When the San Jose Sharks’ training camp began in Scottsdale on Dec. 30 — 700 miles away from home — there was an understandable emphasis on the positives of a long road trip together.
“If you had asked me last season what this team probably could have used from a chemistry standpoint, from a culture standpoint, I would have said, a training camp where we all get away together and have no distractions — and probably a good long road trip to start the season,” Bob Boughner offered. “Maybe this is a little more than I wish for. I think it’s going to be a good thing for us. I think we really need to spend some time together.”
But as the days in Scottsdale, Phoenix, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Denver blurred into weeks, then a month on the road, the Sharks began to betray some stress.
So it was some reprieve when San Jose’s Feb. 1 and 3 games against Vegas, scheduled to be played at Gila River Arena in Arizona, were postponed because Alex Pietrangelo and three coaches entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol. Best wishes to the Golden Knights, but it was a much-needed break for the Sharks, who were 32 days and counting on the road before coming back to San Jose yesterday, two weeks earlier than expected.
A week ago, when there was no end in sight to the road trip, Patrick Marleau addressed the need to monitor not only his own mental health, but his teammates: “When you walk by somebody in the morning and you say ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ you’ve gotta really mean it.
“We gotta look out for each other, and I think maybe that will tie into the team chemistry and team unity, but looking out for each other away from the rink mentally, I think that could help us.”
Remember, this was no regular road trip. There were no steak dinners, no golf outings. Because of COVID-19 precautions, players saw each other at the rink, during team meetings at the hotel, on the bus or the plane, and for some grab-and-go meals.
They also had a common area, usually a hotel ballroom, where players could gather as long as they remain masked, socially distanced, and were together for no longer than 15 minutes.
“It’s hard to live out of a hotel. It’s hard not to be able to leave, go for dinners, do anything to occupy your mind. You sit around and you’re alone a lot, which is something we’re not really used to,” Erik Karlsson shared. “We grew up playing team sports our whole lives, being around people everyday, then all of a sudden, you see guys for a couple hours each day.”
And sure, they were doing all this in the lap of luxury.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for us outside of our room,” Couture said last week. “So we’re really just wasting our breath if we complain about it to anyone.”
But a gilded cage is still a cage.
“FaceTime’s great, Skype’s great, Zoom. But it’s difficult. For me, I brought a bunch of books, watched some TV shows. That was basically it,” Couture revealed. “Your mind’s racing the whole time. You’re always thinking about hockey. How much you’re missing your family, everybody back in San Jose. It was difficult.”
A 3-5-0 start on the road did not help. Thinking about hockey would be a lot more fun if you’re 5-3-0 and not in last place in the West Division.
“Sometimes, it’s nice when you’re home because you don’t think about the hockey,” Tomas Hertl said after the Sharks’ shutout loss to the Avs last Thursday. “But when you’re in a hotel for 30 days, you’re just thinking about the hockey because we have nothing else.”
So now, the San Jose Sharks are home. And whatever their record, they say a brand-new team took the ice at Solar4America in San Jose today, their first time in over a month.
“Now we’re here, the energy has completely changed,” Couture said. “Guys are excited, refreshed. Lots of smiles this morning. It was a good day.”
What this means for their record — it doesn’t matter. There’s more to life than hockey, and the Sharks are just happy to be reminded of that.
“She was a little bit shocked when you first saw me,” Karlsson relayed of seeing his one-year-old daughter Harlow Rain for the first time in over a month. “She’s pretty good with FaceTime and stuff, she didn’t really understand what was going on for the first 30 seconds or so. But she’s been really happy, for the two days I’ve been home.
“Even though they require a lot of energy, a lot of focus, it’s something you embrace. At the end of every night, you go down a happy man.”
Sheng’s Travel Fund
Help fund Sheng's travel! Every dollar goes to the cost of getting to and from Sharks road games.