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Premiere a team-building experience

by Shawn P. Roarke
STOCKHOLM -- Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was asked Sunday morning if the week-long trip to Sweden for Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 was all that he expected.

"I think it's been a good week for us," Alfredsson said in typical understated fashion. "We've had some good practices and spent a lot of time with the guys, which we don't usually do at home. It's been a good week, and if we win tonight, it'll be a great week."

Consider it a great week, then, as the Senators -- behind two power-play goals from Dany Heatley and two assists from Alfredsson -- took a 3-1 decision Sunday to split the two-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Globe Arena.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman certainly was impressed with the weekend. He spent Saturday night in Prague, watching the New York Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1, in the other Premiere series before flying here for Sunday's game.

"This weekend has been -- in two great European hockey cities -- an incredible weekend," he said.

In Sweden there was much to remember about a week-long hockey celebration that engulfed both Stockholm and Gothenburg, which hosted the Senators for the first five days of the trip.  But the ripple effects of the party were felt throughout Scandinavia -- including Helsinki, Finland, site of the Penguins' European exhibition against Jokerit -- and beyond.

Sure, the four points in the regular-season standings offered during the two weekend games were of the utmost importance on this trip. But it was obvious there was also an emphasis placed on having as much fun as possible. On that count, it seems this trip was a huge success for everyone involved.

Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby loved exploring the Swedish capital and its citizens returned that love 10-fold. He was a superstar wherever he went. Crosby especially enjoyed the Vasa Museum on the island of Djurgarden. Even more than that, Crosby loved being able to spend some quality time with his teammates away from the distractions of home.

The team toured the Vasa, a restored man-of-war ship that sank during its inaugural voyage in 1628, early in the week. The Pens also had an uproarious scavenger hunt last Tuesday that sent the players throughout the city looking for historical landmarks. There were team dinners almost every night and a day-long trip to play Jokerit.

All that quality time was a blessing for Crosby, who leads a little more insular of a life back in North America.

"For me, I think it was just being able to be with the guys all the time while were here," Crosby said Sunday morning, just a few hours after he had set up the tying goal by Rob Scuderi in the Penguins' 4-3 overtime victory Saturday night.

Jason Spezza also raved about the time his Senators spent together as a unit in Gothenburg and Stockholm.

"We grew a lot as a team," he said.

Spezza also loved playing against Frolunda, a top Swedish pro club that counts Alfredsson among its most famous alumni.

"I loved the game in Frolunda because it was their true fans cheering for the team," he said. "It was amazing."

Ottawa won that game 4-1 and Alfredsson scored a goal, which sent the 12,000 fans at the Scandanavium, Frolunda's charming home rink, into rapturous applause. At the end of the game, Alfredsson was forced -- by the crowd's cheering -- to take a victory lap around the rink.

Ottawa coach Craig Hartsburg said he really enjoyed a boat tour of the North Sea that Alfredsson set up for the team soon after their arrival in Gothenburg. According to reports, the ride was more than a little bumpy because of the swells that are so commonplace on the open water there.

"That was interesting and intense," said Hartsburg, who spent some time watching the players react to the violent pitching of the boat. "There were a couple of times that we were a little airborne there."

The only boat ride the Penguins took was a five-minute ferry to Djurgarden to visit the Skansen, a small zoo located on the island. That stop was part of the six-mission scavenger hunt that was designed to be a team-building exercise for the Penguins.

At the zoo, the players had to find the elk exhibit and pose for a picture with the animal. Other tasks on the hunt included climbing the 365 steps necessary to reach the top of the tower at City Hall, visiting the Royal palace and one of the city's most famous restaurants for a traditional Swedish tasting menu. The teams also had to put together a small piece of IKEA furniture.

"The scavenger hunt was kind of cool," said Jordan Staal, a forward with the Penguins. "We were able to see the whole city that way and that was a lot of fun."

Pittsburgh's Paul Bissonnette always will have fond memories of this city as well; it is where he made his NHL debut Saturday after a three-year slog through Pittsburgh's minor-league system. The 23-year-old wasn't even on the radar of the Pittsburgh coaching staff when camp started.

"This weekend has been -- in two great European hockey cities -- an incredible weekend." – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

"Sidney Crosby was saying after the game how cool it was that I made my NHL debut in Sweden; not too many guys can say that," Bissonnette told "So, for me, it was my first NHL game and that was real special and stands out. It means a lot to me because I have waited a long time. I've already learned that this League is all about winning, and to get a win in my first game was great."

Now those memories will be packed away -- just as the team's mountains of equipment were stored and hauled aboard trucks Sunday night by the dedicated, and exhausted, training and equipment staffs from both teams.

After a week of being in Europe, players from both teams were ready to put the very successful Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 series in the rear-view mirror and look to the future.

Ottawa opens the North American portion of its schedule Saturday, hosting Stanley Cup champion Detroit. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, hosts New Jersey on that same day in its first game since Stockholm.

Sunday night, those games and those opponents became the primary focus of the Senators and Penguins. In that process, Stockholm became a pleasant, but already fading, memory.

"It'll definitely be nice to get back in your own bed, but it was fun while it lasted," Staal said.

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