The 2011 edition of the Stanley Cup Final is a battle between teams from Massachusetts and British Columbia, which according to my limited knowledge of geography don't exactly share any borders. A quick Google search explains that the cities of Vancouver and Boston are 2,537 miles apart (as the plane flies), or a little bit over five hours of iPod time.
That's a serious flight for teams to take in the middle of a best-of-seven series, especially after already having endured three rounds of playoff battles. It's conceivable that Boston could have to take that trip five times before the series wraps up — I don't care how comfortably NHLers get to travel, getting to eat a steak on the flight hardly makes up for having to sleep in the upright and locked position.
Personally, I hated when my teams would travel immediately after the game. I'm not a great bus or plane sleeper, so I preferred to get back to the hotel or my own bed, have a solid meal, and get some real, uninterrupted sleep. You don't need to skate every damn day (in the final most guys will barely skate on off-days anyway), so I'd have no problem using the day to travel where I could do some reading, video gaming, or some rampant twitter refreshing (current era players only).
Coaches worry about their player's legs if they don't get them moving on off-days, but it's still possible to fly 5-6 hours, get to the hotel, and have a light jog and a quick stretch. Even a good walk is sufficient after a flight.
I played college hockey at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where 10 times a year we flew a minimum of five hours to get to our opponent's arena. The team generally left early Wednesday for Friday games so we had plenty of time to shake the legs out and get feeling fresh by game time. Even after the Saturday game we were granted a night before being chucked back on the plane, so we usually felt decent enough at practice come Monday, regardless of the length of the flights.
I only learned what a treat that is after playing minor pro hockey, where teams are desperate to not pay for an extra night in the hotel. We'd often leave immediately after games and travel long distances, sometimes in *shudder* "sleeper buses" (read: portable coffins).
Have you ever gone for a run then immediately sat in a car for awhile? You climb out of the vehicle after that like the pirate from Family Guy with four wooden limbs. Your body needs time to cool down.
You can see how this is going to have an effect on the Finals — some players, whoever they may be, will not get to do what they prefer to do to be at their best.
That other side of the debate is the group whose preference is to travel through the night, and get a skate in the next day.
Their logic is simple — they can sleep on the plane (or anywhere — an odd number of hockey players can turn their consciousness on and off like a light switch, with some mixing in multiple naps a day), meaning they're just as rested as if they stayed at home. Then they get to have a little twirl around the rink to loosen up the day before, so they feel sharp the next day.
This is one of those odd variables that makes a series like this so hard to predict — who knows which team has more players unhappy with their team's chosen flight plan?
(And by the way, the theory I've heard posited that Vancouver will have an advantage because they're "more used to the travel" is just flat wrong. Not even sure what that could mean — their bodies will still be just as affected as Boston's).
Players aggressively pursue feeling their best for the 45 hours or so between games, and travel throws a whole other variable into the mix. No two players are the same, and each guy has his own balance of sleep, exercise and diet that leaves him with the most legs possible come game time.
Players on both sides have been skating their entire lives dreaming of playing in this series, of lifting the Stanley Cup when that final buzzer goes and the series is decided.
Because of the hindrance that the lengthy travel will have, each and every player will have to do a little extra body preparation to ensure that they come out flying.