WILKES-BARRE – It always means a lot to a player when the schedule takes them back to their hometown to play in front of family and friends.
But when you’re from the vast prairies of western Canada, sometimes you have to settle for playing somewhere that’s somewhat close to home.
That’s what several Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins players will have to settle for when the team departs this morning for Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The Penguins will play the Manitoba Moose on Thursday and Friday before departing for Toronto on Sunday. The games against the Moose afford several Penguins the chance to bring their families in from small towns across western Canada for a rare chance to see them play.
But even that will take some effort.
“My mom and dad and grandparents are driving in from Saskatoon,” said Ryan Bayda. “It’s like seven hours away. You wouldn’t want to do that drive in January.”
Deryk Engelland has a large contingent of family members making the trip from Chetwynd, British Columbia to watch him play against the Moose. Chetwynd is more than 1,200 miles from Winnipeg, so Engelland’s family will drive to Edmonton and fly the rest of the way.
“It’s exciting to have family come watch me play, but it’s still pretty far from my hometown,” Engelland said, adding that most of his family hasn’t seen him play in person since juniors. “You have to drive through four provinces just to get there.”
For that reason, despite the chance to play in front of family, the games in western Canada still feel like any other road trip.
“It’s fun for a lot of us who have a lot of friends and family there. We like to play hard and show them what we’ve been doing,” Bayda said. “In that regard I guess it’s as close to a home game as it gets.”
After the Manitoba trip, the Penguins will hit the road on Saturday morning for a Sunday game in Toronto against the Marlies.
And like Manitoba, there will be plenty of Penguins players bringing family in for the game.
But unlike Manitoba, they won’t have to drive or fly through a couple provinces just to get there.
“In a way it feels like a home game and it does feel good to be home even though the home crowd isn’t really cheering for you,” said Jon D’Aversa, who hails from Richmond Hill – a suburb of Toronto.
Well, at least some of the Toronto home crowd will be cheering for the Penguins.
D’Aversa’s family and several friends will be in attendance, along with Luca Caputi’s family who live right outside the city.
Caputi said he’ll meet his family for dinner after the game.
“Toronto’s home for me so it’s always special to go back there,” he said. “It means a lot any time you get to play in front of your family and friends.”
Head coach Todd Reirden acknowledged that many of his players are looking forward to seeing their families, but there is a second benefit offered by the road trip.
“Being out on the road allows our guys to get closer to one another,” Reirden said. “It’s a great challenge against two teams that have high-end personnel. It will be a challenge to see where we are and our identity as a team.”
•Winger Nick Johnson didn’t participate in Tuesday’s practice at Coal Street and will not accompany the team on the trip to Canada. Reirden said Johnson has a low ankle sprain and will stay behind to rehab the injury.
Reirden is considering a number of forwards to take Johnson’s spot on a line with Ryan Bayda and Mark Letestu. Keven Veilleux is in the running but he missed Tuesday’s practice with a sore hip flexor. Reirden also mentioned Tim Wallace and Joe Vitale as other possibilities.
•Reirden said Eric Tangradi’s shoulder is feeling better, but an illness may delay his return to the lineup.
“He’s someone we don’t want to force into the lineup until he’s ready to play,” Reirden said. “We have big plans for him this year and we don’t need him to go in and out of the lineup with his shoulder.”
•Luca Caputi wore a red “no contact” jersey during Tuesday’s practice. Reirden said Caputi had oral surgery on Monday and will be ready to go for the games in Canada.
SWB Penguins at Manitoba Moose
8:30 p.m., EST, Thursday
MTS Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba