For Eagle rookie Jim Johannson, the recent 10-game, 17-day road trip was nothing. "I was on a 200-day road trip last year," he said, recalling his barnstorming days as part of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. "This was old hat."
But Johannson says the trip, mild as it was for him, did the team a lot of good as a maturing factor. "I could see it develop," he said. "We learned we can't take stupid penalties and survive in this league. We weren't in the penalty box as much in the games we won as we were in the games we lost. It was that simple," Johannson says."That's a big part of it," agrees Coach Paul Baxter.
Johannson and rookie defenseman Rick Lessard said the trip helped players come together as friends, too. At home, says Johannson, everybody goes their separate ways after practice. On the trip, they went everywhere together. Adds Lessard, "You had to depend on everybody; you had to get to know each other."
Baxter adds that his players learned to face adverse situations head-on on the road. "At home, you have ways to slough them off," he says.
And that will be the trick now - to keep from sloughing - because tonight when Denver visits, the Eagles begin an oddball homestand of epic proportions.
They will play seven straight at home, 10 of the next 11 at home and 21 of the next 27 in the Salt Palace. That will take them into mid-February.
The homestand, says Baxter, "is something to be excited about."
But therein lies the danger in a long homestand: It sounds good.
These Eagles weren't around four years ago when Coach Tommy Webster's team had a 17-game December-January-February homestand. They expected to finish the home-stand in first place. Instead, they had a seven-game winless streak and lost nine and tied two as the work ethic was buried by complacency.
"Just because we're home doesn't mean we're instant winners," says Baxter, who hasn't broached the subject yet with the players. "Hopefully, we'll realize we have to show up for every game and put in a good night's work."
"I don't think Baxie will allow complacency," says Johannson. "He's very quick to sense it and let you know. Then, it's up to the players. It's a good challenge for us now. I think we can put together a streak."
"We've paid the price on the road," says Baxter, "and now we're ready to hopefully reap dividends at home."
So far, the Eagles have been a good home team.
They have the second-best home-winning percentage in the International Hockey League, .800.
They are 8-2-1 in the Palace - and none of those games was against a losing team. Going into Friday's schedule, the teams the Eagles have played so far at home included first-place Milwaukee, currently 20-5-1, plus 15-10-5 Saginaw, 15-11-3 Denver and 13-9-3 Kalamazoo.
That trend continues into late January. Indianapolis, which comes in for two games next week, is the only team with a losing record the Eagles will meet in the Palace until Jan. 30. And the Ice are .500 in road games.