The NHL has released the 2013-14 NHL schedule, which means a couple things: one, it’s July, and July is a stupid sports-less month so this is very important, and two, some fanbases have cause to get upset about getting screwed by the league, which they’ve been dying to do in the absence of real hockey.
Nobody breaks the schedule down better than Dirk Hoag of On The Forecheck, a great Nashville Predators blog. Hoag tracks the mileage of each NHL team and compares it to their miles traveled from previous seasons, while also noting the amount of times each team plays back-to-back games. Understandably, the winning percentage of teams in the second half of back-to-backs isn’t great, so that’s a pretty relevant note to make (we’ll talk a little more about those situations farther down).
First, the most interesting things of note from Hoag’s work:
The San Jose Sharks.
That’s a massive increase for the Sharks, who were hurt more by League realignment than any other team. That’s over 13,600 miles more than they traveled during the previous full season. The Boston Bruins saw the second biggest increase in travel, adding over 8,600 miles to their 2011-12 total.
The New York Rangers.
The Rangers see the large majority of their games played within a reasonable bus ride of their homes, as do the New York Islanders, who only travel an additional 94 miles.
These teams never travel a ton in any season though, so here’s a glance at teams who saw vast decreases in the miles they have to cover next season:
Biggest decreases in miles traveled from the 2011-12 NHL season
* Florida 7,600 fewer
* Detroit 7,400 fewer
* Los Angeles 7,100 fewer
* Columbus 6,200 fewer miles
Most back-to-back games
New Jersey Devils, 22. Given the minimal amount of distance they have to cover, this doesn’t seem too unfair.
By the way, the nearby Rangers schedule is kind of cake in every direction. They only play 13 back-to-backs, while the Isles play 18.
San Jose Sharks, 10. Pretty self-explanatory given their travel schedule for the season.
Again, you can check out all the rest of the travel information here.
So to continue: distance travelled and back-to-backs are relevant because team success is clearly influenced them.
In April Tyler Dellow broke down the details in the wake of an Oilers’ loss that seemed pre-ordained by the schedule. With hockey being such a high pace game it’s crucial that a player “have his legs” to compete, as losing a common race to a puck can result in a goal against which can result in a loss. And as a savvy analyst of the sport, let me tell you, losing games is less than ideal. (In all seriousness, I had a coach who believed that every hockey game is decided by about six or seven plays. Only problem is, you never know when you’re in one of them. Having jump is handy.)
Anyway, here’s what Dellow found about the importance of rest (which he based on days off since previous game). Numbers are for regulation wins:
The winning percentages are the home team’s winning percentage in games where the road team has had X days rest and the home team had Y days rest. There aren’t a ton of games where one team has had 3 or 4+ days off so there’s a SSS warning on that.
(SSS is small sample size, for the less stat-inclined folks.)
Essentially, what you’d assume to be true about rest is. Home teams win more games in general, and the more rested they are the better, especially when playing a team that played recently. Pretty easy concept to grasp.
Over the course of my illustrious near-hall-of-fame career I experienced the absolute extremes of travel, and pretty much everything in between. I’ve flown huge distances from Alaska to play, I’ve flown and bused to ECHL locations all around the west coast, and I’ve bused around the east coast in both passenger and sleeper buses. I even got to experience the Islanders’ chartered flights to and from their training camp in Moncton, where we were served our choice of Rock Sea Bass, a nice steak or grilled chicken breasts (my steak was beautifully done). The point is, how you feel after each of these experiences varies greatly, and affects how you play in the days that follow.
Some things to note when it comes to hockey travel:
The top rung
You can feel bad for NHL teams that travel a lot to play, and definitely for teams that have a lot of back-to-backs, but I wouldn’t get crazy over it. No team is doomed or laughing as soon as the schedule is released. The more teams travel, the more lengths they go to to make their players comfortable, which means their jets, hotels, and team itineraries are pretty plum. You’d like to spend more time at home and less time in transit, but NHLers are travelling right. They aren’t packing their gear and carrying skate sharpeners through customs like players in four-letter leagues.
Back-to-backs seem like a bigger disadvantage than distance, so there’s a number of steps players take to play the day after a game.
It’s all about taking care of your body. The tough part is that the same routine absolutely does not work the same for everyone, so as a young player you learn a lot about yourself and what you makes you tick best via the complex method of guess-and-test. The problem here is the learning curve. You try different things, and sometimes you just feel awful.
It sucks that the painful stuff seems to work best for everyone. As much as that cold tub hurts, 8-12 minutes in there can go a long way to feeling fresh the next day. As poorly as spinning after a loss feels, it helps in the morning, and the next night. You have to eat in a reasonable window after the game (something within 20-30 mins is ideal), and the right things, to ensure your body recovers quickly. That likely includes some form of recovery drink, which may or may not be provided, depending on the level you’re at. It also means…
Chasing the sandman
As all hockey players know, from rec leagues to the pros, calming down and falling asleep after playing is near impossible. The high levels of attention and adrenaline required to succeed in hockey are the same things that keep you staring at the ceiling for hours. It’s not tough to see why guys aren’t afraid to ask for scripts of Ambien.
But no sleep is as good as real sleep (as in, beer and/or pills may help you fall asleep sooner, but the sleep isn’t better), so you have to find out what you personally require to feel your best the next night at 7 pm.
I think teams do a poor job in this regard. The “morning skate” obsession pulls guys out of bed after it took forever to fall asleep, and they get short-changed crucial hours. Most players can (and do) nap for a more-than-recommended chunk during the day as a result, but some guys (like me) aren’t physically built to nap, and struggle as a result. I think the early skate times stem from an era where it was commonplace for players to go out after games, which still happens, but far less often than it used to. I believe teams would be better off making morning skate fully optional, as in, you don’t even need to go to the rink unless you need treatment.
Shaking out the cobwebs
Like I said in the “post-game flush” sub-heading, sometimes you have to do things that don’t immediately feel great to feel good later. During morning skate (which I actually like, assuming I’ve been allowed enough sleep), it’s really hard to convince yourself to hit 100% effort during any stride, and not many players do. But your legs almost always feel heavy the next morning, and it’s important to – at some point, even for 10 seconds – open up a good pace.
And that night, come game time…
Smelling salts, caffeine and Sudafed
Every person is different, and not everybody uses anything aside from their body’s natural chemistry to wake up, but as the season goes on, it’s not uncommon to see guys leaning on a few crutches to give themselves a kick in the pants before the game. Nothing like drinking a coffee, popping a Sudafed and inhaling some ammonia to help a guy be at his best, amirite?
The San Jose Sharks have a long season of travel ahead of them, but when you’re a part of a team that travels a lot, and you know you’re going to travel a lot, I think you get fairly used to it both physically and mentally. A team who doesn’t travel as much may feel it more when it’s their turn to go cross-country.
There are a few other things that make all that travel suck – wearing suits at unnecessary times among them, guh – but not many of them impact your performance so much as your mood.
Around the league, teams will travel an average of 41,390 miles during the 2013-14 season. It’s a part of the game, and a part of the lifestyle you simply have to get used to.
The only major thing most people don’t understand about being with a team in confined spaces for that amount of time is how close it brings you together over the course of the season…and how awful it is to have to spend that amount of time with hockey players. You have moments of pure hate for your teammates.
Hockey can reward players with an amazing lifestyle, but there are inevitably times after hour X in a dark travel vessel with a bruise growing on your ankle and some idiot yammering behind you that you simply cannot wait for July to arrive. Here’s to hoping they’re enjoying their time now.