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What is seen on ice at Consol is only half the story for Penguins

| Wednesday, March 11, 2015, 10:33 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Brandon Sutter uses smelling salts at the start of the Blue Jackets game Sudnay, March 1, 2015 at Consol Enrgy Center.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins' Brandon Sutter shares smelling salts with Beau Bennett at the start of the Blue Jackets game Sunday, March 1, 2015 at Consol Enrgy Center.

Brandon Sutter thought for a second, rubbed his chin and answered a question with a question.

“I wonder,” Sutter said, “what are other professional athletes' routines like?”

Nothing like hockey players', to be sure.

In addition to the preseason, they play 82 regular-season games and as many as 28 in the playoffs. Preferences are determined. Quirks are accounted for. Differences, when considered within the context of an NHL roster, are bound to happen.

As a result, the 2 12 hours a night spent on the ice often are less interesting than the time spent off.

There's the morning skate. The pregame meal. The afternoon nap. The smelling salts. The soccer kickaround. The wind-down.

Here's what it's really like to play in the NHL.

The morning

Maxim Lapierre likes to be early. More than two hours early. For a 10:30 a.m. morning skate, he likes to be at Consol Energy Center by 8:15.

“Relax. Take a hot tub. Have breakfast. Talk to the boys,” Lapierre said. “I like being at the rink. I'm always the first one.”

The skate generally lasts 30 minutes. Media availability follows. For some, there's a recovery shake. Sutter uses a machine that puts extra pressure on his legs to “refresh” them.

There's a pregame meal served across from the locker room, but some players such as Sutter choose to eat at home. His girlfriend cooks the same meal every game day: chicken, pasta, sometimes salad and always chicken noodle soup.

“It's a pretty nice touch,” he said.

Then the nap, the one thing they all do.

Lapierre used to nap from 12:30-4 p.m. but cut it to 1:30-4 after his daughter was born. Sutter prefers 90 minutes, same for Marc-Andre Fleury and Nick Spaling, who will bump it to two hours for an 8 p.m. start.

Derrick Pouliot said he often can't sleep because he is too excited. Daniel Winnik has kept the same nap length — two hours — since college.

Blackout curtains? You bet.

“Yes, I need that,” Fleury said. “No lights. No lights at all.”

“Get it as dark as I can,” Spaling added, “and shut 'er down for a few hours.”

The evening

Back at the rink, the intensity ramps up with a pregame soccer kickaround. Maybe a dozen or so players in a circle, Spaling said.

At home, it takes place under a section of stands across from the locker room. On the road — such as Calgary's Saddledome — it can be right outside the media dining area. One- or two-touch. Players are eliminated one-by-one with errors.

“It's fun,” Spaling said. “Either they're not very good at it — ‘Downs' (Steve Downie) isn't very good, so he doesn't play much — and some have their own routine that they've done for so long.”

Spaling said this jokingly while looking at Downie. He said he's top five. Best two are Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist.

Lapierre doesn't play. Fleury does so only when he isn't starting. Because he has to focus? Not quite.

“I'm not that focused,” Fleury said. “I'm just not that good. I'm getting older, so I need to stretch a little bit longer.”

Pouliot doesn't play at home, but he plays on the road — and doesn't know why. He's just started to develop that routine, and a hockey player's way is to not mess with it.

Sutter can understand Fleury's choice.

“I played for about a half a year in Carolina, and I just didn't want to do it anymore,” Sutter said. “I'm not very good at it. I get frustrated.”

The buildup

One thing Sutter does is take a pregame “sniffer,” or smelling salts.

After the national anthem, Sutter squirts cold water down his shirt and inhale the ammonia-based compound, a rush of energy flowing through his body.

“Kind of wakes me up a bit,” he said.

Many, however, hate and avoid smelling salts.

“Those really get me,” Spaling said. “Too strong.”

Fleury will use it when he's not starting simply to goof around then shakes his head like a toddler eating a lemon for the first time.

“I don't know why they do it,” Fleury said.

Lapierre knows it's strong and kind of strange, but that's why he likes it.

“Felt good the first time I did it, so I just kept going,” he said. “I don't really know what happens in your system, but it feels like you're right into it. It wakes up something in your body.”

The wind-down

After a game, recovery shakes. Most lift weights or do other strengthening exercises.

Once home, though, it's tough to completely calm down, Blake Comeau said. Too much adrenaline.

Comeau said he sits on his couch, often alone, and watches NHL Network to check on teams he used to play for and players he used to play with before dozing off.

“For me personally, I don't get home at 10:30 or 11, whatever time, and go right to bed. I'm up thinking about the game,” Comeau said. “You definitely think about it, but you have to be able to move on.”

Sutter again starts to think about this entire ordeal. He weighs it against the NFL, a favorite hobby of his, how their game times are variable and less frequent.

Then he moves to baseball.

“I don't think those guys would nap,” Sutter said.

He eventually settles for this conclusion, one that explains the whole napping in the middle of your workday.

“We always practice at 11 (in the morning),” Sutter said. “On game days, our body has to be ready at 7 (at night), whereas during the week we're ready at 11. You need that nap to get you back.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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