The NHL season has been going on for over a month and the Islanders have had more time in a Chicago restaurant than on their own ice cream. They spent more minutes in the penalty area in Winnipeg than in the locker room of their own arena.
They’ve skated in 12 cities, four time zones and two countries, flown in every direction on the compass and billeted in a dozen hotels across the continent. They had all done that, and they still hadn’t played at home.
And it’s not over.
After 12 consecutive road games, the Islanders had one more in Florida on Tuesday. It’s the second-longest stretch of consecutive road race in NHL history and the longest to start a season – a unique challenge for players, coaches, equipment managers, traveling secretaries and lost fans.
“It’s different,” said Casey Cizikas, the team’s veteran center. “Last year our longest flight was just over an hour. This year we travel a lot more and we play against different teams, so there is a lot of unfamiliarity there.”
It’s been so long since the Islanders last played a home game that it’s hard to remember where it is at home. For a few more days it will be a bit nowhere.
The unusual schedule was necessary because the islanders are moving to a new arena in Elmont, NY, and additional time was needed to complete it. Months ago, when it became clear that construction would continue after October, the traditional opening month of the NHL, the islanders asked the league to arrange shelter.
So the bags of gear were loaded and the Islanders were sent on a tour of North America, where they would play almost exclusively in arenas they hadn’t seen in over a year, to mostly hostile fans.
“Obviously it’s not ideal,” defender Scott Mayfield said. “You also want to play for your own fans.”
That will finally happen on Saturday, against the Calgary Flames, at the Islanders’ new home venue, UBS Arena, nearly six weeks after the season’s first puck fell.
By then, the Islanders will have played a third of their road schedule for the season, against 12 teams they haven’t seen at all in the 2021 season, which was cut short and restructured due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They’ve gone 5-7 on the stretch, including Monday night’s 4-1 defeat to defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and the game remaining in this 13-game road trip is against the Florida Panthers, one of the best teams in the league.
There have been no complaints from the public and the team has even recognized the value of the time they spent together on the road opening a long season. The players also know that the schedule, which includes long days off, could have been worse.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” said defender Ryan Pulock. “It takes a lot out of you mentally and physically to travel and play. But we’ve done pretty well so far. We have a few more. It just means we’ll be playing more home games later in the year, which is positive.”
The only team to play more consecutive games on the road was the 2009-10 Vancouver Canucks, who essentially had to leave the city for 14 games because of the Winter Olympics from February 12 to 28, 2010, in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the Canucks, it was actually two trips, separated by a vacation.
They went out for eight games. After that, the NHL had a few weeks off. Andrew Raycroft, a Canucks goalkeeper at the time, said he and about half the team went to Hawaii and the other half to Mexico.
When they returned, they met in Ohio for a four-day camp before playing six more road games, starting against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were 8-6 on the trip and later lost to Chicago, the eventual Stanley Cup champion, in the playoffs.
“The first part was fun, but the second half really started to drag,” said Raycroft, now an analyst for Boston Bruins broadcasts. “But we got better throughout the process. Then you really become a team.”
Raycroft recalled team bonding events on the trips, including a heady outing after a Toronto win, a fishing trip and a golf outing in Florida.
The Islanders had plenty of room in their schedule this year to break the long stretch into separate trips and spend a lot of time in their own homes and practice countless times at their East Meadow, NY facility.
The first and longest stage started in Raleigh, NC, Miami and Chicago. They enjoyed a big team dinner in downtown Chicago and won their first game of the season there. They then drove to Columbus, Ohio, and on to Phoenix and Las Vegas, finishing with two more wins.
After that, there was only one game left for the next 10 days (an overtime loss to the Predators in Nashville), which turned out to be a trip in itself.
Four days after that game, the team played in Montreal, where Barry Trotz, the Islands coach, met a friend for dinner for the first time in months.
“That was just my third time in a restaurant since the start of the pandemic,” Trotz said. “I mean, strange. But actually it felt a bit normal.”
The last time the islanders were in Canada was March 2020.
After defeating the Canadiens, the Islanders flew to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where they defeated the Jets on November 6 and began to resemble the team that took the Lightning to a seventh game in the conference finals last season. But they haven’t won since then.
On Thursday, the closest they came to a home game was against the Devils in Newark, NJ. About half of the fans at the Prudential Center were Islanders fans, desperate to get a glimpse of their team in person. Still, the Islanders treated it like a road race, spending the night before the game in a New Jersey hotel. They lost 4-0 to under .500.
Raycroft said the long stretch of roads would help the islanders. While the team is mostly made up of players who have been together for a few years, including a deep playoff run last season and a stint in the so-called bubble at the end of the 2020 season, the long stint in the breakout has provided opportunities for team bonding.
Equally importantly, after returning from Florida, the Islanders will play 31 of their next 46 games at home. Raycroft said eliminating road races early would give the Islanders a significant advantage over their division rivals.
“When I first saw that schedule, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really long before I played at home,'” Raycroft said. “It must feel quite strange. But it will help them in the long run.”
There’s another bump ahead: At the very end, the Islanders will play nine of their last 14 games on the road. At least then they know how to do it.