The dreaded tour of Canada's Maritime Provinces that the Skipjacks undertake once a season means different things to different players.
For some, like Kent Paynter and Tyler Larter, it is a homecoming of sorts. They were born, raised and still live on Prince Edward Island, about 60 miles and a ferry ride north of Moncton, New Brunswick.
For others, like Alfie Turcotte and Jeff Greenlaw, it is a chance to see old friends they met when they played there earlier in their careers.
But by Saturday afternoon, when the Jacks returned, the 14-day excursion had a new nickname -- "The road trip from hell."
"It could have been a fun trip if we would have won some more games," said coach Robbie Laird, who desperately tried to patch together his hobbled defense and motivate the team during the eight-game, two-week marathon of bus rides, hotel stays and snowstorms.
As it was, the Jacks left home in first place in the Southern Division of the American Hockey League at 8-3 and came home tied for second at 10-8-1, the result of a 2-5-1 trip.
It began Nov. 4 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there the Jacks stopped in Moncton before back-to-back games in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and a return to Moncton. Then it was on to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and back to Halifax, with one last game in Cape Breton before heading home.
"I had friends and family at almost every game and it didn't make it any better for me," Paynter said. "It's two weeks of sleeping in a strange bed, eating restaurant food and sitting on buses. And when you're going bad, like we were, there's no place at all to get away and relax. There's just no escaping hockey."
Most of the players said they made time to see the sights and found one thing in common in all four cities -- the natives' love of hockey.
"Let's be honest," said Turcotte, "in a place like Sydney, Nova Scotia, there's not a whole lot happening but the hockey game."
Sydney, home of the Cape Breton Oilers, is a great case study. The town has just over 30,000 citizens but is averaging a whopping 4,775 fans per game.
The Skipjacks, by comparison, are averaging 2,733 at the Arena this season.
Hockey is so well-received in the Maritimes, the AHL is considering adding a new franchise in St. John's, Newfoundland. Jacks owner Tom Ebright said yesterday that league meetings are being held this week to discuss the issue. Also, Toronto's affiliation with the team in Newmarket, Ontario, has become questionable with the death of Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, and that franchise could be headed for Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, next season.
Games at those two sites would stretch out a Maritimes trip that many of the Skipjacks players complain is too long already. Many say it should be split into two trips.
"The answer to that is cost," Ebright said. "It cost $35,000 to send the team there last week -- one-third of our travel budget for the season. Two trips up would cost about $55,000 and I'm not sure it would actually make the trip any easier. It takes three planes and a day just to get there."
Hershey, which is 90 miles north of here, will make two trips north this season after several one-timers. Management said it wanted to go once but couldn't because of scheduling.
"For as badly as we fared, the only evaluation of the trip Robbie and I had was that it's over," Ebright said.
The Jacks owner said he has long advocated a plan that would force the Jacks to play each team in the Maritimes just once there and once at the Arena -- especially if more teams join the fold.
"When more teams join I begin to lose games with teams that we have rivalries with," Ebright said. "We are only playing Rochester four times this year because of the Capital District franchise [in Troy, N.Y.] coming in. I think it's ridiculous that we play Halifax and Cape Breton the same number of times that we play Rochester."
Last week the Jacks had three six-hour bus rides in four days, churning through an overnight snowstorm from Moncton to Cape Breton.
"You never know what you're going to run into with the weather," Laird said. "That's another reason we schedule the trip so early, to avoid all of that. Unfortunately, we weren't early enough."
"Most of the guys are from Canada or other cold places so we know what the weather is like," Turcotte said. "But it's different when bus trips take longer because of it."
Team broadcaster Kenny Albert said he was excited by the prospect of making his first trip north, but soon came to the realization that it was overly romanticized.
"I can see why teams have problems going up there," Albert said. "You're either practicing, playing or sleeping. The only relaxation I saw on the whole trip was a pingpong tournament in Sydney. It's exciting when you get a hotel next to a mall, like in Fredericton. At least you can pass some time after practice doing something besides sitting in a hotel room watching television."
Players said the nightclubs in several of the Maritime Provinces are fine, but the prices are prohibitive.
"I got a beer in a place in Sydney and it cost $3.50," said Turcotte, who is from Detroit. "But all of Canada is like that. I played in Moncton for two years and I still can't figure out why the taxes are so high."
The next thing the Jacks need to figure out is how to win there.