November 23, 2009

B's have own road rules

Derek Morris (photo: Getty)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

When Derek Morris signed with the Bruins this summer, the chance to play in the city of Boston was a major selling point.

"Everybody knows how great the city of Boston is, how passionate the fans are," said Morris in July. "Every time we come into this city from another city players are abuzz about how beautiful it is downtown and how passionate the people are."

But, like every other full-timer in the league, Morris will only spend half his time in his home city.

Life in the NHL can be a vagabond existence, and that's not talking about the constant movement of players via free agency and trades. Within each season, the players are almost constantly on the move, with 41 road games across North America, and that's before adding trips for the preseason and playoffs. The Bruins are scheduled to fly 34,969 miles throughout the course of this season.

"Getting on the planes, the travel, going through the airports … It isn't too bad, but still, after a while it can get old," said veteran Bruins forward Mark Recchi.

What makes it worthwhile -- besides the six- and seven-figure contracts -- is the way being on the road can bring a team together.

"After being here for training camp and five home games, it's nice to get away for a bit,” said defenseman Mark Stuart. “And being on the road, the team can hang out together more. You're together on the plane. You're together at the hotel. It feels like you kind of come together as a team on the road. And it's nice to see other cities and get out of your apartment for a bit."

While players at home tend to go their separate ways once the game is over as family commitments take precedence, on the road most teams stick together.

"When you're at home, maybe a couple of guys will get together," said Stuart. "But on the road, it's nice -- you get big groups of guys going out together for dinner. You're on your own. All you have to worry about is the game. It's nice, gives guys a little time to hang out."

That bonding can pay off with better chemistry on the ice. It's also just a good way to forge friendships and have a little fun.

"It's just fun to be able to have a few laughs," said Morris. "We think about hockey non-stop, 24 hours a day. Whether you admit you do or not, you're always thinking about a certain play or something that happened, so when we can go out and have a few laughs and get away from it for five minutes, 10 minutes, an hour … that's what we're able to do on the road."

* * *

Setting up that chance to bond takes a lot of work. "There's a lot of stuff that goes into it," said Bruins director of communications Matthew Chmura, who is in charge of coordinating the trips. "It seems like an endless task sometimes."

Chmura does have plenty of help. Manager of hockey administration Ryan Nadeau starts planning the upcoming trips as early as draft weekend in June, putting together a list of potential hotels and charter companies the club could use and drawing up the initial itineries.

He then brings his finding to Chmura, who passes them along to coach Claude Julien and general manager Peter Chiarelli for final approval. Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk, now the team's road services coordinator, helps communicate the schedules to the players and helps organize things on the road, with either Chmura or manager of media relations Eric Tosi along for each trip to oversee all the details.

The first order of business is finding the right place to stay.

"It's a little of bit everything," said Chmura. "Certainly the hotel's flexibility and willingness to work with us is the most important thing. The proximity to the rink is important, so is privacy and security. ... When you find a hotel you like, you stick with it. Most teams stay at the same hotels because those hotels treat teams right and are keen to our needs."

With a traveling party of at least 40 people on each trip, setting up arrangements isn't easy. The team requires at least 30-35 rooms a night, and everyone stays at the same hotel. The lone exceptions are trips to New Jersey. There, the equipment guys stay in a separate hotel next to the rink in Newark to be able to beat traffic and set up early, while the rest of team stays about 35 minutes away.

The traveling party includes players and coaches, usually six members of the TV crew from NESN, two more from the radio broadcast team from the Sports Hub, two trainers, two equipment managers, Chiarelli, vice president Cam Neely, Bucyk, Chmura or Tosi, and sometimes scouts and assistant GMs Don Sweeney and Jim Benning.

Taking that group from city to city is a chartered plane, a full-sized 727 jet run by Miami Air, which the Bruins are using for the first time this year. They had previously used Air Canada before government regulations complicated the use of Canadian charters between U.S. cities. The Bruins have been using charters since the late 1980s, easing the travel grind considerably from the earlier days of commercial travel.

"We used to fly commercial when I started," said Recchi, who began his NHL career in 1988. "Now we fly private air and it is a lot more convenient, but you still have to go through airports and security and there are a lot of late nights, getting in at 1 or 2 in the morning -- and then you have to get up the next morning and either play or practice again. Those are the things that over a course of a year can wear on you.”

Chmura also flew commercial while working with Major League Soccer before joining the Bruins, so he can also appreciate chartered flights.

"It's so much easier on the team and the players," said Chmura. "You get catering with the food you've requested, extra space. The whole plane is first-class seating throughout. There's room for treatment by the trainers. You don't have to wait around. Security is same process -- there's still metal detectors and everything -- but it's a separate checkpoint and much quicker. The time saved is critical for everybody."

Still, even the comforts of a chartered flight have their limits after getting beat up on the ice all night.

"The worst is just getting on planes after a game," said defenseman Andrew Ference. "After playing a tough game, having to sit on a plane and get all cramped up, and your muscles feel like crap the next day because you just can't get comfortable and you don't sleep well. That disruption of sleep patterns, and not being able to let your body just rest and recover without having to jump on a plane, that's the worst part of it."

* * *

These days, the tales of wild nights on the road are largely the stuff of old stories and legends. Today's trips don't allow the players much time to get into trouble, or do much else.

"We don't do a whole lot," said Morris. "Go to a movie, grab a dinner, play cards, hang out in someone's room. There's nothing too exciting, because you're usually playing the next day."

And that means early to bed most nights.

"There's a curfew," said Recchi. "I think it's 11. After games if we're staying overnight (Julien) may set one or may not. It all depends on how much we're playing or when we're playing next. He might just tell us to be smart and let us go enjoy the night.

"We're grown men," added Recchi. "We're going to be responsible. And the coaches, for the most part, they trust us."
So while the players get to travel across North America each year, they don't often get to experience much of the various cities they visit.

"The dinners are usually at the hotel or five minutes away because we're too lazy to go anywhere else,” said Morris. “Like this trip to Dallas (last month) -- that's a 5½-hour flight. So we'll get in, it'll be a quick trip up to the room, then grab a quick dinner and back to bed. That's the way road trips are. I wish they were more exciting or extravagant, but we're not like baseball where they stay in one city for a few games and have some time. We're a real quick in and out."

And that's OK with most players.

"I don't mind getting in and out," said Stuart. "We're not in these cities to sight-see, right? That's not what we're there for. So just get there and play and take off."

Everything is regimented on the trips, with the team arriving the night before the game, usually with time for dinner before heading back to the hotel. The next day begins with breakfast, followed by the morning skate or a practice, treatment, lunch, a pre-game snack at the hotel later in the afternoon, then back to the rink for the game and most times a flight out to the next city or back home right after.

Still, the players do get some time to themselves. So what do the guys do in that downtime?

"In the nice cities some guys go golfing," said Recchi. "It's hard nowadays, there's not a lot of time. But some guys find a way to go golfing. There's some sight-seeing. Some guys just like to relax and wait for dinner."

Golfing is a passion for most hockey players, but getting in a round during a road trip isn't supposed to happen. Though some wily vets might find a way to sneak out to the links, hockey is the only game the players are supposed to play on the road.

"Definitely no golf," insisted Chmura, "only if it's a full team activity that been scheduled."

"Never golf," agreed goalie Tim Thomas, though he might bend that rule if you include the latest Tiger Woods game for XBox. "There's video games on the plane, dinners, then video games at the hotel. Lots of video games with the kids like (David) Krejci and (Blake) Wheeler and (Vladimir) Sobotka. If there's time a movie, which at home I don't get to go to movies at all."

* * *

A shared interest in video games is among the factors that come into play when deciding room assignments. The ability to sleep without snoring, or sleep through someone else's snoring, usually comes a little higher on the list.

For the most part, the players decide among themselves who they'll room with before the start of the season, with Julien having final say over the assignments. Per the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, players with 600 or more games in the league or 10 years service are entitled to their own room.

"So I should get my own suite now," joked Recchi, who is in his 22nd season and closing in on 1,500 games played. "I wish."
But even in his early days, Recchi said he fared well in the game of roommate roulette.

"I've had good luck," he said. "I've had some great roommates over the years -- Saku Koivu, Kevin Stevens, Sidney Crosby, Simon Gagne. I've had some really good ones -- quiet, don't snore. Some of the guys have horror stories about guys who snore or light sleepers or whatever. I'm a heavy sleeper, so I was set."

Stuart, who played his 200th game earlier this season, envies Recchi's setup, but can't complain too much about his current arrangement with roommate Michael Ryder.

"He's good,” said Stuart. “We get along pretty well. I think most guys get along, but I know sometimes there's different schedules, different sleep patterns where you might not jell too well. But I've been lucky. I think I can sleep through anything, so snoring doesn't bother me. The TV doesn't bother me. When I'm out, I'm out."

But how is Stuart as a roommate? "I think I talk (in my sleep)," said Stuart. "I've heard that from Rydes. But other than that I think I'm OK as a roommate."

Ference, in his 11th season, could have a room to himself, but prefers the company and rooms with fellow blueliner Dennis Wideman.

"I like having somebody there,” said Ference. “It gets boring if you're by yourself. Nobody to talk to."

Of course, Ference's answer might have been different if he was asked to room with someone else – say, a certain bruising young power forward named Milan Lucic, who has acquired a room all to himself in just his third pro season thanks to his unbearable snoring.

"He's got his own room, said Ference. “No one could take it."

* * *

While time in the various cities the Bruins visit is limited, there are some destinations that the players look forward to more than most. But it’s not a consensus.

"During the winter, the warm ones are nice," said Recchi. "It's nice to get down there and get a little sun, but Chicago's fun, Dallas is a great city to visit, LA … those places are always fun as well."

Thomas seconded that. "The warm places, Florida and Tampa Bay, those are the best just because it's nice to walk around outside and soak in the sun," said the netminder.

Not everyone agrees. "I know a lot of guys love going to Florida," said Ference, “(but) I'm not a Florida fan at all. I don't like going there. The weather, going down there in the middle of winter, it just doesn't feel right. And where we stay, it's not like you're on the beach or anything. You're not going to go surfing or anything.

"I always like going to New York," he added. "Good restaurants and I have some good friends there. I love going to Washington. That's probably my favorite city. Again, great restaurants and there's always something to do there. You can go out and check out a few sights before dinner."

Good restaurants typically trump any famous landmarks for making a city a good road destination.

"Usually we just look for someplace that has somewhere good to eat because that's usually all we have time for is a good dinner," said Morris. "Dallas is a great place for restaurants, L.A., New York … I loved coming to Boston when I wasn't playing here."

And the worst?

"Everybody says Buffalo, but that's not very inventive," said Ference. "Downtown (Buffalo) is pretty quiet though."

"To be honest, I enjoyed Winnipeg," said Recchi. "I loved Quebec. There's not really any spot that's really bad to go to. There's some spots that I haven't been to much being in the Eastern Conference my whole career so I don't know them too well, but I don't have any cities I really don't like."

"I don't mind anyplace really," added Stuart. "I even enjoy playing in Buffalo. Every city seems to have something good about it. The Buffalo fans are great and we always seem to get into some pretty good games there."

Still, travel, even on a plush chartered plane, can wear on a player, though you won't hear too many Bruins complaining.

"It's not too bad because we've all been doing it," said Morris. "In junior you played 70, 80 games. We prepare ourselves for that in the summer. There's parts of the season where it's a grind and you get tired of it, but then you remember those bus trips in junior and the chartered flights don't seem so bad at all."

The Bruins also have the benefit of playing in the Eastern Conference, where most of the teams are fairly close together and there aren't as many extended road trips as out West.

"That's one of the benefits of playing in Boston,” said Thomas. “If you have a family, you have to leave, you're in and out, but we very rarely have a protracted, long road trip. That's nice. Some of those teams out West, they're home two days a month when they're having their road trips. Because of where we're situated, kind of central to everything in the East, we're usually not gone that long, so I like that."

Leaving the family behind can be the toughest part of life on the road.

"For me it doesn't bother me, but I don't have a family or kids," said Stuart. "I'm sure it would be a lot harder to be on an extended road trip away from your wife and kids, but I've got it a lot easier than a lot of guys because I don't have that going on."

Of course, that's where the team bonding comes in, and those days and nights on the road help the team form a different kind of family feel.

"You get to hang out with your teammates more," said Thomas. "I have three kids and I live a little bit out of the city, so outside of the hockey rink I don't get to spend that much time with the rest of the guys. So I like going on the road trips and getting to go out to dinner and hang out with a lot of the guys that I haven't had a chance to hang out with too much yet this year."

Douglas Flynn can be reached at dflynn@hockeyjournal.com.