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News / Sports / National Sports

Panthers, Oilers turn to poker and Mario Kart on long flights in Stanley Cup Final

At 2,549 miles, series is longest distance between teams in Cup final history

By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
Published: June 17, 2024, 4:47pm

When the Florida Panthers’ first flight of the Stanley Cup Final was delayed, it meant extra time on the tarmac before the nearly six-hour trek across North America.

As forward Anton Lundell joked upon arrival, “The guys who played cards had a little bit more time to win or lose some money.” Don’t worry, there was already plenty of time for that already.

In this series with the longest distance between teams in Cup final history, the Panthers and Edmonton Oilers are spending nearly as much time in the air as they are on the ice playing games. Players have taken to poker and other card games, Mario Kart and more to get through the trips and bond even more late in a long season.

“We spend a lot of time on that plane,” Edmonton captain Connor McDavid said. “But we have a good time. There’s guys who are playing cards or guys who are playing (Nintendo) Switch or guys who are just napping. There’s a bunch of different guys that are up to different things, but we pass the time anyway.”

The Oilers are all about Mario Kart. Goaltender Stuart Skinner said McDavid plays as Luigi, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as Mario and Darnell Nurse whatever he’s feeling a the moment.

“He just tries to find any which way to beat us, which never happens,” Skinner said.

Cards are the name of the game for the Panthers, whose plane essentially has a mini casino section: a table of poker and another of Seven Up.

“It’s different, but both are intense,” said center Kevin Stenlund, who plays Seven Up. “It’s a lot of cards, but it definitely helps.”

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Retired goaltender Devan Dubnyk got jealous hearing about Florida’s poker games on the plane because as his career went on, fewer guys wanted to play it. Poker might be having a hockey renaissance.

“Those poker games on the plane were always my favorite thing,” said Dubnyk, who’s now an NHL Network analyst. “I could play for hours and hours and hours. We still played cards, just different games. But I was at the card table and I would rather be just chatting with the boys and playing cards than watching movies.”

Carter Verhaeghe, one of two previous Cup champions on the Panthers along with Vladimir Tarasenko, is a poker guy and just OK at it.

“There’s a couple good guys: Gustav’s pretty good, and Ekky thinks he’s pretty good,” Verhaeghe said, referencing defensemen Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad. “Some guys take it more lightly. Some guys take it more seriously. I’m on the lighter side, for sure.”

As for the coaches, it’s a chance to watch video and prepare for the next practice.

“I do a lot of video on the plane and it’s a quiet place even though there’s lots of people there,” Florida’s Paul Maurice said. Everybody’s got work to do or they’re sleeping, so it’s actually a great place to do quiet work.”

Same for Edmonton’s Kris Knoblauch, who also reads books and made sure to mention “eating some great meals.”

When it comes to the science of it, an expert in athlete performance said timing meals for going between time zones is one of the things teams can do to reduce travel fatigue.

“Try to time it a bit more relevant to where you’re going,” said Tom Clark, the performance coach for Formula 1 driver Esteban Ocon on the Alpine F1 Team, who also brought up light exposure as a way to better adjust to time changes like the Panthers and Oilers are doing from Mountain to Eastern. “The less sexy or sort of technical components are the really easy things like stay well-hydrated. You’re in a hypoxic environment on a plane, so you need to sort of go to extra efforts to make sure you’re hydrated.”

Clark brings resistance bands on flights — many of them much longer than the 2,549-mile journey between Edmonton and Fort Lauderdale — and recommends basic mobility routines. Aka, poker games need intermissions, too.

“Making sure that every couple of hours you’re getting up, moving, circulating blood flow to the rest of the body, trying to make sure you don’t tighten up through a lot of these long-haul journeys, which is so often the case,” he said.

Upon arrival, some light exercise usually does the trick, and players are accustomed to that from their routine travel throughout the year.

“You’re not going to feel good coming off a plane no matter what: It’s about what you do after you get off is the most important thing,” Florida veteran Kyle Okposo said. “Everybody’s different. I like to move, make sure I do a little something, whether it’s getting in the pool or doing a little bit of movement or just getting outside, walking around. Just making sure you’re not stagnant the rest of the day and make sure you get the blood flowing in your legs.”

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