Note: this ran in the Friday, May 4 print edition of The Telegram
Years ago, in some small rinks, coincidentally penalized players from opposing hockey teams - even those who had just flailed at each other in pugilistic fervor - shared the same sin bin, with an off-ice official chaperoning.
(That is old-guy stuff, I know, but I am from an era where the Zamboni of the day was a 45-gallon drum filled with hot water and fitted with some pipe, four spigots and a piece of dampened canvas that layered the ice as the contraption was hauled by two rink rats.)
The modern-day version of hockey players sharing space happened Thursday on a charter flight from Newfoundland to Pennsylvania (with a customs stop in Bangor, Me.), as the St. John's IceCaps and Wilkes-Barre Penguins travelled together to the site of the next three games of their American Hockey League conference semifinal.
There are those who are at least a tad amazed at such an arrangement. Even as they prepared to board the jet Thursday in Torbay, some players offered a slightly wide-eyed look of wonder and a "I've never done this before" comment.
Truth is, the shared playoff taxi is quite common in the AHL. And as is the case with such things, money is the chief reason.
It's been outlined in this corner of the paper before, but we'll repeat the following for background purposes: during the Calder Cup playoffs, the league itself collects just more than half of all gate receipts. From that, it pays the players' post-season bonuses on a scale that escalates with each round (the players' regular pay concludes at the end of the regular-season.) The AHL also covers, in most cases, the cost of team travel and in some instances, especially those involving teams on edges of the league map, the shared charter has been found to be fiscally prudent.
It also serves to reduce the wear and tear of travel. If the IceCaps and Penguins had flown commercially, it would have probably meant going to Toronto, backtracking somewhat on a connecting flight to Philadelphia and finishing up with a bus trip to Wilkes-Barre. In all, about a 12-hour day.
Thursday's direct charter to Wilkes-Barre knocked about eight hours off that schedule and that recovered time is immense for teams during the playoffs.
There is really no tempting of fate by putting opposing teams on the same flight, even on shared shuttles that take off only a couple of hours after the conclusion of a bitterly-fought contest. Thursday's was the fifth such charter I have experienced during the time I have covered the AHL, although it was the first that travelled on the day after a game. All have been incident-free, unless you count Shawn Thornton of the St. John's Maple Leafs giving it verbally to Dennis Bonvie of the Hamilton Bulldogs on a flight just hours after a punishing hit by Bonvie that knocked the Leafs' Trent Cull out of the game. (After Thornton had vented, he fell asleep, as had almost everyone else on the plane. Tired bodies trump heated emotions most every time.)
There is however, I have found, a protocol involved in such trips. When planes that have a first-class section are used, it is usually the losing team that boards first, leaving the comfy seats for the winners. However, there will almost always be an offer to the coaches, management and like of the losers to share said first-class comfort with the victors, an offer that is almost always politely declined. (Such an exchange was not required Thursday - it was economy front to back).
And even though it seems pretty much unnecessary, it's non-players - management, media, training staff -who often constitute a buffer zone between the two sides - Penguins' broadcaster Tom Grace calls it the human Mason-Dixon line. On Thursday, that line was a thin one - just me and Donnie Power, the IceCaps' director of communications, with the Wilkes-Barre coaching staff in back of us, while in front were St. John's forwards Ben Maxwell and Brock Trotter, who did prove combative the entire flight - playing chess on an iPad.
However thin, the line was maintained. So was distance, although not so much in the physical sense. Despite proximity, there were few examples of buddy-buddyism, even though opponents are often friends or former teammates - St. John's defenceman Jason Desantis, for example, played for Wilkes-Barre last season.
No doubt there are players who dislike each other as well. The friction of games can generate heat with some carry-over. But whatever, if any, such cases exist in this series, they also weren't out in the open Thursday,
It's as if they all had heard the same inner voice: "Save it for the game, guys."
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