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Burnside: Lengthy trip provides Stars opportunity for much-needed bonding

Embarking on an 11-day journey from home, the team hopes to turn the early travel into a positive

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

DENVER -- The road. Where teams are formed and seasons lost.

The road. Where teammates have a chance -- maybe even a duty -- to become something more than just a bunch of guys wearing the same jersey collecting a paycheck.

The road. Where wins are always harder to come by, but somehow seem to have greater value than those victories collected in the warm, fuzzy confines of the home rink.

"To me, there's no better feeling than winning on the road," Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday morning. "And there's no harder challenge. And especially early in the year where everybody's jacked up. So that's what I'm looking forward to is how do we answer the bell?"

The conversation took place two hours before the Stars hit the ice for practice, and five hours or so before the team's charter headed west for Colorado and the start of a road trip that will include five games, and stops in seven different locales, before the team will touch down again in Dallas in the middle of the night on Nov. 2.

While the team has a six-game road trip in the east in March, this one is longer in terms of time away and moving parts. It comes with the team having four in a row and showing dramatic improvement over last year's disappointing turn that saw the Stars go 12-24-5 on the road and miss the playoffs with 79 points -- 30 fewer than two seasons ago when they won the Central Division.

"The importance for me is you can't build your team at home," Hitchcock said. "You build your team on the road. And you build it through adversity and through hard play."

If you believe that a team's identity, their cohesiveness, has a direct impact on the ability to win, to collect points, then it is a given that trips like this are crucial on a variety of levels -- not the least of which is players spending time together, both at the rink and in social settings.

It is a piece of bedrock in a game that has gone through a grand metamorphosis in the past 15 years.

"I've always felt that was an important part of team success finding those moments," said Hall-of-Famer and former Dallas player and GM Joe Nieuwendyk, who is an advisor and scout with the Carolina Hurricanes. 

"That has never changed. Of all the things that have changed in the game, that is one thing that I think that is still constant. Becoming a team is really important. It's not just about the wins and losses, it's about coming together. For this Dallas team, they've got a lot of new faces. This will be a good opportunity for them to get to know each other a little better on the road."

In that sense, much of the pressure to see that these moments are used wisely falls squarely on the shoulders of captain Jamie Benn and the leadership group of this team. From the get-go in training camp in Cedar Park, Hitchcock has preached stepping back and allowing the team to find its own way when it comes to things like bonding, as opposed to having the coaching staff guide them or dictate to them.

"Personally, I would have liked this trip to start the year, get us all together on the road," Benn said. "It's fun being on the road. All you've got is each other, and hanging out with each other a lot, especially with all the new faces. It'll be good to come together and become closer as a team."

Not only will the team play games in Colorado on Tuesday, and then back-to-back tilts in Edmonton and Calgary before finishing with visits to Vancouver and Winnipeg, there are side trips to Kelowna and the picturesque ski town of Whistler, both in British Columbia.

Video: Morning Skate: Hitchcock

Benn, who joked that he had to return home before Monday's skate because he forgot his passport, will be in familiar territory for the British Columbia part of the trip having been born and played hockey in Victoria before playing major junior hockey in Kelowna.

"We've got a lot of stuff planned, actually," Benn said. "We're going to be in Whistler for a couple of nights and then get to take the boys back to my old stomping grounds in Kelowna. I'm sure we're going to get together for a few dinners, there'll be lots of cards on the road and hanging out with each other. It's just little things like that that are actually very important and go a long way."

Trips like this aren't easy.

Marc Methot and Kari Lehtonen are both expecting children in the coming weeks.

For those players with families the time away -- almost two weeks -- will be taxing.

"It's tough for the older guys," said sophomore Devin Shore. "But you don't get a chance to bond with them as much at home, and rightfully so, because they're raising families, right? I think even little things like a team dinner or going to catch a movie and hanging out in the hotel, the bus rides, the plane rides -- I think that's really awesome for a team, especially early on."

Whether it's a chicken or egg thing, or not -- do you play better when you've bonded, or is it easier to bond when you play well? -- this trip provides an opportunity for a team with lots of different moving parts to learn some things about itself. Perhaps, important things.

"It's really good we're on such a long road trip this early for a number of different reasons," Shore added. "On the ice, it'll be important for us. It's a great opportunity for us to establish our road mentality going forward throughout the rest of the year. We want to be a tough team to play against regardless of the building we're playing in, so this is a great opportunity for that. And then off the ice I think it does a ton for your team chemistry. Just spending the time just with the guys."

Ben Bishop is one of a handful of key new faces that joined the Stars in the offseason. The veteran netminder feels this team has come together quickly and is already a tightknit group. But he is looking forward to an extended road trip to help build a style of play that will put them in a good place for the rest of the season.

"Once you get the points, it makes the team bonding that much more fun," Bishop said.

If the importance of how a team reacts to being the road, or uses that time to forge something greater or deeper, hasn't changed over the years. The mechanism for how that gets done has. At least, as far as Hitchcock is concerned.

"I think the challenge for our leadership group is pulling the group together. Rather than just doing your own thing," Hitchcock said. "And I don't want to do it. I think the worst thing you can do now as a coach is direct it. I think you used to be able to do that stuff. It doesn't work anymore. The players almost get offended by that. I think the players recognize this as a very important time and I think they recognize this is an opportunity and I want to see them take charge of that opportunity. Am I going to tell them what to do? No. Am I going to direct them what do? No. 

"But I'm hopeful that they find some time together. That's really important for them. And see if they can even build a stronger bond."

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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