Life on the road is part of being a professional athlete. In any given season, half of a team’s games are played away from home, so long flights, restaurants and hotels are a big part of the job.
Road trips can get particularly lengthy in the minors, where teams lack the travel budgets of their major league counterparts — just ask the Steelheads. Already this season, Boise’s professional hockey club has endured a brutal 19-day trip that included stops in Florida, South Dakota and Colorado.
The Steelheads are in the friendly confines of CenturyLink Arena on Wednesday night, playing host to the Rapid City Rush. But what may seem like a routine home game is actually part of an intense 10-day stretch featuring seven games, three cities and nearly 10,000 miles of round-trip travel.
Hockey is a travel-intensive sport, even at the youth level. Steelheads coach Neil Graham became familiar with road trips as a youngster, and as he progresses through his career, the mileage continues to accumulate.
“When you have a dream of playing in the NHL, you realize at a young age that travel is a big part of it,” Graham said. “A lot of us leave home at 16 or 17 years old to play the sport we love.”
In the NHL, teams rarely are on the road for more than a week at a time. But in the ECHL, smaller budgets and venue conflicts often lead to longer trips and fewer off days between games.
“It’s a lot different being away for weeks at a time,” Swedish rookie Emil Molin said. “It’s tough. In Sweden, I think the longest time I spent away from home was maybe four days.”
The Steelheads’ road schedule has been more intense than ever this season thanks to ECHL realignment. The 5,400-mile round trip to Alaska remains, but Idaho’s three former division foes in California left the league during the offseason. Those short flights have been replaced by journeys east to play a new division rival in South Dakota (Rapid City) as well as non-divisional games in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Georgia.
“This is definitely the most travel we’ve ever done, but it’s good for our league,” Graham said. “It’s good for fans to see new teams, and it’s good to see the Western Conference expand to 14 teams.”
PROS AND CONS
There are obvious hardships to being on the road. Coaches and players miss sleeping in their own beds, eating home-cooked meals and spending time with their families. Finding time for practice and weightlifting also can be difficult — according to Graham, the Steelheads only managed three on-ice practices during their 19-day road swing.
But travel has its benefits, too. Graham assigns different roommates for each trip, giving players a chance to get to know their teammates. And with the comforts of home many miles away, the team’s focus is strictly on hockey.
“Some things are actually easier on the road,” said forward Andrew Carroll, a veteran of nearly 400 pro games. “There are no distractions to worry about — you just go back and forth from the rink to the hotel, and you play hockey.”
Coaches organize team dinners and bowling nights to build camaraderie, but chemistry also builds naturally as the team competes in front of hostile crowds.
“You become really close as a group,” Molin said. “You go to these new towns and you don’t know anybody, so you just stick together as a team, and I really like that.”
No matter where the games are played, Graham expects the same effort out of his team every night. Some weeks are more difficult than others, but that’s just part of the grind.
“If we get sent on a 19-day road trip, then so be it,” Graham said. “It’s obviously not ideal, but that’s the schedule we were dealt. We’ve got to step up and be accountable every day we’re on the ice.”
Winning on the road is also vital come playoff time. The Steelheads stumbled to a 2-5-2 mark on their long November trip, but the team has gone 6-4 on the road — and 13-8-1 overall — since then to climb squarely back into the Western Conference playoff picture.
“It’s important to win on the road,” Carroll said. “We struggled with that a little early in the year, but we’ve turned it around.”
NOTES: Idaho’s Jack Campbell is the ECHL goaltender of the week. ... Forward Emil Molin has points (4-2-6) in five straight games and leads the team with 17 goals. ... Former Steelheads goalie Josh Robinson, who played in 62 games in Idaho between 2012-14 (with 40 victories), set an ECHL record Tuesday night with his 17th consecutive victory. He has played the past two seasons with the Missouri Mavericks, who beat the Evansville IceMen 6-5 in overtime Tuesday. Robinson made 24 saves and broke the single-season record set by Jeff Jakaitis with South Carolina during the 2014-15 season.
By the numbers: Idaho Steelheads on the road
- 2,700: Approximate mileage from Boise to Anchorage, Alaska, home of the ECHL West Division rival Alaska Aces. Idaho spent last weekend in Anchorage, where it played three games in three days.
- 2,100: Mileage from Boise to Atlanta. After Wednesday night’s game in Boise, the Steelheads fly south to play three games in three days against the Atlanta Gladiators.
- 9,600: Total roundtrip mileage for the Steelheads between Jan. 22 and Jan. 31. They play seven games in 10 days in three widespread time zones.
- 19: Longest road trip of the season, in travel days. Idaho went 24 total days without a home game between Nov. 7 and Dec. 2.