By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – Wearing neon orange visors and dark sunglasses that they received from the Florida Everblades Booster Club, the Alaska Aces look comfortable in Southwest Florida. But don’t judge a hockey player by his tourist accouterment.
“The weather here is killing us,” Alaska defenseman Corbin Schmidt said with a grin after his team’s practice Tuesday at Germain Arena.
“It’s hot and humid. It makes you want to go down to the beach and have a couple margaritas.”
The Aces didn’t make their first trip to the Sunshine State, a 4,926-mile journey, to sip cocktails on Fort Myers Beach. Alaska, which will open a three-game ECHL series against the Blades Wednesday night, is in town to win some hockey games. But before it does that, it must adjust to the warmer climate and new surroundings.
Fort Myers had a high of 81 degrees Tuesday. In Anchorage, it was a toasty 29.
“My players are used to going to the rink in winter boots,” said Aces coach Keith McCambridge, whose club arrived Sunday, largely so it could adjust to the four-hour time change. “Unless you’re in that environment for a long time, it’s tough to get used to going to the rink in shorts and flip-flops.”
That’s what the Blades do on a daily basis. Aces forward Barrett Heisten, a native Alaskan, can’t comprehend doing that. He can’t envision living in this humidity either.
“We don’t have this kind of humidity out west. It’s dry heat,” Heisten said. “I’m always sweating here. It’s December and I’m doing this. I don’t know what it would be like in June or July.”
The long travel — it’s the greatest distance between two North American professional opponents — has also taken a toll on the team, as several Aces have the stomach flu. Florida experienced the same thing when it played at Alaska earlier this month.
The Everblades Booster Club tried to make the trip a memorable one. In addition to giving each player a visor and shades, the club gave them some beach balls.
Wearing his orange visor after practice Tuesday, Heisten said the team planned to go to the Miromar Outlets for some Christmas shopping.
The Aces visited Fort Myers Beach on Monday. The team played whiffle ball on the sand for an hour before it rained.
“I was like, ‘Man, we can’t catch a break,’ ” Heisten said.
Heisten was looking forward to going to Fort Myers because there are no sandy beaches in Alaska, just muddy ones. And at this time of the year, seeing the sun in the Last Frontier is rare. Alaska is in a dark month, meaning the state has about four to five hours of sunlight daily.
“You have to be a certain type of person to live in Alaska,” Heisten said.
Translation: You have to love the cold. And you also have to love hockey.
This country’s largest state is hockey heaven. Every elementary school in Alaska has a rink, which might be why there’s a large contingent of Alaskans in the NHL. It seems as though Alaskans are handed a hockey stick as soon as they exit the womb.
“If you’re not dog-mushing,” Schmidt said, “you’re playing hockey.”
With apologies to the Blades, McCambridge feels that hockey is best played in cold climates.
“I grew up in Canada, so I like going to the rink in my winter jacket and winter-mitts and playing hockey that way,” McCambridge said. “It’s interesting to see a change of pace for a little while, but I’ll stay with the cold weather.”