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Rare weekend off gives Stars welcomed break, bonding time

'It's fun to get away, out on the town with just the guys,' netminder Ben Bishop says

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

VANCOUVER - If a National Hockey League season is a straight line from Game 1 to Game 82, this was a welcome squiggly line to the right. Or north, as was the case as the Dallas Stars took time away from the normal road routine to spend a day and a half in the picturesque resort town of Whistler, British Columbia.

Whistler was the home to some of the alpine events of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and it's a place where you can hardly turn around without being greeted by views of the majestic snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains. 

It's a place laced with walking and hiking trails, and regular signs reminding you that this is bear country, and that if you happen to run into one, don't try and feed or cuddle bear cubs, and just to back away quietly from any encounters.

These aren't just idle warnings, as the manager of a local restaurant described for us waking up to find his dog barking at a black bear rooting around in his back porch area on Saturday morning.

"It's a beautiful area," said netminder Ben Bishop, who is one of the new faces on this Stars team this season. 

"I didn't realize it was going to be so pretty. It was nice. It's fun to get away, out on the town with just the guys and be able to hang out and have a team dinner like that. It's neat. It's a long season, so it's kind of nice to enjoy these little breaks."

The Stars flew to Vancouver after a much-needed 2-1 win over Calgary Friday and bused to Whistler, arriving about 2 a.m. local time.

Saturday was a full off day for the players, who gathered in Whistler for a team dinner.

Sunday morning, it was time to ease back into the routine although practicing at the local rink in Whistler, complete with natural sunlight streaming onto the ice surface was a nice reminder of their own hockey beginnings, whether it was in local rinks in Sweden, Finland or British Columbia.

"It's a throwback. It brings you back to your beginnings," said head coach Ken Hitchcock. "It's interesting you get on these ice surfaces and the sheet's hard and it doesn't snow up as much. I mean, we ran a 50-minute practice and at the end, if you wanted to, you could run power play and not miss a beat.

Video: Stars embrace bonding time on the road

"It just makes it feel like you're having fun on an outdoor hockey rink."

As for the players, having some time to cut loose on their own is critical - although Hitchcock has learned over the past five years that you can't manage these kinds of team-building moments.

"I think we have to understand something," Hitchcock said. "We are in the people business. Yes, we're in the winning business, but we're in the people business. And the players get to have fun and be together with each other. I think what's changed is we didn't structure anything. Players did everything themselves. And I think that's the best way to do things now. I think the more you organize the more you take it out of their hands. It's what happens in that locker room is the key.

"So for us, to be honest with you, I like when we're not involved in it. They had fun here. Now, it's back to work and that's a good sign."

The players certainly seemed to find value in the brief interlude in what is a long five-game, 11-day road trip through the west.

"It's huge," said Antoine Roussel. "It makes the whole difference between winning team and losing team sometimes. Just the bonding, the quality time you spend together. This trip here was the perfect example for that."

Rookie Gemel Smith agreed.

"It builds definitely a lot of character amongst the guys and it definitely helps us out there, and I think chemistry's huge, so the more that we're more a family, I feel like we're going to make each other better out there by doing that," Smith said. "So, I think it's definitely a huge thing."

The 23-year-old played in just his second game of the season on Friday and was effective, playing mostly with Martin Hanzal and Brett Ritchie. He's expected back in the lineup Monday against a surprisingly good Vancouver club that has won four straight and is 6-3 on the season.

"Definitely you want to get in, and I knew just be patient, and I just said to myself, 'I'm going to be ready for whenever I get that chance,'" he said. "I just try to do what was needed out there, and I just tried to move my feet, and just tried to stay in it mentally. And I think it helped me."

Practice Notes
  • Hanzal, who did not skate, was banged up and didn't finish Friday's game in Calgary, so his availability for Monday remains unknown. "The only guy that's really questionable right now is Hanzal," Hitchcock said. "We'll see how he feels and if he skates tomorrow, then obviously, he'll play but he'd be the only question mark." If Hanzal can't go, rookie Remi Elie will draw in.

  • Mattias Janmark also didn't skate, but that was a maintenance day for him as the team tries to ensure he remains game-worthy, given the knee injury that cost him all of last season.

  • Stephen Johns (concussion) skated for the entire session in Whistler, and Hitchcock said it's a matter of going through the protocol, which means Johns' return is likely Thursday in Winnipeg - the final game of the road trip.Although the six defenders who played Friday were excellent, Hitchcock said when Johns is ready, he will come back in. "He's playing great. He played great when he went out," Hitchcock said. "Again, same rule we have: We're not going to take a guy out of the lineup based on an injury."

  • Bishop will start in goal in spite of a strong performance from Kari Lehtonen in Friday's win.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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