ARLINGTON, Va. - Playing in the ECHL is a labor of love for most of its players, but also presents a grinding season, with teams criss-crossing the United States -- mostly by bus -- from town to town over seven months.
Thanks in part to the lockout and the NHL's late start, the ECHL's Reading Royals were asked to make an extra three-hour bus trip south to their parent club's practice facility to participate in a scrimmage against the Washington Capitals. It was an extra trip they were thrilled to take.
With no preseason games before the 2012-13 (or just 2013) NHL season begins, several NHL clubs have reached out to their American Hockey League affiliates to scrimmage and get their teams in game shape for the weekend.
In Washington's case, with their AHL club Hershey traveling north for a Wednesday night game in Worcester, Mass., the call went out to the Royals to see if they could come down to the suburban D.C. rink for a tune-up Tuesday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
"We found out later on last week, so probably around Wednesday or Thursday when we were in the middle of our road trip between Kalamazoo and Wheeling," said Royals forward Ethan Cox. "We found out the possiblity to this, we didn't know it was a for sure thing until the weekend."
While the coaches were initially concerned about the extra workload -- the Royals are scheduled to play an 11 a.m game Wednesday morning in Trenton, N.J. -- the players were enthusiastic make the extra effort to face the Caps.
"We were at lunch, [Royals head coach] Larry [Courville] got the call," forward Ian O'Connor recalled. "And he was half-joking, saying 'The Caps want us to play an exhibition game -- we got a game the next day -- no way.'
"Everybody at the table was saying 'We're going! Ask the rest of the boys,' and it was unanimous to go."
While the game turned as one would expect for an ECHL club facing a team two levels up -- an 8-0 Washington win -- the Royals were thrilled for the experience to play NHL players in front of a full house at the rink.
"I wasn't paying attention to the score," Cox said. "I don't even know what it ended up being, it was exciting. It was fun."
One of the thrilling things for the Royals was looking across the ice and seeing some familiar faces playing against them instead of one of their other ECHL rivals.
"I was telling guys, the first thing after the season ended last year, I went to Boston for Game 2 [of the Bruins-Capitals series], the one where Backstrom scored in overtime to win," said New Hampshire native O'Connor. "That's the first thing when I got home. And now, I'm playing against these guys.
"It was really cool, something I'll always remember."
"A lot of those guys who just are just on East Coast hockey contracts, it was kind of exciting," Cox said. "We get to come out here and see what it's like in the big leagues. It was exciting, most guys in the locker room were excited to see what it was all about."
For one of the Royals, it was also a chance to play near his hometown, as Adam Comrie hails from nearby Ashburn, Va. and got a chance to play at a rink he was familiar with.
"I had some friends in the crowd," said Comrie. "My family is actually working, so they couldn't get a day off.
"It's really cool to line up against those guys, and it's something that probably will never happen again," he added. "It was nice to take advantage of it, and it was fun being out with those guys, I hope they had fun with it too. It [stinks] losing, but they're that much better, and see how good they are, how strong they are and how much more skills they have, and how much harder they work."
"It was different to have a game without the game preparation, obiviously weird, but was good for our team to get out there and play with each other," Holtby said.
While in theory for the Royals, it added an extra game on a long schedule, but they were happy to get on the same sheet with some NHL stars.
"A lot of those guys who just are just on East Coast hockey contracts, it was kind of exciting," Cox said with a smile. "We get to come out here and see what it's like in the big leagues. It was exciting, most guys in the locker room were excited to see what it was all about."
"Once in a lifetime opportunity," said O'Connor. "For Coast contracted guys, you never expect to get a game like this. It was an awesome opportunity."