Inside Arizona State's 36-day road trip to start the 2020-21 college hockey season

Courtesy of Arizona State hockey

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Arizona State University hockey team boarded an American Airlines flight in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday for the three-hour and 47-minute trip back to Phoenix, they finally went home.

It had been a while since they were last in Arizona.

Saturday's flight was the last leg of a 36-day road trip that started in Michigan on Nov. 13, covered 1,517 miles through the Midwest (in addition to 3,341 miles via their flights to and from Arizona), and took the Sun Devils to six schools in five states. They essentially created their own bubble: living in hotels, having every meal prepared, getting COVID-19 tests every day, getting their laundry done for them and attending classes over Zoom.

"It's like a pro road trip," head coach Greg Powers said. "I mean, I don't know what pro teams go on 36-day road trips."

And through it all, ASU went 4-6-2 against an all-Big Ten schedule.

On Oct. 6, the Sun Devils made an arrangement with the Big Ten to join their schedule rotation, giving the conference eight teams so that every school could play every weekend. On Nov. 5, the schedule was released publicly, although the teams had it a couple days before. Eight days later, ASU was on the road for what was supposed to be a 22-day road trip, including spending Thanksgiving together in Madison, Wisconsin.

The original plan was to fly back to Arizona on Dec. 5 for a few days, then fly to State College, Pa., on Dec. 9. But while in Madison, the team voted to stay on the road another 14 days to continue living and playing in a bubble, and avoid the risk of traveling through airports, flying on commercial flights in the heart of the holiday season and seeing friends, girlfriends and family back in Arizona.

"I think the only people that were really upset about it were our wives," Powers said.

In all, the trip cost the hockey program about $200,000 -- about $90,000 of which was spent on food. ASU was able to eliminate the cost of flights and ice time, since it doesn't have its own rink, by staying on the road. And having bookend trips saved money. Each ticket on American Airlines from Phoenix to Detroit cost $115, and the tickets from Columbus to Phoenix were about $130. A normal round-trip ticket for a road trip has run ASU around $500 to $600, said Andrew Matheson, ASU's director of operations.

In the end, Matheson believes -- without having yet crunched the final numbers for his expense report -- that the cost of the trip will ultimately be close to a wash compared to if ASU had booked individual trips all season.

With the players returned from this epic adventure through the Midwest, here's the story of how it all came together -- and the people responsible for keeping everyone healthy and safe for more than a month during a pandemic.

How the trip came together

ASU's compliance office had to submit a waiver to the NCAA that justified that long of a road trip. One of ASU's selling points, besides the academic situation being no different on the road than if the players were back home in Tempe because the school's academics had gone mostly virtual, was that keeping the team on the road and creating their own bubble would keep the players safe.

And it did. The Sun Devils did not have a positive test the entire trip -- but there were some close calls.

Early in the trip, there were issues with invalid tests, which, assistant athletic trainer Rick Covard said, was due to the tests not coming with enough saline in them. The Sun Devils had daily antigen tests, usually in the morning before practice, on the campus of whichever school they were playing. If a test came back invalid, then it would have to be redone.

ASU also had three false positives, two at Michigan and one in Wisconsin. If an antigen test came back positive, then the player, coach or staff member had to be immediately quarantined until they could take a PCR test. If that came back positive, the player, coach or staff member would have had to be quarantined for 21 days, according to the Big Ten rules to which ASU agreed.

Two players had their antigen tests, which take about 10 minutes to get the results, come back positive right as the team was leaving Ann Arbor for East Lansing to play Michigan State. They had to stay behind in Ann Arbor and isolate in the hotel. Later that night, their PCR tests came back negative, then they took another set of antigen tests the next morning, just as reassurance, which also came back negative. However, if the results of the second antigen test had come back 15 minutes later, neither would've played in the game.

Overall, Covard said the trip ran like a "finely tuned machine."

Players had it made.

Their personal and team laundry was done for them. They didn't have to cook. Their non-game day schedules had the feel of a pro schedule. They had breakfast at 9 a.m., got their COVID-19 tests, had practice, came back to the hotel for lunch, had classes and did homework in the afternoons, dinner was from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and lights out by 10-11 p.m. The team went through finals week together in early December and spent the rest of the downtime playing video games and watching movies.

"It's a pretty good schedule," Matheson said. "It's as normal as possible as it would be at home. Honestly, the schedule on the road's better than what it is at home."

The time together helped the team grow closer, Powers said.

"I mean, they're with each other 24-7," he said. "It's only naturally going to happen. We have a handful of new guys, and they've bought into what we're doing and you can see them really, really get close. It's been a lot of fun."

And yet, at least according to Powers, no one got sick of each other.

"I don't see it. It's all smiles," he said with a chuckle.

"We're just trying to have fun. This is going to be -- and I told the guys at the very start, when we decided we were going to do this -- like this is literally going to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. You're never going to do this again. Let's hope we're never going to have to [do it again]."

In other words, the trip was worth it.

But that wasn't the end of ASU's road-tripping this season. The Sun Devils are expected to have two separate 21-day road trips playing against the Big Ten starting on Dec. 31, with about a three week break in between, even though as part of their scheduling agreement ASU is not eligible for the Big Ten's postseason tournament. Just the NCAA tournament.

"It's been an experience of a lifetime for our players and staff," Powers said. "We are thrilled to be getting back to Arizona to see our families and will be champing at the bit to get back out and continue playing Sun Devil hockey after the break."

Mr. Logistics

Matheson was responsible for organizing the logistics of the trip, but he didn't get the single most important piece of information to plan it until Nov. 3: the 2020 portion of the Sun Devils' schedule.

Their first game was scheduled for Nov. 14 at the University of Michigan. That meant they were leaving on Nov. 13. Matheson had eight days to nail down the trip.

For someone who usually has the details of a trip booked six to seven months in advance, that was, to say the least, short notice.

"It's been a challenge," he said. "But, so far, knock on wood, I've been pretty fortunate that it's going pretty smooth, I would say."

In the month between the agreement and the schedule release, Matheson had already done most of the legwork. He pinpointed hotels in all six cities and contacted them to see if they could host the entire traveling party of about 34 -- 27 players, three coaches, the director of operations, equipment manager, trainer and strength coach (roughly 24 rooms in each hotel) -- while preparing the Sun Devils' three meals every day, and providing a space large enough for everyone to eat in socially distanced way that could be doubled as a study room and a training area.

There was, however, one vague detail in all those initial conversations: the dates. He asked if they could accommodate all of that anytime between Nov. 13 and, well, March 14. They all said yes, so, when ASU's schedule was announced, all Matheson had to do was firm up the dates with each hotel.

The trip was broken down like this:

  • Nov. 13: Flight to Detroit and drive to Ann Arbor

  • Nov. 14-18: Ann Arbor (Univ. of Michigan)

  • Nov. 18-21: East Lansing (Michigan State)

  • Nov. 21-30: Madison (Univ. of Wisconsin)

  • Nov. 30-Dec. 6: South Bend, Indiana (Notre Dame)

  • Dec. 6-14: State College (Penn State)

  • Dec. 14-18: Columbus (Ohio State)

  • Dec. 19: Flight back to Arizona

For the long-haul trips between every stop after East Lansing, ASU had two coach buses: one for the players and one for the coaches and staff. The trip from South Bend to State College was about seven hours. From East Lansing to Madison was about six hours. From State College to Columbus took about five. From Madison to South Bend was about four.

Every coach and staff member had their own room with a king-sized bed. Powers and Matheson usually were given suites, which were often used for meetings and a place for them to socialize at night. All the players were two to a room.

But for Matheson, the most important concern was food.

He had to schedule about 120 meals during the trip, and he made it a priority to mix up the meals as much as possible so the players wouldn't "hate me two weeks into the trip by eating the same food every day," while also keeping their food options healthy.

The dining schedule pretty much stayed the same the entire trip. Breakfast was at 9 a.m., lunch from 1 to 2 p.m. and dinner from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Game-day and pregame meals never changed. Dinner the night before was always steak and chicken parmesan with pasta. The pregame meal was two or three chicken breasts per person with salad, and a secondary protein of either pork or steak, along with veggies, rice, pasta and bread. Postgame meals were burgers one night and tacos or fajitas the other.

During the week, Matheson tried to mix things up a bit here and there, such as giving the players Asian food and pizza in Madison.

Each player received about $200 in per diem over the course of the trip, which was meant for snacks.

Matheson wanted to get as many meals from the hotels as possible to avoid the players, coaches and staff needing to leave the hotel to get them. They were still allowed to have food delivered or to pick it up at restaurants, but each hotel agreed to outfit its employees in PPE and serve each meal cafeteria-style.

"I think that's actually gone a long way for our guys," Matheson said, "because it's as close to normal as you can pretty much get in the world of COVID."

'I'm professionally overpacked'

Jon Laughner had been on a long road trip before, but it was nothing like this one.

Back in 2014, when he was the equipment manager for the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, the Grizzlies went on a 13-day road trip after the San Francisco franchise folded and threw the league's schedule into disarray.

At the time, he thought that was a "really long road trip." And it was, by most standards.

"But this is a whole new level," Laughner said.

This, he said, was a "2020 road trip."

That meant Laughner had to pack accordingly.

Preparing for the Sun Devils' initial 22-day road trip was no easy task, starting with the basics for traveling during a pandemic. He had to find and order TSA-compliant bags for masks, sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer. He had to find laundry bags for everyone on the trip since the team was going to be washing their personal laundry as well as their hockey laundry.

Then there were the sticks.

Usually, Laughner starts the season with an order of six sticks per player from CCM, so the players can figure out what they like and what they want to use that season. This year, his initial order was for about a dozen sticks per player, for an order of about 300. That turned into four stick bags weighing 90 pounds each -- or 360 pounds of sticks for the trip. He returned from the trip with about 100 sticks.

Laughner typically travels heavy, but he took it to an entirely new level this trip. On a regular weekend road trip, he'd usually pack 52 bags. He had 78 bags on this trip.

ASU also brought a Sani Sport, a portable sanitizer, to help sterilize rooms. That weighed 141 pounds, so Laughner had to check with American Airlines to make sure it could be checked as baggage, and he had to provide a doctor's note explaining what it is and why it was needed.

"It's 2020, man," Laughner said. "Nothing's going to be simple this year."

But not all of the bags were for Laughner.

About 12 of them were full of supplies for Covard, the athletic trainer. He traded out trunks for three trunk eliminator bags, because they're easier and cheaper to fly with. They're 4-feet by 2-feet, and one was completely full of tape. In all, Covard brought about 500 rolls of tape and expected to go through all of it on this trip. On a regular road trip, which lasts about four days, he brings 50 rolls of tape because he has the room.

Like Laughner, Covard is an overpacker, but he packs with a motto: Pack more of the things that are going to be harder to get. He can get basic medications at a drugstore, but specialty tapes and braces aren't found at Target or Walmart.

Part of Laughner's overpacking was his own doing, though.

Throughout the hockey program, he's lauded as the uniform guru, never wanting the Sun Devils to have to repeat uniform combinations if they can prevent it.

On this trip, he brought three jerseys -- a maroon, gray and a special jersey called the "Sunburst" that's a tribute to the old ASU football logo. Despite the extra luggage all the additional uniforms required, Laughner looked at the road trip as a way for ASU, an independent program, to show off a little bit.

"I'm not gonna lie," Laughner said. "It's pretty cool. Against Wisconsin, for instance, we come out in Game 1 and we're in all grays. And it's on TV and people watch. And then we play the next night and we're in a completely entirely different uniform than we were the night before. We're in all maroon that night. I think it's kind of cool. I don't know. I hope the guys like it. It's maybe just my ego that I think it's cool, but it's different.

"You don't see a lot of teams do it, that's for sure."

In addition to the three sets of game jerseys for each player, Laughner packed two practice jerseys in two different colors for everyone, five pairs of socks plus backups, three different helmets, two different gloves and two different pants per guy.

That's just on the ice.

Off the ice, every player was given three tracksuits, three pairs of shoes and four or five shirts.

For a regular road trip, Laughner packs usually one jersey, one pair of pants, one set of gloves and two helmets.

"Did we have to carry that much? We didn't, but you know we have a phenomenal relationship with Adidas and we appreciate everything they do for us and we've kind of created this, I don't want to say a brand but this, for lack of a better term, we've created this brand of being the best-outfitted and the most-uniformed team in the NCAA, so it's a little bit of extra work. But I think it's worth it," Laughner said.

But Laughner caught a break in two areas. He didn't have to bring tape or towels on the trip. If he had to pack towels, Laughner joked that he might have quit. All of that would be provided by the home schools, whom he called "a godsend for us." The home schools did all of ASU's laundry, which is a standard tradition in college hockey. They also let Laughner use their skate sharpeners and glove dryers, which allowed ASU to leave a couple hundred pounds of equipment at home.

On a Zoom call with all of the Big Ten equipment managers before the season to go over the logistics of ASU being the perpetual visiting team, Laughner felt like he was taking advantage of the graciousness and hospitality of the other schools.

"We just talked about what we would provide -- I say 'we,' I don't have to provide anything," he said with a laugh. "I almost feel like just a sucker, right?"

But he had some fun with it.

"We had one of the calls and everybody's like, 'Man, Johnny, you're gonna be OK with these long trips and whatnot?' and I said, 'Boys, I've never looked so forward to a season I don't have to do any laundry.' They kind of got that look of, 'Yeah, I guess you're right.'"

However, as the other equipment managers pointed out whenever he'd thank them for their help, Laughner would do the same thing if the situations were reversed.

"Everybody's been really, really awesome," Laughner said.

The only thing he forgot?

His sandals.

"I'm professionally overpacked," Laughner said, "to the point where I didn't need much to make a 22-day trip a 36-day trip."

Life on the road

In the first game of the season, ASU's best player, Johnny Walker, suffered a knee injury against Michigan, and Powers gave him the option to go back to Arizona for his rehab.

"He looked at me like I had seven foreheads," Powers said.

Like it did for a lot of various things on the trip, ASU relied on the home school for help. Walker had his MRI done at Michigan's facilities. But then it was up to Covard to rehabilitate Walker in hotel gyms and with bands, rollers and anything else Covard packed. And instead of treating him for a few hours at the rink, like he would've done back in Tempe, Covard worked on Walker at night after his school work was done.

Every hotel but one closed their gyms to their other guests so only ASU could use them. And almost all of them were suitable enough for Covard to hold two or three rehab sessions simultaneously, and to let the players have open gym hours to get their workouts in.

This isn't the first time Covard has had to use hotel gyms for workouts and rehabs. During his seven years as a trainer in the ECHL, hotel gyms were the standard, but the size of the hotel gyms on this trip have been a luxury for Covard when compared to those of his ECHL days, which were "a step or two below what we have here."

"You can't prepare for every situation, but I think we're all just grateful to be playing and happy to be having a season so everybody's been pretty accepting of the challenges," Covard said.

Powers also set up a gaming room for his players, complete with pingpong table.

But the most popular way to pass the time was video games, specifically Xbox, with NHL tournaments the common option. Sometimes they got heated, with guys not talking to each other for a night. Some even stormed out. But the funny thing about that, junior forward Jordan Sandhu said, was that sometimes they stormed out to their rooms, which might have been next door, with a conjoining door between them.

"It's funny to watch," Sandhu said.

With the semester ending in December, sophomore forward Jax Murray said he and his roommate started watching movies to pass the time, making their way through the Marvel franchise. In the last week, he estimated they watched about 25 movies, averaging about four a day.

"There's just not much else to do," Murray said.

School on the road, however, wasn't much different for the players than what they would've experienced back home, said Natalie Thackrah, the team's academic coach.

Everything was on Zoom, from classes to finals to tutoring to study hall.

"That was kind of lucky for us, that we didn't really have to set up anything different for them to travel," she said. "It was just kind of, they just had to keep the status quo with everything that was set up since the beginning of the semester."

ASU turned in its highest team GPA this year, with a cumulative 3.49. There were three 4.0s, and everyone had over a 3.0.

The key to getting school work done on the trip, Murray said, was putting in his AirPods, turning on some music and drowning everything else out.

One part of the trip that Thackrah initially feared would be a challenge ended up being a benefit: the time change. The team was in states that were either two or three hours ahead of Arizona (which does not observe daylight saving time) until the return to standard time in November, then it was an hour or two ahead. But with practice scheduled in the morning, no one had to miss classes, she said.

"We haven't had any emergencies," she said. "They've been able to handle their business. I've been trying to remind them as much as possible to stay focused.

"I think that's the hardest thing is when you're not in your normal routine just staying focused and making sure they're managing their time well."

At first, the trip felt long for Sandhu, who initially thought moving from hotel to hotel would get "annoying," but overall was "very good."

Not everyone was there at the end, though.

"We're just spending every night doing the same thing, pretty much," Murray said. "It's very repetitive. I mean, that's really the only downside."