On the Road
By Suzanne Grove
Road games can test a team’s character.
But long stretches away from home – especially when they involve multiple series against teams on the opposite coast – can quickly dismantle a hockey club.
Long bus rides, jet lag, hotel room beds, and simply missing the comfort and routine of their home locker room and fans can take both a mental and physical toll on players. Unfortunately, the results can end up on the scoresheet and in league standings.
This November, the Tomahawks encountered these challenges when they departed from Johnstown for a six-game stretch of road games that began on November 23. They did not return to play in the War Memorial Arena for more than a month.
Assistant Coach Mike Letizia, who formerly played both professional and junior hockey, stressed that these games proved difficult on both the coaches and players.
“Mentally, you’re a little off because of the time changes and adjusting to the new surroundings can be challenging,” said Letizia. “Obviously, hotels are not as comfortable as home and the players’ rest can be disturbed. Travel can also affect players physically, so it’s always important to have thorough, hard warm-ups.”
But the Tomahawks refused to let the rough schedule derail their goal of making the 2013 NAHL Playoffs. During those weeks on the road, Johnstown went 5-1-0 for 10 points, swept both the Jamestown Ironmen and the Fresno Monsters, and established their dominance on the power play.
The Tomahawks’ West Coast swing proved that when a team pulls together, repeat wins on the road can happen. And earning two points in another team’s barn can have a tremendous impact, igniting team confidence and strengthening the bond and trust the players have developed.
“Being on the road is great for team chemistry,” Letizia said. “The players have no other distractions: They’re just spending time with each other and playing hockey.”
Tomahawks players agree.
Zach Wallace, a native of Sunland Valley, CA, believes away games can be a lot of fun.
“You get to see your teammates’ daily routines and more of what they’re like off the ice on a daily basis,” he said. “You get to know them really well.”
Captain Mitch Kontny reiterated Wallace’s sentiments, saying that being around his teammates is one of the best parts of road games. With a knowing smile, he didn’t deny that pranks play a large role in the fun.
“We have a couple of guys who provide entertainment,” he said. “Connor Wright and Casey Nelson like to move around everyone’s furniture in the hotel and take the beds from the rooms.”
Still, the team makes sure to have a structured schedule that mimics how they operate at home, including waking up early, eating breakfast and lunch as a team, and following the same pre-game routines at the visitor’s arena.
Once the puck actually drops, the disdain from the opposing team actually helps the Tomahawks.
Wallace said the team has no difficulty getting energized for a road game, saying, “The opposing crowd really gets you going. You learn to like it and adjust to playing on the road.”
The Tomahawks managed to capitalize on the intensity, scoring eight power-play goals during the stretch and going 14-for-15 on the penalty kill. Kontny notched five points in the six games while Wallace had three.
“I’ve always said that some of the best games of my career actually happened on the road,” said Letizia, recalling one game against the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers during which he was on the penalty kill and blocked three point-blank shots in a row from Mike Richards, who now plays for the Los Angeles Kings. Letizia earned a standing ovation from Kitchener’s crowd after he cleared the puck. It was a moment he will never forget.
Still, Wallace, Kontny, and their teammates say there is nothing like playing in front of their own fans at the War Memorial. Wallace believes the Tomahawks lay claim to the best fanbase in the North Division.
Letizia added, “I have yet to see an arena that has the fan support and intensity that Johnstown fans have.”