CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Jack Johnson thought for a second, almost as if he had never considered the upside to an NHL team embarking on a long road trip.
“I don’t think there’s any harm,” the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman said, smiling, and then he seemed to talk his way through to the other side.
“The only negatives of going on a road trip is the guys who have a family are away from their family. Other than that, we get to spend a lot of time with each other,” said the veteran who has made just one road trip, a one-game stopover in Montreal, since signing with the Penguins in July. “Maybe somebody in my case you get to know some guys that you didn’t know as much before, get to go out to dinner with them and hang out on the plane, whatever.”
The Penguins flew to Toronto after practice Wednesday. A game Thursday against the Maple Leafs kicks off a 12-day, four-game trip across Canada that includes a couple days in an Alberta resort area.
It’s a decades-old maxim in hockey that a road trip feeds the soul of a team as players spend a lot of time together, grow closer, develop more trust. You know, bonding.
Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist believes it wholeheartedly, especially when a 2-1-2 start to the season has left the club less than satisfied with its game, he couldn’t wait to hit the road.
“We don’t have enough trust in our game,” Hornqvist said.
So he couldn’t wait to climb the stairs onto the Penguins’ cushy charter jet – a home away from home for the coming days – with his teammates.
“I think this is the best road-trip timing I’ve ever been part of,” Hornqvist said. “We’re struggling and now it’s just us for 12 days. We’re going to have some fun on the rink and off the rink and start to know each other and start to play for each other. I think it will be great for us. Now we just have to take advantage of it.”
The Penguins play at Edmonton Tuesday, at Calgary next Thursday and at Vancouver Oct. 27.
That has them facing two of the top young stars of the NHL, Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. Those are just sidebars, though.
“I think it’s going to be a fun trip for us,” goaltender Matt Murray said. “We’re with each other every day. Going on these trips you kind of get rid of distractions. You hang out together, and you definitely bond. I think that’s important, and that’s what we try to do every time we’re on the road.”
This trip is one of two extended road ventures this season. The Penguins play five games in the American west in January. But this one comes at a time when the team is trying to set the tone for the season.
“I think it will be good for us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think it will be good for the players to get on the road, spend some time together. Early in the year I think it’s always good thing when they have an opportunity to go to dinner and spend some time together away from the rink. It only helps us when we get back to the rink.
“We’re excited about his particular trip. We know we’ve got some tough challenges ahead of us. We’re hoping it will bring us together as a group.”
Often, Penguins trips to Western Canada are harried, with sleep deprivation unavoidable. But there are no back-to-back games this time. Not only that, but there is also enough time for a side trip.
The team could have flown home Thursday night after the game in Toronto. Instead, the Penguins will have a practice day in Toronto, followed by a travel day before spending two days in Banff, the scenic area of the Canadian Rockies.
There are two practices scheduled in Banff before the game in Edmonton. There is a scheduled day off between the games in Calgary and Vancouver.
“That’s part of it,” Johnson said of the mix of games, practices and down time. “It’s a long trip. We’ve got plenty of time to practice, too. It’s nice that we’re going in October and not January, too.”
Because while places such as California, Arizona and Nevada are comfortable in January, not so much in Alberta then.