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Hittin' The Road

Thursday, 15.02.2007 / 12:00 AM / News
Vancouver Canucks
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Hittin\' The Road

By Kyle Harland
FEB.15.07

For most people, all you need to plan a road trip is a Post-it Note, a rusty vehicle, and a Google Map.

But when it's 21 NHLers, four coaches, and a handful of support staff, and they're covering 75,000 miles in the span of six months, it gets a little tricky.

That's where Cathie Moroney comes in. She's been the Canucks' travel manager for the past 15 years. She's a prairie girl who made the move into the travel-booking gig back during Brian Burke's first tour of duty in the 90s.

Her office is tucked away at the far end of the halls underneath GM Place, and it looks a little like a Flight Centre after an earthquake.

"It looks like chaos, but it's organized chaos," says Moroney, who sits surrounded by stacks of travel magazines and flight itineraries. "But I guess I like it. It's always different and it's always changing."

And that's good because change is one of the few constants when it's your job to get the team to different cities (46 this year), book their hotels, and get them fed. It's a bit more involved than a few clicks on Expedia.

The whole process starts when the league releases the schedule in July.

"Getting all the contracts signed at the start of the year is the most difficult part," says Moroney. "That can take a few months."

The Canucks usually stay in the same hotels year after year, unless they request a change.

"They really liked Cherry Creek in Denver for some reason," says Moroney. "And they liked the W Hotel in Chicago."

It sounds like fun, but spending 71 nights of the season sleeping in a strange bed next to a teammate gets tired.

Sure, they stay at Westins, the Ritz in Philadelphia, and sometimes the Marriott in Los Angeles, but the shine wears off in a hurry.

As for travel, the Canucks will spend 150 hours in the air by the time the season winds to a close - that's more than six days in an airplane.

"We probably travel about the most in the league," says Moroney. "The eastern teams travel a lot fewer hours than we travel."

Some teams like the New York Rangers, who only venture out of their time zone once or twice a year, travel regularly by bus.

Not the Canucks. They've taken buses twice this year - once up to Vernon for training camp, and once from Montreal to Ottawa on their most recent eastern road swing. And a few years back they hopped a train between Washington and New York, but that pretty much sums it up. The rest of their road trips are spent on a 60-foot jet charter.

The Canucks have the same arrangement with Air Canada as the other five Canadian teams. Air Canada provides the chartered flight and gives the team the same crew for the full year.

They haven't always flown with charter jets. Prior to 2001, the team would still take commercial flights. That proved to be more of a challenge for Moroney, because it was more complicated if the names on the tickets had to be changed due to injuries or roster moves. It also meant Moroney had to deal with the players' quirks. Cliff Ronning for instance, wouldn't sit in aisle 13 - apparently he's very superstitious.

But a boarding pass with aisle 13 stamped on it is far from the most frightening thing the team has experienced on the tarmac. In the early 90s, the team witnessed a plane crash as they were coming into the Los Angeles airport.

"I don't know what it is, but there always seems to be problems in L.A.," she says.

First it was the crash, and then the wild fires. And of course there was the earthquake.

"I heard all about it," said Moroney. "It was the biggest, toughest guys who were the most scared."

Plane crashes and earthquakes aren't the only scary parts of traveling on the road. There's also the food.

The players always eat lunch together at their hotel on game days, and the menu's not exactly something you'd see on Iron Chef.

"It's a lot of chicken breasts, and a lot of pasta," she says. "It's always the same. I just fax the hotel the exact same menu plan every time. It's not very creative."

By the end of the season the Canucks will have eaten more than 1,100 pounds of chicken, and untold trays of pasta. That's not to say that there isn't the occasional good hotel meal.

"The players raved about the food at the W Hotel in Chicago. They said it's one of the best places ever. I don't know what they do differently, but they love it there."

When it's not a game day, the Canucks are left to find their own dinner. As part of their contracts, all NHL players are given $90 per day for food. And that's one of the fun things about traveling.

"I probably have a favourite [restaurant] in every city," says Brendan Morrison. "In Minnesota I actually like eating right in the hotel. The St. Paul Hotel has a phenomenal restaurant - it's probably my favourite one."

"They're big on walleye there. Sometimes I go back and forth between the veal chop and the walleye. In Chicago they've got a great steak place downtown called Gibson's. And they've got another seafood place called Hugo's Frog Bar."

The guys mostly break up into small groups and head out together, unless there's a team event, and that happens a few times a year. There's always the rookie dinner, and the odd get-together like this year's Superbowl party at the Saltlik Steakhouse in Calgary. But even with the restaurants, the team events, and the hotels, the guys are always eager to get home.

"By the end of it most of the guys just get tired. They don't want to stay an extra night on the road. They just want to get home as soon as possible," says Moroney.

Josh Green is one of them.

"Being away from family is tough, especially for extended periods of time. You get sick of eating in restaurants, and room service and stuff like that."

The comfort factor is a big thing for Alex Burrows, who says he misses the locker room, its TV, and the Canucks' facilities. "[At GM Place] the gym's right beside you if you want to ride the bike, or just pump some iron," says Burrows. "On the road you don't have that luxury."

But the road isn't all bad for the players. Sami Salo says it can be nice to visit other places. "Sometimes you get into a nice city, and you might have a day off. That's always something to look forward to," he says. "Somewhere warm, like Florida, even New York - they've got so much stuff going on it's always nice to go there."

The other upside is the bonding. More than 150 hours in a plane tends to bring a team together.

Burrows spends his flight time playing poker with Kevin Bieksa, Willie Mitchell, Brendan Morrison, Jeff Cowan, and Josh Green, and apparently he does pretty well - much to Green's dismay.

"Burr's my nemesis," says Green. "Whenever I get an all-in situation against Burr he usually wins. Even if I have him dominated, he'll pull a card."

"I've been winning every pot mostly," says Burrows. "I always go against him with an open-ended straight draw or a flush draw and I always have a way to beat him at the turn or the river. It's funny, that's the way it's been all year."

The poker games haven't been as kind to Bieksa. He's having a breakout season on the ice, but Poker Star Burrows says his poker play definitely isn't of the same caliber.

"Kevin Bieksa's really struggling with his game," says Burrows. "He's reading a few books right now to get better, but he's way too aggressive." At least his aggressive attitude works on the ice.

Maybe next time they should get Burrows to sit in aisle 13.