What’s it like traveling on the road with an NHL team? Well, it is interesting, exciting, unexpected, routine, unexpected, and exhausting, sometimes on the same day and at the same practice. It’s never dull.
After a good season-opening win against the Flames, it was all of the above for the Sharks. There was a trip to the hotel, but not the one in Calgary. No, it was off to the airport, and a trip to Edmonton in a practice where some say that landing instructions need to be radioed for as the plane is taking off. The flight is less than an hour, but it’s all business for the coaching staff, the training staff, and the players themselves.
On our way into town, we pass a cycling store that has a huge mural of Lance Armstrong holding up seven fingers. I wondered what Oprah Winfrey would think if she were driving by, and whether any cyclists would hold up any fingers as they entered and exited the store during regular business hours.
As it turns out, Ms. Winfrey may very well have seen that very mural, only days after her legendary interview with Mr. Armstrong took place. She likely drove right past it on the same roads that we had just traversed, because she is in Edmonton.
On Monday night, Oprah appears in front of 15,000 of her fans at Rexall Place, and so naturally, the arena isn’t available for either the Oilers or any visiting hockey teams who happen to be in town. Since “any visiting hockey teams” means the San Jose Sharks, the group is naturally is well prepared for the exercise of hockey’s first rule of the road: “Everything is subject to change.”
One thing that has changed a bit since the day in Calgary is the temperature. It’s only five degrees Fahrenheit in Edmonton, with a high expected at 16 degrees. For our radio listeners in California, that’s extraordinary, but it’s just another day for Edmontonians, who are used to the temperature range where Fahrenheit and Celsius scales meet. That’s 40 below zero, for those of you who are wondering. It’s nothing a little Czech food at the Bistro Praha couldn’t cure.
Where will the Sharks practice? Well, you can credit Sharks assistant coach Jay Woodcroft for suggesting a place where we have never been before: Terwillegar, about 25-30 minutes away from our downtown hotel.
I might have expected Jay’s dad, Frank, to have known someone who ran the place, but as it turns out, it’s Jay’s wife who gets full credit for this scouting assignment. Her family is from the Edmonton area, and their suggestion proves to be quite a good one.
You could say that the complex is a combination of what is offered at Sharks Ice at San Jose and Silver Creek Sportsplex. There are four rinks here, but there is also a huge workout facility, basketball, a playground area for kids, restaurants, and a swimming facility, all inside a huge area with plenty of parking. There are several of these in the region, some with indoor soccer like the Sportsplex, some with basketball, and all with hockey.
The practice was very focused and directed, as has always been customary under coach Todd McLellan. They’re getting ready for an energetic and improving Oilers squad, with a lot of expecting the unexpected in the repertoire.
It’s pretty clear that the Sharks benefitted from Antti Niemi’s excellent goaltending early in Game 1 in Calgary, the theatrics of which bought some time for the team to settle into their game. The top end forwards came through with a strong performance. Matt Irwin had a very solid first NHL game with his parents in attendance. Brad Stuart had a solid game with members of his family in attendance. Marc-Edouard Vlasic made it look easy, as usual. It was a very good way to open the season.
With the schedule compressing into a lot of games in a short time, the players will draw on their experiences in earlier stages of their career to endure what is coming. On the broadcasting side, I can certainly recall my days in the American Hockey League, when the schedule regularly had a Friday night home game, a 1:00 bus on Saturday, a 4 hour drive to a destination, a 7:30 road game, a 4 hour drive back home, a 3:00 a.m. bedtime, and a 5:00 afternoon game on Sunday.
Those Sunday games, the third in three nights, were often excruciatingly difficult for the players to get through, but they adjusted. Sometimes the better skilled teams won, because the physical element wasn’t as evident. Sometimes, there were penalty filled matchups. But often, the goaltender and the skill players made the difference in the outcome, as fatigue was present.
Given the skill and the experience of the Sharks, and given the way that they played on opening night in Calgary, there is reason for a lot of confidence. But the players, true professionals that they are, are always expecting the unexpected, and so the preparation continues in full force.
See you on the radio on Tuesday, starting at 6:30.