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Sharks, Jackets got most out of Stockholm trip

by Dave Lozo
STOCKHOLM -- To participate in the Compuware NHL Premiere Series, players and coaches have to spend nearly two weeks of their lives in Europe away from friends, family and the comforts of home.

A combined 10 days in Germany and Sweden may sound like a dream vacation for some, but it was practically all business for the San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets. On top of the day-to-day rigors of practicing and the stress of traveling across the world and adjusting to a drastic change in time zones, players are asked to be ambassadors for the League. There are autograph sessions, trips to hospitals and a lot more media requests for those who are returning for an NHL game in their home countries.

It's an awful lot of excess work even before the Sharks and Jackets played back-to-back regular-season games for valuable points in the standings. But after San Jose's 3-2 victory Friday and Columbus' 3-2 overtime win Saturday, players on both sides said they wouldn't have traded their overseas experience for anything.

"I've really enjoyed my time here," Blue Jackets defenseman Mike Commodore said of Stockholm. "This is a really nice city. I'd like to come back, to be honest with you. I’d like to come when I'm not working and have some more time to hang out. I might have to plan a summer trip."

Blue Jackets goaltender Steve Mason also enjoyed the picturesque views of Stockholm. But the 22-year-old sounded just as appreciative of the natural beauty to be found in a city filled with mostly blond-haired, blue-eyed women.

"It's a beautiful city," Mason said. "There's a lot to look at … in all aspects."

Outside of enjoying the charms of an unfamiliar location, there's the truly important benefit of doing some early-season bonding without the distractions of home.

Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, whose team was in Helsinki this year, won a Stanley Cup ring as an assistant GM with the Pittsburgh Penguins two years ago. Fletcher said the importance of the Penguins coming to Stockholm and getting to know each other early in the season laid the foundation for that season's championship.

Last year's Stanley Cup champion, the Chicago Blackhawks, opened the season in Helsinki. So when players talk about the importance of spending time together for two weeks here, it shouldn't be quickly brushed off.

"I think every team wants to start on the road early on just to get the guys meshing," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "I think in the long run it's going to be good for us to go on the road. For a group of guys to get to know each other, it's perfect timing."

Jackets rookie coach Scott Arniel was in agreement.

"It's been good to grow as a group," he said. "We've been together a lot here and done some team bonding. That's what you want to do. We've had a good opportunity to do it here."

Sometimes it's easy to think of professional athletes as mechanical robots who can simply plug themselves into a new team and comfortably do what they've done with other teams in other cities. Ethan Moreau, who spent the previous 11 seasons with the Edmonton Oilers before joining the Jackets this offseason, was ecstatic about this unique chance.

"Especially for me, I'm new on the team and it's a really great opportunity to get to know my teammates," said Moreau, who likely made some new friends with his overtime goal Saturday night. "These guys are great tour guides. We were in good hands. We had a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the time here."

It remains to be seen if the Jackets, Sharks or any of the teams who participated in this season's NHL Premiere Series will use their European experience as the starting point to a championship. But with six days off for the Jackets and seven days off for the Sharks, both coaches are happy for the trip's practical application -- getting plenty of time to iron out kinks before their first regular-season game in North America.

"It's been a long trip," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We've been on the road now for 10 days. I think we've got some things to work on. But it gives us something to go home to now. There are parts of our game we have to get better at. At least we have a measuring tool. We know where we're at. We've got some points in the bank that people can't take away from us. Now we start building on our season."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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