It is a little more than 500 miles from Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, which is home to NBA star LeBron James but also the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League.
The Charlotte Checkers are a geographical anomaly in the AHL, but remaining in a new-look Western Conference, and the final renovations to Bojangles have created a very quirky 2015-16 schedule – even for this league.
Charlotte opens the 2015-16 season 8 p.m. Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa, against the Iowa Wild. That is the first of 10 consecutive road games before the return to Bojangles is Nov. 7 for the home opener.
“It’s something I’ve never experienced, but the American League is always about the travel, especially in the West,” said forward T.J. Hensick, 29. “We’re in the West so you’ve got to deal with that. Not every game is laid out on a red carpet for you.”
A 10-game road trip to start the season is not the only difference this season. The AHL created a new division of teams based in California, which creates another wrinkle in Charlotte’s schedule.
There are no interconference games, in large part to help the travel costs on both coasts. That means the Checkers will play games in Ontario, Calif., San Jose and San Diego but do not play closer opponents like Hershey and Lehigh Valley.
Charlotte isn’t the only Eastern team stuck in the West. Lake Erie and Grand Rapids are also in the time zone, but they are also much closer to the other “division rivals” in the Midwest.
“This will be a challenge, specifically the start,” new coach Mark Morris said. “A few years in Manchester, we only slept out of our beds for 16 days out of the entire season, which is outrageous. What an advantage it was.”
Morris mentioned his coaching staff will have some interesting logistical decisions while on these long road trips. Whether it is finding ice for practice time or keeping players active and avoiding long days in a hotel room, it’s a different kind of travel planning.
“We’ve got to get creative with how we keep our guys in good condition and mentally sharp,” Morris said.
Morris spent eight seasons coaching Manchester (N.H.), which had a geographical advantage with proximity to other AHL teams but not the parent club. When one of his players was called up to the NHL, it was a long flight from Manchester to Los Angeles. It is possible the Checkers could leave a player behind for part of a trip or send someone home early to be closer to Raleigh should the Carolina Hurricanes need reinforcements.
This opening 10-game stretch is going to be critical for the Checkers. They will play two games in Iowa, return to Charlotte for a few days and then will be away from home for more than two weeks.
“It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, if we get off to a good start,” Checkers forward Brendan Woods said. “There’s going to be a lot of time for team bonding, to get to know each other. Hopefully we can use that and build off it for when we get home.”