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Goin' down the road

Tips and tales from an eight-night, four-game getaway with the Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little (18) is congratulated by teammate Mathieu Perreault, right, after scoring past St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen, left, during the second period.

AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON

Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little (18) is congratulated by teammate Mathieu Perreault, right, after scoring past St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen, left, during the second period.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/11/2015 (1280 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was billed as the most important road trip of this young NHL season and a litmus test for this young Winnipeg Jets team: a four-game run through the mercilessly competitive Central Division.

But by the time the final horn sounded in St. Louis last Monday, the Jets were riding a season-long losing skid and they’d failed every test they’d taken on the trip — litmus and otherwise.

So what is it like providing media coverage of a slumping National Hockey League team? And, for that matter, what is it like covering an NHL team on the road?

Winnipeg Free Press sports reporter Paul Wiecek followed the Jets during their recent four-game road trip through the Central Division. He saw figure skaters dodging Zambonis in Nashville, Jets head coach Paul Maurice dodging reporters’ questions in St. Paul and reporters dodging team logos (or else) on the floor of every dressing room.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/11/2015 (1280 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was billed as the most important road trip of this young NHL season and a litmus test for this young Winnipeg Jets team: a four-game run through the mercilessly competitive Central Division.

But by the time the final horn sounded in St. Louis last Monday, the Jets were riding a season-long losing skid and they’d failed every test they’d taken on the trip — litmus and otherwise.

So what is it like providing media coverage of a slumping National Hockey League team? And, for that matter, what is it like covering an NHL team on the road?

Winnipeg Free Press sports reporter Paul Wiecek followed the Jets during their recent four-game road trip through the Central Division. He saw figure skaters dodging Zambonis in Nashville, Jets head coach Paul Maurice dodging reporters’ questions in St. Paul and reporters dodging team logos (or else) on the floor of every dressing room.

Along the way, there was the necessary evil of early morning flights for reporters, the unnecessary evil of early morning practices for players and a never-ending stream of hotel rooms one veteran of the road explained never do measure up, no matter how nice, to the simple comforts — and quiet — of home.

Welcome aboard and buckle up:

 

Nov. 9: Winnipeg to Minneapolis, Delta Air Lines, 4:30 p.m.

The closest thing to covering hockey in Canada you will find in the United States is covering a Minnesota Wild game in St. Paul.

Minnesota has branded itself the "State of Hockey" and these people know the game like Canadians know the game — a fact that becomes apparent when I try to check into my hotel and the desk clerk (upon learning the reason for my stay) excitedly informs me the Wild have called up bruising forward Kurtis Gabriel for the game the next night.

"We need to match your physicality," the kid informs me.

This kind of conversation will not happen again in Dallas, Nashville or even St. Louis over the course of the next week. Maybe it’s the proximity to the border, maybe it’s just the same ruthless weather, but Minnesota loves hockey like Canada loves hockey.

 

Nov. 10: Jets at Wild, Xcel Energy Center, 7:30 p.m.

Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (55) and Minnesota Wild defenseman Christian Folin, right, of Sweden, battle for the puck during the second period.

AP PHOTO/ANN HEISENFELT

Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (55) and Minnesota Wild defenseman Christian Folin, right, of Sweden, battle for the puck during the second period.

It’s 11 a.m, and it’s time to play the dressing room carpet logo game as the Wild wrap up their morning skate. "Careful you do not step on the logo," a staffer informs the media as the doors to the Wild dressing room are opened.

It’s a trap, really. Pretty much every hockey dressing room (it’s a dressing room in hockey and basketball, locker-room in football, clubhouse in baseball) has a team logo in the centre of the carpet. And pretty much every hockey player will freak out if you step on this precious image.

The smart teams — the Jets do this — place a blank carpet over the team symbol while the media jackals are inside, thereby eliminating the uncomfortable moment when some media newbie unknowingly steps on it and sets off a nasty confrontation with some player.

But teams such as the Wild leave their precious logo unprotected smack in the middle of the room, where it lies in wait like a leg-hold trap for some unsuspecting prey. It’s stupid, but it goes on everywhere.

Hours later, the Jets lose 5-3 to the Wild — their third loss in a row — and head coach Paul Maurice has steam coming out of his ears during a post-game availability with reporters that lasts just 48 seconds, a season-low.

And that tip from the desk clerk? He was right about "matching physicality" — Gabriel fights Jets tough guy Chris Thorburn to a draw.

Travel tip: So how do you keep your luggage restricted to carry-on for a trip that stretches eight nights through four cities and combines the early winter temperatures of Minnesota in mid-November with what amount to late summer temperatures in Dallas and Nashville?

First, you wear your suit on all the flights, which frees up luggage space for everything else. Hockey is the only press box with anything resembling a dress code, and wearing anything other than a suit — not a sport coat, a suit — will get you a sideways look.

You will start to look a little wrinkled after a few games and flights, but here’s an old trick that will save you the dreaded task of ironing: before you leave home, fill a small spray bottle with a mixture of one part fabric softener and three parts water. Spray down any wrinkles, give the fabric a tug and let dry. Works great every time.

 

Nov. 11: Minneapolis to Dallas, Southwest Airlines, 6:05 a.m.

While the Jets — along with the TSN radio and TV crews — fly on a late-night charter immediately after the game, newspaper guys are responsible for our own travel arrangements. So we are always catching early morning flights the following day, trying to catch up with the team in the next city.

Today, this means a 4:15 a.m. wake-up call after about a two-hour sleep. And it also means a plane change in Denver, but the fare was hard to beat — US$65, taxes included, from Minneapolis to Dallas is something special.

Nobody touches Southwest in the U.S. for low fares. I once flew from Dallas to Denver for $59, only to drop $75 on a taxi from the ridiculously located airport to downtown.

On this day, I go directly from historic Love Field in Dallas (made infamous by the Kennedy assassination, it is still a busy and viable airport) to a practice facility just outside of Dallas the Jets have booked for the afternoon because the American Airlines Center (where they’ll play the Dallas Stars the next day) is hosting an NBA game.

The practice facility turns out to be the home of the Dallas-Fort Worth Curling Club, and I tweet out a picture of the Jets practising amidst five sets of curling rings painted into the ice. Some wise guy tweets back they should pebble the ice and it would recreate the puck-handling the Jets showed against the Wild the night before in giving up two breakaways and too many odd-man rushes.

 

Nov. 12: Game day, Jets at Stars, American Airlines Center, 7:30 p.m.

Dallas Stars' Kari Lehtonen (32), of Finland, deflects a shot as Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers (27), of Denmark, watches in the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in Dallas. The Stars won 6-3.

TONY GUTIERREZ / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dallas Stars' Kari Lehtonen (32), of Finland, deflects a shot as Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers (27), of Denmark, watches in the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in Dallas. The Stars won 6-3.

A weary Jets team that has played five of its last six games on the road is back on the ice at American Airlines Center at 11:30 a.m. for the team’s game-day skate.

The tradition of the "morning skate" — a light practice on the morning of a game — remains unassailable in hockey, even in the face of academic studies that it does more harm than good and players would be better served by simply sleeping in.

Some NBA teams have in recent years done away with their morning "shootaround" for precisely this reason. But when I broached the possibility in hockey a few years ago, when covering the Manitoba Moose, then-coach Scott Arniel looked at me like I was from Mars.

So the Jets — like every other NHL team on the road — drag their players out of bed, bus them to the rink, have them skate for a half-hour or so, then bus them back to the hotel for a monster carb-load of a lunch and an afternoon nap. The only part of this routine that makes any sense is the nap. And the spaghetti. (It’s said the NHL also stands for Never Hungry League — the players are very well-fed.)

Hours later, the Jets tie the game midway through the third period, but come apart late and lose their fourth in a row, 6-3.

Travel tip: Sometimes, it’s less costly to rent a more expensive hotel in a central location if it allows you to cut down on ground transportation costs. Dallas is like this: I paid a premium for a downtown hotel, but was able to walk back and forth from the rink.

But the reverse is also true. In St. Louis, I found a nice hotel out in the burbs but located on the same metro line that services the arena and airport. A day pass on the marvelously efficient St. Louis metro cost $7.50 and I saved $100 a night on the hotel when compared to staying downtown.

 

Nov. 13: Dallas to Nashville, Southwest, 6:35 a.m.

There is probably no one in the Winnipeg media who has covered more road games than Paul Edmonds (although Dennis Beyak is also be up there).

Before he became the full-time radio play-by-play man for the Jets, Edmonds did the same job for the better part of two decades for baseball’s Winnipeg Goldeyes. Add it all up and Edmonds has covered more than 1,100 road games over the years.

Suffice to say, the travel for Edmonds with the Jets — chartered flights and five-star hotels — is a lot nicer than it was with the Goldeyes, when he was driving himself all over America and staying by the Interstate.

But the more things change, the more, well, let’s allow Edmonds to explain...

"Are the hotels a lot nicer now? Of course — I still remember the mouldy carpets in the Econo-Lodge in Madison (Wis.) and the bugs in the Port Arthur Hotel in Thunder Bay, and I’m very grateful for the hotels I now stay in with the Jets," he said. "But the bottom line is that whatever hotel you’re staying at, you’re still staying in what is a multiple-person dwelling.

"You’re not in your home, you’re in a place where a lot of other people are staying, too. And so there’s noise in the hallways, someone banging above you, people coming home at 3 a.m... who are loaded and making noise. And the funny thing is, you get that in whatever hotel you’re at — from $129 a night to $429 a night."

Edmonds isn’t joking about $429 a night — rooms in Nashville rival Manhattan for stratospheric prices. And nowhere are they more expensive than in the area around Bridgestone Arena.

The people of Tennessee have adopted hockey as their own — the fights appeal to their southern sensibility the same way the crashes in NASCAR do — and the home of the Nashville Predators is located on some of the most expensive real estate in southern U.S., across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and down the block from the iconic Ryman Auditorium.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to make hockey popular in the southern U.S. mostly failed. But it worked in Music City — and a lot of people are making a lot of money off of it.

 

Nov. 14: Game day, Jets at Predators, Bridgestone Arena, 6 p.m.

Jets centre Andrew Copp falls to the ice as he battles for the puck in the first period against Nashville Saturday.

MARK ZALESKI / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jets centre Andrew Copp falls to the ice as he battles for the puck in the first period against Nashville Saturday.

In a city full of diversions and no real history in hockey, over-the-top game-day production is used in Nashville to make hockey less of a game and more of a spectacle.

On this evening, the Predators bring in the original singer of 1970s rock band Kansas to perform mini concerts during the first and second intermissions. The guy sounds great — he wisely saves Dust in the Wind and Carry on Wayward Son for the second intermission — but he also appears to be performing with what is either a small black dog on his head or the worst toupée in human existence.

And if that’s not enough to keep you entertained, the Predators have figure skaters perform routines on the ice during the intermissions — while the Zambonis are cleaning the ice. This is both wildly dangerous and wildly entertaining.

The Jets get destroyed by the Predators 7-0 and at one point have six players in the penalty box, prompting the Preds to play Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 over the arena sound system.

It’s the fifth Jets loss in a row and captain Andrew Ladd is asked post-game, in a dead quiet dressing room, if the team has hit rock bottom. Ladd says he doesn’t know.

Travel Tip: If you fly more than once or twice a year, you need to get yourself a Nexus card.

You can apply for it online and the card allows you to roll right through customs on the Canadian and American sides after just a brief visit to an automated kiosk and an expedited visit to a customs official.

But even better, a Nexus card allows Canadians to use an expedited security line throughout Canada and it also gets you access to the fantastic "TSA pre-check" lines in U.S. airports, which are way faster than regular security lines and allow you to keep your coat and shoes on, your laptop stowed, and fluids and aerosols in their bag.

Fifty bucks for five years. It’s some of the best money I’ve ever spent.


Nov. 15: Nashville to St. Louis, Southwest, 8:35 a.m.

You can buy a beer at the kiosks in the Nashville airport and take it with you to enjoy at the gate while you’re waiting for your flight. This seems like the only idea worse than having figure skaters dodging Zambonis.

On this day, the Jets practice mid-afternoon at a deserted Scottrade Center, a 20-year-old building in a bit of a sketchy part of St. Louis. There are homeless people sleeping on the street just around the corner on a bitterly cold and rainy day, a world removed from the sun-baked, drunken frivolity of Nashville just 24 hours before.

Maurice juggles his top lines during practice and auditions yet another new defenceman. The message seems clear: the losing is going to stop or no one’s job is safe.

 

Nov. 16: Game day, Jets at Blues, Scottrade Center, 7 p.m.

St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko and center David Backes, center, celebrate after Backes scored during second period action on Monday.

CHRIS LEE / ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko and center David Backes, center, celebrate after Backes scored during second period action on Monday.

 

There is a certain measure of what can only be called "reflected glory" that comes with covering the NHL as a reporter — all of which can create a delusional sense of self-importance among the people who cover the league vastly disproportionate to their actual station in life.

Just because you use the player entrance doesn’t mean you’re a player and just because you talk to Blake Wheeler doesn’t mean you’re Blake Wheeler. But move long enough in this world of privileged access — where you are paid to do things others pay to do — and it takes a very grounded person to not let at least some of it go to your head.

It can be annoying to watch, but mostly it’s just amusing to see it happen to the people around you. The guys who avoid it — and make no mistake, sportswriting is still among the most male-dominated professions in the world — are the guys who get the joke. It’s just hockey, after all. If the sport didn’t exist, the beer companies would have invented it. So get over yourself.

The Blues win 3-2 and the Jets fly home immediately after the game, nursing a six-game losing skid.

 

Nov. 17: St. Louis to Winnipeg, via Chicago, United Airlines, 7 a.m.

Travel Tip: Do the opposite of what I did and never fly to Chicago, unless your destination actually is Chicago.

O’Hare International Airport is annually voted the most dysfunctional airport in America. It has long since outgrown its infrastructure and its runways, and studies have consistently found the odds of getting in and out of O’Hare on time are lower than any other airport in the United States.

Making matters worse for Winnipeggers is the Winnipeg-Chicago route is serviced by United Airlines, which this year was ranked second last — ninth out of 10 — in punctuality among the major U.S. carriers.

Just don’t. Seriously. Trust me on this one.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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