One of the most challenging things about playing professional sports is the amount of time spent on the road. It's much harder for teams to win games on the other team's home turf than it is at home. This week in pro hockey, the New Jersey Devils beat the Pittsburgh Penguins for their ninth-straight road win. The win was a big deal not only because it put the Devils in first place in their division, but because they are now just one victory away from tying the NHL record for consecutive road wins. The fact that no team in the long history of pro hockey has ever won more than 10 road games in a row shows just how difficult it can be to play as the visiting team.
Travel: One of the reasons why visiting teams struggle so much is that they have to travel long distances. If you've ever been on a long car ride with your family, or taken a long flight, you know how exhausting travelling can be. Now imagine flying for five or six hours and having to play a hockey game! Travelling teams stay in hotels, while the host teams enjoy the comfort of their own homes. Traveling on airplanes and team busses can sap the energy out of a team, and it can be a challenge to get it back in time for the game.
Rinks: Throughout the NHL, the ice surface varies from arena to arena. Some rinks are larger than others; some have bumps and cracks. Home teams play on their home ice 41 times a year. They know all the little imperfections and are very used to the dimensions. Players on the home team can practically skate across their rink with their eyes closed. Visiting teams are at a disadvantage because they are playing on an unfamiliar surface.
Fans: One of the toughest things about playing on the road is competing in front of the home team's fans. Arenas can get very loud, filled with cheering, screaming fans. When those fans are cheering for you, they can be very supportive. When they are cheering against you, it can be unsettling. Visiting players have to learn how to tune out the home fans who are trying to distract them. While the crowd can give the home team adrenaline and added motivation, the visiting team has to manufacture it on their own. This can be very difficult to do, and puts the visitors at an immediate disadvantage.
While playing on the road can be difficult, the New Jersey Devils are a great example of how hard work pays off when faced with challenges.
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