By Chris Umpierre
For the Florida Everblades, it’s normally sunny days and wearing flip-flops and shorts to Germain Arena, not temperatures in the mid-30s, snow showers and battling moose for room on the highway.
But that’s exactly what the ECHL team is experiencing this week after making a historic trip to Anchorage to play the Alaska Aces. The teams play three games starting Friday.
The 4,926-mile trek from Estero to Anchorage is the longest between two North American professional teams. No other team has traveled farther to play a game on this continent. The longest NHL road trip occurred in 1905, when the Dawson City (Yukon) Klondikers journeyed 4,400 miles to play the Ottawa (Ontario) Silver Seven in the Stanley Cup Finals.
“It’s almost halfway around the world, really,” Blades forward Jarret Lukin (pictured) said. “We’re going from one end of the continent to the other. If you look at it on a map, it’s pretty bizarre.”
Separated by four time zones, Estero and Anchorage seem to be the antithesis of each other. Today’s Anchorage forecast, for instance, calls for a high of 36 degrees and snow. The city’s traffic report includes warnings about — gasp! — moose.
“I was driving to the arena (Tuesday) and I had to stop in the middle of the road and let three moose cross in front of me,” Alaska coach Keith McCambridge said in a phone interview. “It’s a very unique city for sure.”
Only one Everblade has been to the “Last Frontier.” Defenseman Dave Cornacchia played against the Aces as a member of the Idaho Steelheads last season.
He said his teammates might suffer from culture shock adjusting to Alaskan life. That’s partly why the Blades arrived in Anchorage on Tuesday, so the club would have three days of practice before its first game.
“Hopefully, it’s not too cold,” said Lukin, who’s from Alberta, Canada. “I grew up up north but I got a little bit softer since being down (in Florida). The air is going to be different, too. We’re going to have to get used to the elevation. It’s going to be a little tougher to breathe.”
With a population of 277,000, Anchorage is embraced by six mountain ranges and about 60 glaciers. The city offers a slew of adventures for the avid outdoorsman, including helicopter tours that fly through the mountains and land on glaciers.
Blades captain Ernie Hartlieb was looking forward to possibly seeing some glaciers and more.
“I’m going to take my camera and take some pictures of whatever out of the ordinary I see,” he said.
Lukin yearned to see some wildlife.
“Maybe we’ll see a polar bear or something,” he said.
Florida coach Gerry Fleming reacted angrily when a reporter asked him what the team planned to do on its off day.
“I just finished telling you. We’re not going up there to look at the bears or take a cruise,” Fleming said. “We’re going up there to play hockey.”
Yes, hockey. There will be a little of that this weekend, too.
Florida and Alaska have been two of the ECHL’s winningest teams the last decade. The two organizations have wanted to play each other for years. Florida made it happen this fall to celebrate the franchise’s 10th season.
The Aces expect a sellout crowd of 6,451 Friday in what will be the squad’s 2007-08 home opener.
The Blades should cover their heads when Alaska scores its first goal. Fans throw fish heads, often 50-pound king salmon, onto the ice after every Ace goal.
Hartlieb has heard stories about those flying fish heads. He’ll have his camera ready.
“This is going to be a great experience, something to tell your grandkids when you get farther down the road,” he said.