TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Lightning will swap their hockey sticks for fishing rods and trade in their gloves for grill mitts today.
With a four-day break in the schedule — Tampa Bay is not back in action until Thursday — the players and staff will step away from the rink for some off-ice activities and team bonding, starting with a fishing trip in the morning and ending with a family barbecue at MacDill Air Force Base.
“We have been at the ice rink here coming on a month and a half, and this is kind of the only situation you get to be around each other and see each other, and sometimes I believe you have to get guys out in a different light,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said after Monday’s practice. “I think it’s actually a good time for us, as we have been pretty pleased with the way our season has started.’’
Such activities are common among hockey teams as a way to bring players closer together by getting to know teammates in a social atmosphere.
“I’m a big believer in bringing a team together, having a close team,’’ Cooper said. “You can’t force that to happen but you can put teams in situations where that may percolate a little bit, and I think these are some of the ways to do this.
“If there is any way that we can have a hand in pulling this team closer together, I’m all for that stuff and this is one of those times.’’
The past several seasons in the minor leagues, Cooper’s teams had fishing trips, played in a bowling league and did paint ball outings.
Though there no tangible way to measure the effect such activities have on a team’s on-ice success, it’s more about fostering an atmosphere in which the hockey team feels like a second family and the rink feels like a home away from home.
“From my experience in the minors, I’ve always felt like the closer the team is off the ice away from the rink, the closer you can be on the ice,” said defenseman Mark Barberio, in his fourth season playing for Cooper.
“And the more you get to know a guy off the ice, you tend to get to know them on the ice better, as well. The last two years in Norfolk and Syracuse, we had successful teams and we built a family, and that’s what these are and what they give us a chance to do.’’
Today’s outing won’t be the last bonding activity the staff will put together, Cooper said. But the schedule allows for few opportunities during the season. Tampa Bay has only one other four-day break in the schedule this season, Nov. 3-6, not counting the December holidays and the Olympic break in February.
There will be some chances while the team is on the road, though.
“I think they are awesome,’’ defenseman Radko Gudas said. “You get to know the players, get to know the families by doing stuff off the ice. When you do something together, you get to know them, you get to trust them better, you feel more like family on the ice.
“I’m basically new here still, so it’s always fun to get to know the players better and I think it helps a lot.’’
No matter where the activities take place, or in what manner, Cooper said that family-atmosphere goal will remain the same.
“I don’t even know if I’ve ever had a conversation with any of these guys outside the walls of the arena,’’ he said. “And you kind of take the player (or) coach hat off a little bit and find out a little more about these guys and their families.
“Ultimately, in the end, you get to see some of the guys a little less guarded, a little less on edge and they let their hair down a little bit and have a little fun.’’