Other NHL teams might see a little more teamwork this season from the Philadelphia Flyers: After wrapping up their exhibition season, they took advantage of Colorado’s late season runoff to better their own chances at a playoff run, embarking on a team-building rafting trip down the Colorado River.
While they might not ever play soccer’s Colorado Rapids, the Flyers took to their namesake in preparation for their season opener against the Stanley Cup runner-up Las Vegas Golden Knights.
My involvement? That came via a golden phone call from my buddy Karl Borski, owner of Avon’s Lakota Guides.
“Hey Eug, want to come down and safety kayak for a rafting trip on Shoshone?” he queried, before adding the clincher: “It’s for the Flyers.”
What self-respecting hockey and kayak hack could turn that down? So I rallied down to Glenwood Canyon, with a few props in tow, to hobnob with the NHL. My role: fish out any players more at home in a rink than in the drink.
After practicing at Vail’s Dobson Ice Arena, the team hopped off the bus at Lakota’s headquarters and ambled into the changing room. They looked boyishly young and fit, likely the most athletic clients the company has ever seen. This was further evidenced when they tried on their wetsuits, squeezing Quasimodo-sized thighs and glutes into rubber tighter than stretch ski pants.
Next came the helmets, which I helped hand out from a big box in the corner. “We’re used to getting our heads hit,” joked one, turning the light blue, rather feminine-looking headpiece over in his hands. “So this should work fine.”
The helmets were a little more weenie than their NHL-sanctioned ones, with a paltry plastic band for tightening over the likes of Oskar Lindblom’s mullet. But their most telling feature was the names written on them, so guests know which one is theirs. “Here, you’d look good in this one,” I said, handing one labeled “Barbie” to defenseman Travis Sanheim. His friends heckled him, until I handed them ones anointed “Tinkerbell” and “Cameron Diaz.”
Gear lined up, everyone funneled outside, forming a circle in the parking lot for the “draft.” One by one designated players pulled names from a hat to form their rafting fivesomes. “Claude” deadpanned the first honoree, selecting all-star Giroux, a fiery redhead who’s amassed 677 points in his 11 years with the Flyers.
The next captain pulled all Swedes (“Oh no, we have a Swedish raft!” one coach bellowed), while a third resulted in locker room banter. “No way I want to go with him,” ribbed selectee Jakub Voracek.
Then it was onto the buses and the river, me sitting next to assistant coach Gord Murphy and behind head coach Dave Hakstol. Breaking the ice, so to speak, I made small talk by showing Murphy a video playing hockey on a high alpine lake, followed by another linking powder turns with my hockey stick antlering above my pack. “Might be good training grounds,” I suggested. “Like Mystery, Alaska.”
Universal hockey bond established, he took it under advisement and passed my phone around to Hakstol and some of the players, making me feel like part of the team.
I either bolstered or bottomed-out my cause at the put-in, when I broke out my props: hockey gloves, an old CCM helmet and two hockey sticks duct-taped together as a paddle. I topped it all by pulling a Giroux jersey (borrowed from local Flyers fan Mike Cronin) over my PFD. I was my own version of Gritty, their new orange-haired, googly-eyed mascot.
Settling into their respective craft—ideally wings up front, centers amidships and defense in the stern—the puck dropped and the paddling began. I was now on the clock.
I’d already done a little cross-checking of my own. Their roster lists their heaviest player as 217-lb. James van Riemsdyk, which might wheelie my boat should he grab onto my stern. But my fears were unfounded; no one got thrown into the penalty box. They paddled as deftly as they wield their sticks, throwing in strokes on command. A few even cannonballed into the river when given the go-ahead from the referee-like guides.
After the rapids, which they bashed through like the Broad Street Bullies, I grabbed my stick paddle for the flats, garnering a few hockey-gloved fist bumps.
So how’d it all work, having them boat Class III instead of studying a chalkboard? I asked Hakstol afterward if he planned on making any line changes based on the outing and he said no; he’d have to wait until after tonight’s ATVing and skeet shooting antics at the nearby Bair Ranch. And Borski says they were far from Bambi’s on ice.
“They followed directions and each stroke was way more than what you needed,” he says. “Last year we took the National English Rugby Team down and these guys were way better. They’re pretty skilled at whatever they do. They also liked ‘riding the bull’ up front through a rapid called Man Eater.”
When they posted an Instagram photo of star Scott Laughton doing so, the comments lit up like a red hockey goal light: “They better start winning”; “Why would they choose a risky activity like this?”; “It’s hard to recognize them in those blue helmets”; “Haven’t we learned enough from Flyers and their on-water antics?”; “Like there aren’t enough injuries…let’s go rafting on raging waters next to unforgiving, jagged boulders!” And, in reference to their Cousin It-like mascot, “Please tell me Gritty drowned”; and “Gritty fell overboard.” And finally, one alluded to the outing’s bottom line: “They got wet, now they better start winning.”
Info: Want to raft with the company that hosted the Flyers? Visit www.lakotaguides.com