Head coach Wayne Gretzky and assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson of the Phoenix Coyotes look on from the bench. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)
BY ULF SAMUELSSON
It’s hard to understand why teams play so much better at home than on the road. Every coach has pulled all the stats and all the data you can gather to try and break it down and analyze it, but I don’t think there’s any one fact you can put your finger on.
If you look at our team in Phoenix, we’re playing pretty well at home this year, as we just seem to be more comfortable there. We have a lot of young players who aren’t used to being on the road as much as you are in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Especially going to places like Montreal, where we recently played for the first time in a couple years. It was a Saturday night game and we got to the rink in the morning and there were a lot of people watching the morning skate. Obviously there was also a ton of media before and after the game and people were going crazy when the national anthem was playing. A lot of our guys were in awe and kind of taken back by the moment.
Montreal is a special place to play, especially your first time there. I played there a lot when I was with the Hartford Whalers and, as you get older, you learn to use that energy to your benefit. Your first time there though, you are in awe with all the names in the rafters and all the history, but after a while you get over that initial shock.
It used to be tough to play in the Boston Garden, the Spectrum in Philadelphia and places like that. So in those days I think it was tough for visiting players to learn to deal with. Nowadays with the rules the way they are, I don’t think there’s much of an intimidation factor at all when you’re on the road. That being said, if you go into Detroit and you’re not on top of your game, you’re going to get humiliated in front of a full building most nights.
If you go into an arena on the road and you’re intimidated by a couple players on that team, it’s going to hold you back from playing your best game and you may not get a lot of ice time and that could snowball into a bigger issue.
Another factor you have to deal with on the road is the home team having the last change. The away team can be stubborn and will try to make their own matchups, but you can’t push it too far because it’ll start affecting your players in that they’ll be constantly going on and coming off.
In Phoenix, we have a game plan each night whether at home or on the road. If we’re doing well we stick to what we’ve been doing. If we’re not doing well, we try and adjust during the game as far as matchups go.
The way the rules are nowadays, you just can’t approach a game like you’re going to win it 1-0. You really have to go on offense when you get the chance because teams are so well structured and so well coached that you can’t give up opportunities to create scoring chances. And it’s the same on the road and at home.
One thing we’re doing in Phoenix is we’re giving our players more full days off this season as opposed to last year. Last season we had a good run until the middle of February and then it looked like we got tired as a team. So now we’re monitoring our days off a little closer and we’ve given a lot more rest to the players.
From what I see - and I talk to these guys on a daily basis - our younger players are getting used to the travel. Instead of being on an hour-long flight or a two-hour bus ride, they’re on four- or five-hour flights, but I think they’re adjusting nicely. They sleep more now and they have their video games and movies, so they’re doing well.
Ulf Samuelsson was a defenseman who played on the edge in the NHL from 1984 until he retired in 2000. After a few years out of hockey, Samuelsson returned to the game when he joined the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack as an assistant coach. This is his third season as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes.