Three weeks before the season opener, the Calgary Flames insist their players are not on a curfew.
It’s merely a suggested sleep schedule.
When asked about it, the smile on James Neal’s face suggested he had yet to get with the program.
As part of the Calgary Flames’ intense preparations for the club’s nine-day trip to China on Tuesday, the 26 players were given booklets on everything from the dangers of wifi use, their schedule and nutrition guidelines.
As part of the grand plan to try mitigating the obvious jet lag involved with a 14-hour flight over 12 time zones, the guide suggested the players start altering their sleep patterns over the weekend.
"Yes, I have been," deadpanned a beaming Neal as he waited for a pair of immunization shots.
"It will be an adjustment regardless of what you do – it’s a huge time change. You want to eat right and drink the right fluids and prepare your body for everything that’s going to happen – it’s going to be hard."
Flames head strength and conditioning coach, Ryan van Asten, has spent the last four months consulting with sleep experts and others to implement a plan based around sports science aimed at ensuring the nine-day exhibition jaunt won’t have any lingering affects when the season starts Oct. 3.
"At the end of the day you’re not going to eliminate jet lag," said van Asten, whose club leaves at 1 p.m. Tuesday and arrives in Shenzhen in the early evening Wednesday.
"You can minimize the effects of it. You just have to manage it.
"The players’ booklets have all the information from nutrition, sleep and what they need to do beforehand to prep, which started three days ago. We gave them a breakdown of every single day – a cheat sheet on what they need to do from when to wake up and what they should be eating at specific times, when they should be napping, what to do on the plane and what to do with electronics and screen time. We tried to cover all the bases. It’s pretty intense."
For example, right after the plane departs Calgary the players will be fed a high-carb meal aimed at making them sleep for several hours afterwards. Unlike the team’s normal charter plane, this one will be equipped with pods that allow the seats to lie flat for the players to sleep in.
Upon arrival at the hotel, the lads will be put through light team aerobics and stretching before dinner. They’ll then be encouraged to stay in well-lit rooms until the suggested bedtime.
The team sent assistant coach Marty Gelinas and team operations guru Sean O’Brien over for a scouting mission this summer to secure dining plans, menus, facilities and travel logistics in Shenzhen and Beijing, where they’ll practice four times and play two exhibition games against the Boston Bruins Sept. 15 and 19.
"For example, we learned you can’t get gluten-free pasta over there and we have a couple guys who eat gluten-free food," said van Asten.
"And you can’t get natural peanut butter – little things we’re going to have to bring ourselves. In terms of facilities and weights it doesn’t seem like we’ll have a lot of equipment, so we’ll have to improvise and modify."
While the 10,000-kilometre trek is every equipment manager’s nightmare, the front office staff has quickly grown to realize what a golden opportunity for bonding this trip will provide for a team with many new faces and coaches.
"In hindsight, with the new people here, I think it’s advantageous we’ve got all the people together in one spot," said GM Brad Treliving, who is sending almost his entire opening night roster with an eye on giving new coach Bill Peters and his staff a chance to get to know the players and implement the team’s new structure.
"The good news is we have the group together from Day 1, but the biggest challenge is the travel. How do we make sure we maximize the time we’re there and, just as important, how do we get over it when we get back?"
The team will return to Calgary in the middle of the night Sept 19 – two weeks before the season opener – and each player will get two days off before rounding out a camp and exhibition schedule that has them playing six games in nine nights.
Those left off the Flames China roster – most notably likely backup goalie David Rittich and top prospects Andrew Mangiapane, Spencer Foo, Dillon Dube and Juuso Valimaki – were kept here with an eye on getting them top minutes in exhibition games and a real chance to shine.
"It’s a great opportunity for those staying here," said Treliving, whose VP of hockey operations, Don Maloney, and assistant GM Brad Pascall will stay in Calgary with scouts to monitor camp.
"Nothing is going to happen here that we don’t know about right after it happens. We’ve got it fully covered."
The players who are off to China are jacked up about their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which will include a day trip to the Great Wall of China, a reception at the Canadian embassy and plenty of time to bond.
"It’s different – that’s for sure," smiled Matthew Tkachuk.
"All it can do is help a new team. This team just seems so different than it did last year. So many different players and coaches, I think it’s a great opportunity for us to get to know our new teammates. You see the teams that are winning are all tight.
"It will be fun and there’s definitely some things I’m looking forward to. There are some things, like the (local) food in particular, I might have to grind through. I’m excited about it and I think so are the rest of the guys."
Van Asten said the players are being encouraged on their free time to sample some of the local cuisine, within reason.
"Maybe don’t buy food from street vendors," he laughed.
"I don’t think it’s a good idea to shelter them – they should experience things."
That’s what this trip is all about for a team taking a new approach following a season in which it missed the playoffs miserably.
Oh, and one last thing the players are being warned about – the internet.
"Bring your phone but you’re not going online a lot and doing stuff on the internet," said Treliving, whose IT department suggests data plans as opposed to tapping into unsecured wifi in China for security reasons.
"Don’t plan on doing a whole lot of banking online while you are over there."