Claude Julien Hoping to Defeat Curse of European Season Openers As Bruins Go to Prague

Claude Julien Hoping to Defeat Curse of European Season Openers As Bruins Go to Prague Fans get a rare chance to see the Bruins play in an exotic locale.

The league gets some extra exposure in the coveted European market.

And the Bruins get an all-expense paid trip to scenic Prague, with stopover in Northern Ireland to boot.

So what could possibly be bad about opening the upcoming season in Europe?

Well, there’s the little matter of adding around 8,000 extra miles to the club’s travel itinerary this season and upsetting the normal routine for athletes who can be borderline obsessive about maintaining a regimented structure to their daily preparations.

Former Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina was the most vocal critic of the major sports leagues’ recent efforts to expand their brand with foreign trips when he complained vehemently about the toll New York’s season-opening two-game series with Tampa Bay in Tokyo took on the team in 2004.   

"It’s just a long way to go," Mussina told the New York Times that spring. "I’m not going to lie to you — it’s hard. We’re going to play baseball. If we were going to sightsee, it would be different. But we’re trying to be physically prepared to play."

Mussina may have been affected. He had one his worst seasons that year, finishing with a 4.59 ERA, nearly a full run over his career ERA of 3.68. He was bombed in that first game in Tokyo and finished April with a 6.55 ERA. But the Yankees, despite an 8-11 start after the trip, managed to turn things around and won the AL East with a 101-64 record before the Red Sox rallied from a 3-0 deficit to make history in the ALCS.

Foreign travel hasn’t hurt the playoff chances of other teams in recent years either. The New York Giants beat Miami in the NFL’s first regular-season game in London in 2007. The Giants lost their first game back in the States and were just 4-4 the rest of the way, but the travel didn’t take too much out of them as they caught fire in the playoffs and ended the Patriots’ hopes of a perfect season in Super Bowl XLII.

New Orleans had to wait a year to win its first Super Bowl in 2009 after beating San Diego in London in 2008, but the Chargers recovered to win the AFC West that year, while the Patriots won the AFC East last season after beating Tampa Bay in London.

The Mets went on to reach the World Series in 2000 after splitting the first regular-season MLB series in Japan with the Cubs to open that series, while closer to home the Red Sox overcame any jetlag from their 2008 Tokyo trip to reach the ALCS that fall.

The Celtics did even better than that, as they spent the 2007 preseason in Italy before going on to win their 17th NBA championship that season.

And to show that hockey teams can handle the travel just as well, check out where the last two Stanley Cup champions began their seasons. Pittsburgh played a pair of games against Ottawa in Stockholm, Sweden to start the 2008-09 season, while Chicago faced Florida in Helsinki, Finland at the beginning of last year.

A European vacation isn’t a guarantee that a championship parade is coming soon, but it’s certainly not an impossible hurdle to overcome. Of the 10 NHL teams that have played in Europe the last three seasons, five made the playoffs that year and five failed to qualify.

The short-term effects were equally mixed, with four of those teams finishing October with a winning record, five ending the first month with a losing mark and one sitting at .500 on Halloween. Overall, those teams were a combined 54-49-15 in October.

The extra travel won’t make or break any of the six teams starting this season in Europe. In terms of pure miles, it’s not much different than beginning the season with a West Coast trip, which the Bruins have done many times. The distance from Boston to Prague (approximately 3,900 miles) is further than West Coast destinations like Los Angeles (just under 2,600) and Vancouver (2,500) and even London (just under 3,300), but far less than Toyko (6,700).

A bigger concern might be the distractions the team will face while there, with the time commitments for various NHL events, ceremonies and fan activities in addition to practices and games. The Bruins leave immediately after a preseason game with Washington at the Garden on Sept. 29, play an exhibition game in Belfast on Oct. 2 and another in Liberec, Czech Republic on Oct. 5 before the two regular-season games against Phoenix in Prague on Oct. 9 and 10.

There are also the added headaches of getting through customs, dealing with language issues, cultural differences and unfamiliar facilities, though the league handles most of the logistics and has had three seasons to work out any kinks.

The biggest difficulty will fall on coach Claude Julien. He will have to evaluate any players on the bubble for the final roster spots in unfamiliar conditions amid all those distractions, as the Bruins will finish their preseason in Europe and have to make their final cuts while there.

Julien probably won’t take comfort in the toll these trips have taken on his coaching brethren either. All four of the coaches for the teams that opened the 2008-09 season in Europe were fired before that season ended, with Tampa’s Barry Melrose, the Rangers’ Tom Renney, Ottawa’s Craig Hartsburg and Pittsburgh’s Michel Therrien all getting the ax. Andy Murray also didn’t last the season last year in St. Louis, while Marc Crawford wasn’t retained by the Kings after the 2007-08 season, which Los Angeles opened in London against Anaheim.

Not everything about the trip will be a negative though. Getting out on the road early in the season can be beneficial as a means of forging greater team chemistry and camaraderie, as the club often did on West Coast trips in years past.

"It will be great for our players to have a great bonding experience," Bruins president Cam Neely told the Boston Globe earlier this summer. "One of the things I really liked was starting with a long West Coast trip. I always felt that was beneficial. Breaking camp, there’s always going to be one, two, three new faces. We’re getting onto the road. Looking at this, instead of going out west, we’re going east. It should be a great experience for everybody. From other people’s perspectives, there are going to be some challenges we don’t normally have. Having said that, I think the overall experience will be great for the organization."

NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.

Saturday, Aug. 28: Can Claude Julien get the most out of this lineup?

Monday, Aug. 30: How will the Bruins respond to last year’s playoff collapse against Philadelphia?

Yardbarker

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 198,971 other followers