Penguins flying high at travel time
Matt Niskanen, left, battles Los Angeles' Mike Richards along the boards Tuesday in Kansas City, Mo.
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Penguins players did not have to pack much, if anything, for their trip to play Los Angeles in an exhibition game Tuesday night at Sprint Center. Maybe a comb.
They had a morning skate at Consol Energy Center, boarded a charter flight in the afternoon and flew home after the game, a fairly common itinerary in the preseason.
"We are so spoiled," Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "They treat us so, so well.
"We go to Wilkes-Barre [for a Sept. 19 scrimmage], and it takes 37 minutes in the plane. I've made that ride many times in a town car or the back of a van -- and it doesn't take 37 minutes. It is really cool how well we're treated."
Travel in the NHL has evolved greatly over the decades.
The Penguins open the season with a three-game trip to western Canada, beginning Oct. 6 in Vancouver. While they will deal with long flights and time zone changes, they have a setup that is as amenable as anything this side of Star Trek innovations.
Nonstop charter flights with seats comfortable enough for sleep, tables for the card players, private security, door-to-door bus service, even coaching on how to best combat jet lag.
It is not just about providing luxury; it also is to help the team be at its best on the ice.
"They do it in a way so we can sleep in our own bed more nights," said winger Pascal Dupuis. "When I wake up in the morning and my kids are there, it's a much different morning. It's more normal."
Because of geography, divisional and conference alignments, the Penguins' travel is conducive to spending more time at home and less in the air. They often make one-game trips with a night in a hotel.
Other teams have things a little tougher.
"Playing in Vancouver for as long as I did, you'd see numbers where New Jersey and New York were doing 30,000 air miles [a season]," winger Matt Cooke said. "Meanwhile, we were doing 85 or 90,000. That's when it starts to add up."
Cooke played briefly with Washington before signing with the Penguins, and he discovered travel in the East is much different.
"I'll never forget my first game with a team in the East," Cooke said. "I was with Washington, and we played in New Jersey. It was a snowy February night, and it took us, like, 45 minutes to get up in the air after we were on the plane. [Goaltender] Olie Kolzig was losing his mind because of how late we were going to get home, 12:30. I thought, 'I don't usually see home until 1:30, and that's with a one- or two- or three-hour time change. You have no idea how good you have it.' "
Teams on the West Coast also make more multi-night trips because of the distance to other NHL cities.
"When Vancouver came and played us, I went out to dinner with one of their guys the night before," Lovejoy said. "He said, 'This is our 12th night of a 13-day road trip.'
"We are lucky. We only do four or five days, max. And, for us, we're excited about a trip like that because it allows us to bond on the road."
There was a time when most NHL travel was done by commercial flight with players and coaches interspersed with grandmothers and businessmen. Penguins Hall of Fame owner Mario Lemieux spent his first several seasons traveling that way.
Goaltender Brent Johnson's Hall of Fame grandfather, Sid Abel, played in the NHL from the late 1930s to the early '50s, when the Original Six teams traveled by rail.
"Hearing stories about my grandfather's playing days when they used to travel by train, he loved it," Johnson said. "Obviously, it's bonding time with the guys."
Most NHL players endured long bus rides in junior or minor league hockey before graduating to the charter lifestyle.
When the Penguins touched down in Chicago for a preseason game against the Blackhawks a year ago, Lovejoy could not help but think back to the American Hockey League playoff final in 2008. He and his Wilkes-Barre teammates traveled to Chicago by bus for a game against the Wolves.
"We flew for Games 1 and 2. We lost them both," he recalled. "So then we came home and we lost Game 3. We won Games 4 and 5, so [to try to change the luck] we bused back to Chicago -- something like 30 guys in the sleeper bus. It was a long trip."
There are no fees for extra or oversized bags on charter flights, and packing habits vary. Rumor has it that Penguins captain Sidney Crosby tends to overpack. Others travel light.
"Some guys need to pack a suit a game" because of superstition, Dupuis said. "Some guys pack a toothbrush, a dress shirt and a tie, and that's it. Some guys bring everything, even a white noise-maker for sleeping.
"I need to bring my laptop. I chat with the kids. And I bring a book to put me to sleep."
Most don't need to pack some sort of white-knuckle relief, even after the tragic jet crash in Russia last month that killed all members of the Lokomotiv pro team on board. They view travel in North America as safe.
"There are some guys who like to fly, and some guys who don't like to fly," Johnson said. "You've still got to get on there. But we are very fortunate and very appreciative of what we have, safety-wise and travel-wise."