EAGLE, Colo. -- There are many challenges associated with bringing more than two dozen professional athletes on the road to a remote mountain town to conduct what would otherwise be a mundane practice.
Other than all of the obvious differences, nearly everything about the Wild's practice on Tuesday at Mountain Recreation Ice Rink was as normal as could be: the players wore their usual practice jerseys, they skated in their own equipment on a sheet of ice that's an NHL-sized sheet. All of the coaches were there, blowing on the same whistles they do when the team is back in its own facility in downtown St. Paul (elevation: 795 feet above sea level).
The look and sound of practice was rather ... ordinary.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle faced was nothing that could be seen inside the rink, rather the terrain outside of it, just off in the distance no matter which direction one faces.
The Rocky Mountains are a picturesque national treasure. But it's not an easy place to play hockey, especially if you're not used to it.
Video: Wild bonds on and off the ice in Colorado
"For the first 30, 40 seconds, like a normal shift, I think you're fine," said Wild forward Eric Staal, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario (elevation: 653 feet). "But once you get extended, once you're breathing heavy and really trying to grasp that oxygen, it's just not there."
The elevation in Eagle is just a shade over 6,600 feet, which makes doing any physical activity that much more difficult. Even finely tuned athletic machines, like pro hockey players, can struggle to catch a full breath in the thinner mountain air.
"You definitely feel it. It's pretty noticable," Staal said. "Over the years, playing in Denver, you can feel it a little bit. But being up here, you just seem to be grasping for air more than normal as you're standing there in drills. It's just got a different feel as it's coming into the lungs."
Even seasoned Rocky Mountain vets like Jason Zucker, who played college hockey in Denver, 130 miles to the east and about 1,400 feet lower in elevation, struggle to handle some of the most vigorous moments in practice.
Zucker, raised in Las Vegas (elevation: 2,001 feet), played midget hockey in Plymouth, Michigan (elevation: 725 feet) before moving on to the University of Denver. When teams from the old WCHA would come to the Mile High City, then-Pioneers head coach George Gwozdecky would have a consistent game plan for his teams.
"Friday night, first period, we need to come out flying, because they're gonna be gassed," Zucker said. "That was something we talked about every weekend when we were at home."
Despite his experience playing at altitude, years removed from his DU days, it does him no good anymore. And while it can be a big advantage for college guys, Zucker said the edge for players on the pro side is minimal.
"You never really adjust to it, honestly," Zucker said. "In college, you did, because you'd be there for a week or if you had back-to-back home weekends, you'd be there for 20 days. But for the NHL guys, if you go on a five-day road trip and then you come home? You're already done, you're back to square one and that first practice back is tough no matter what."
Even though the Wild has just one day left before boarding a plane and heading to Dallas (elevation: 430 feet), Zucker said he believes there are some benefits to the time the Wild has spent here.
"It gets you to the point where you can acclimate to different kinds of conditions real quick," Zucker said. "I think that's a big key."
Count Wild coach Bruce Boudreau as a believer as well.
"They have to work harder to get to the same spot. You notice it just when you're walking up a hill, you can feel it," Boudreau said. "That's why if we do a lot of pace up here at practice, I've gotta believe it can only help us."
(photo by Brandon McCauley)