If you think the traffic and action are heavy in and around the goal crease of an NHL game, you ought to see the busy-bodiness of an NHL club trying to shower, do media, dress, pack up its gear, and catch a bus and a plane to a city more than 500 miles away for a game the very next night. The postgame action this past Friday night in the bowels of Verizon Center after the Capitals’ 3-2 loss to Montreal really caught my attention insomuch as how hasty but structured and organized various Capitals’ equipment and training staff were to ready the team for late-night travel to Toronto. They were a bee swarm of packing and preparation, leaping, hopping, stuffing, shouting, and flexing pecs under the strain of game-heavy gear in giant equipment bags. It all struck me as a grossly unappreciated aspect of our sport. After all, packing up a 12-member hoops club (sneakers, socks, tape) ain’t like packing up a 21-member hockey club. Without the seriously after hours commitment of these heavy lifters, we don’t have the NHL as we know it. With the assistance of the Capitals’ media relation staff I’m able here to offer up some details about this remarkable process.
- Much of the gear that travels is the same that was just worn in the game that night. Only the helmets, socks, and sweaters generally change. Everything is packed “sweaty,” meaning that the training staff must take it straight from Toronto Pearson Airport to the Air Canada Centre at a godforsaken Saturday morning hour to get it hung to dry in time for Saturday’s on-ice action. What does this mean for sleep and rest for the training and equipment staff, relative to the rest of the traveling troupe? Serious sleep deprivation, that’s what. Remember, they must be first on the rink scene in the morning to attend to various player equipment needs, such as skate sharpening.
- But first the Caps have to get to the airport from Verizon Center. And before the Caps’ training staff can focus exclusively on their team’s travel needs they must assist the visiting team’s training staff and get its gear packed up for their own hurried trip to the airport. I remember how surprised I was the first time I saw this when the Caps afforded me locker room access a few years back – I thought it was strange to see Capitals’ staffers working with Penguins’ or Flyers’ gear. But it’s simply tight travel time pragmatics, and every host team’s staff so assists the visitors.
Because of late-night travel restrictions out of Reagan National (there’s an 11:00 curfew), the Capitals fly out of Dulles. Not terribly convenient, that. The Caps typically are able to get to Dulles by 11:00 after games. At least the roads at that hour are relatively congestion-free, but this past Friday they encountered a backup on 66 West (imagine that).
- NHL membership has its privileges: the Caps are afforded a private TSA screening and are able to get boarded and settled in time for an 11:30 departure.
- I wondered about player nutrition in such a hectic and contrained schedule. Recall that players generally don’t eat after about 2:30 on game days with a 7:00 start — a late lunch — so by post-game you have to figure they’re fairly famished. Turns out they dine on a very late dinner on the plane.
- Now remember that by virtue of crossing borders as the Caps did Friday/Saturday night they must enter Toronto Pearson through Canadian Customs. You better believe that that adds to the trip travel time. I’ve gone through Pearson for pleasure hockey trips a half dozen times, and when I identify the purpose of my visit usually a sizable gang of male Customs agents converge on me and regale me with all manner of puck talk. They live for that. Imagine their excitement at chatting up Ovi and the boys after hours on a weekend night. It’s a wonder the Caps can even can make it to Saturday’s game considering the puck interrogation they likely get.
By the time they make their way by bus to the team hotel and check in, few are asleep before 2:30. Like you I thought the Caps looked supremely tired in Toronto Saturday night — and no wonder! Friday’s game with the Habs was an exceptionally hard one; and remember that they lost Tom Poti early on to injury and skated with a short bench the rest of the way.
- But as tired as the players understandably were, it’s the equipment and training staff that really feels the stress and strain of such quick turn-around time. “When I make the trip I have to struggle to get the game notes done for the next day,” one Caps’ media relations staffer told me, “which is nothing compared to what [the training] guys do.”
Think about the sheer volume of gear two or three training staffers must secure and navigate from city to city. Twenty-plus stuffed gear bags, about twice as heavy when wet, easily pushing 50 pounds each; about 100 sticks; and a couple of cabinets full of medical/training paraphanalia. The whole thing is not unlike the breakdown, travel, and setup roadies of a name rock band undertake on tour, except there are far fewer hands involved in hockey’s traveling road show.