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November 29, 2010

It's just another town along the road…

by Neal Stava

It is never easy spending six to nine months away from home, friends and family. The life of a professional hockey player is no different.

At the quarter mark, the 2010-11 season has already provided a unique challenge for the Norfolk Admirals. In the first two months alone, the club spent 15 of their first 22 games on the road.

For six of the teams who share the East Division with the Admirals, a lengthy road trip is the least of their worries. Hershey, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Binghamton, Syracuse, Albany and Adirondack, the average trip time between barns is less than two hours. The closest trip for the Admirals is the approximately six-hour trek to Hershey.

Only the Charlotte Checkers, the newest member of the American Hockey League and southernmost member of the East Division, will burn more gas than the Admirals this season.

To date, the Admirals have embarked on two long road stretches of five and four games, respectively. The squad is currently in the midst of their longest road test of the season; a six-gamer spanning the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and Maine.

On the first set of road tests in October, the Admirals came out with a 2-2-0-0 record, earning four out of a possible eight points. The second road series in November proved a tough task as they rode back into Norfolk after five games with a 2-1-2-0 record on the trip, and earned six out of a possible ten points.

Altogether the Admirals have garnered a 9-4-2-0 road record for 20 points and tied for the best record through 15 road games in AHL Admirals history.

Sure, the boys would like to come home with a clean sheet from their road trips, but they do not use a lengthy voyage as a vehicle for excuse. Defenseman Ty Wishart does not see the wear and tear of a road stint as reason to keep him and teammates from competing. He understands the reality if a long trip, as it can be taxing, but "it doesn't hold you back from wanting to produce."

The plight of a long trip can affect more than just the players. J.W. Aiken, the team's Equipment Manager, has seen his fair share. On a road trip earlier this season he noted that they "didn't get into Bridgeport until four o'clock in the morning. By the time I was done setting up it was six a.m. Practice started at eleven a.m., so I just slept on the training table for a few hours." Yet you will not catch J.W. complaining; in what most people would view as an undesirable road responsibility, he believes that "it is part of what makes the job fun."

Some may say that the early season road tests are a hindrance to the team's success. The task of playing in a hostile environment where everybody in town hates you can be tough enough. The team must then board a bus and ride overnight to get up and play in another city where everybody in town despises you and your teammates. Often you can add two more nights of that before an overnight bus trip just to get home. One would argue that such a road schedule can make a team of young players wary and break their spirit.

Team Vice President Joe Gregory sees it differently. He believes that it is beneficial to the team, giving "them a chance to build camaraderie and a sense of team." Goalie Cedrick Desjardins, in his first season with the Admirals shares the same pattern of thinking. He prefers "the sleeper bus with guys all together hanging out; it makes for some good stories that I can't repeat."

The concept of team camaraderie has apparently rubbed off on defenseman Mathieu Roy. When asked of the one thing he cannot leave without on a road trip, he said "the rest of the team, because by myself I'm not going to do much."

Gregory also points out that in the late season months of February and March, the Admirals have only eight road games, compared to the 16 road games between October and November. Gregory said getting the road games out of the way early "gives us a chance to get healthy and gain an advantage leading into the playoffs."

Still, the boys love coming home for a rest, Wishart is known to sleep for about 15 hours when the team returns from a trip. More importantly, they take to the ice at Scope with 4,000 or more fans cheering for them as opposed to the jeering they got so accustomed to on the road.

Beyond keeping your game sharp on lengthy road stints, there are other issues that pose as speed bumps to success on the ice. Being away from home means they are away from those they cherish the most and their support structure. Desjardins remembers when he played on the junior level "my dad didn't miss one home game." Times have changed for Cedrick, as Norfolk is "a little farther away so they try to watch on to keep up."

Every guy has a different coping mechanism. For example, there is always a movie playing on the team bus to keep them occupied. Some keep their competitive edge playing cards with one another. Wishart says "they can get pretty heated and there is definitely a lot of yelling." He attests the intensity to the guys' competitive nature. Desjardins, on the other hand, requires his lucky blanket from his childhood on the road.

Others, such as Roy, like to spend as much time as possible on the phone with loved ones. Roy prefers to use a phone instead of a computerized medium of communication, because he "would rather hear a voice than type an email."

There are some cardinal differences between travels in the AHL compared to the NHL. Wishart spent five games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009, where he traveled with the team to play the Carolina Hurricanes. He pointed out that the NHL "uses airplanes with catered meals instead of sleeper buses." This may sound pedestrian to some, but after a long game and an even longer ride back home, a hot plate and a smooth airplane ride is close to bliss.

These amenities can serve as a very powerful tool to motivate players to break into the NHL as well; especially when it is three a.m. and they are riding in a crowded bus down a bumpy road somewhere in between Portland, Maine and Albany, New York. Once these boys get a whiff of the NHL travel lifestyle, they are likely to find themselves wanting to make it up to Tampa and never come back to the Norfolk sleeper buses.

And with the history of talent that has made its way through the Admirals' locker room, Norfolk stands as the perfect landmark on a player's journey to success in the NHL.

As is with many professions, players and staff always have a vacation to look forward to. Aiken points out that the summer is "our chance to slow down, rest and relax."

However, an opportunity to catch up with friends and family can come at a premium. Knowing that more wins equals a longer season; the guys would not mind a couple extra road stints during the playoff months. Aiken knows that the final destination "every year is to win the championship so if you have a short summer that means you must have done pretty well."

After all, who wants to return home from nine months away empty handed?

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