,'' said GM Brad Treliving.

"We said No. 1, we had to get the work in. End of the day, we missed one practice and pushed another back five hours. Not all that bad.

"No. 2 was to hopefully use this time to grow this group and hopefully experience something you may never experience again.

"We checked both those boxes.

"The entire trip has been a wonderful experience. Getting the group together, spending time together and hopefully building a bond - you hope, but you never know - exceeded my expectations."

Amen, echoed a legendary hero of another era renowned for his innate ability to take the temperature of a room, the pulse of a team.

"I saw these players come together at the Great Wall and through some of the adversities,'' said McDonald. "When you saw the guys at the Wall, wearing hats and kimonos … what a fantastic bonding experience. I hope they don't take it for granted. I don't think they will.

"This experience will pay dividends down the road, all through the year. Believe me.

"They might be tired right now, it's been a long journey in a short amount of time, but no excuses. Buck up, let's go.

"And I think between the coaching staff and the leadership group they've put together, they're going to have a great season."

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