NHL teams might see a little more teamwork this season from the Philadelphia Flyers: After wrapping up their exhibition season, they embarked on a team-building rafting trip down the Colorado River. Tackling the namesake of Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids, they paddled the run to better their chances at a playoff run.
My role as safety kayaker? Fish out any players more at home in a rink than in the drink. Here's what I learned:
Have a Big Group? Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
A good team doesn’t stack all its heat on one line; they spread it out. Same with dividing up rafters: Spread out your talent to lessen the chance of tipping. Forming a circle in the parking lot for the "draft," one by one they pulled names from a hat to form their rafting fivesomes. "Claude" deadpanned the first honoree, selecting all-star Giroux, a fiery redhead who's amassed 677 points in his 11 years with the Flyers. Of course, you then have to stick with the results. The next captain pulled three Swedes, prompting a coach to bellow, "Oh no, we have a Swedish raft!" while a third resulted in locker room banter. "No way I want to go with him," ribbed the selectee.
Rafting Does Impart Teamwork
After settling into their craft—ideally wings in their respective position up front, centers amidships and defense in the stern—the puck dropped and they shoved off, swapping their sticks for paddles. How'd the team-building play out in their early October opener against the Stanley Cup runner-up Las Vegas Golden Knights? They bowled them over like the Broad Street Bullies, smoking them 5-2.
You're Never Too Cool to "Ride the Bull"
Flyers star Scott Laughton illustrated this when he straddled the bow line and sat atop the front raft tube through Man Eater rapid on the Colorado’s Shoshone section east of Glenwood Springs, Colo. He pulled back, whooped and hollered, and, most importantly, held on—so I didn’t have to rescue him. Don’t be surprised if you see him weave that look into his goal-scoring celebration routine.
Hockey Gloves Work As Pogies (and Sticks as a Paddle)
I found this out by showing up at the put-in with a few props: hockey gloves, an old CCM helmet and two hockey sticks duct-taped together as a paddle. Then I pulled a Claude Giroux jersey over my PFD, creating my own version of Gritty, their new orange-haired, googly-eyed mascot. I paddled the whole run with the gloves, which worked admirably save for getting soggy and weighted-down. As for using two sticks taped together as a paddle—a righthanded one on the right and a lefthander on the left, giving me two "powerfaces"—the only knocks: It was tough indexing my palm over the square shaft and the blades were a tad smaller than usual.
Paddlers Have Skinny Legs
In the changing room we could only watch as, one by one, the players tried on their wetsuits, squeezing Quasimodo-sized quads into tight neoprene. But they welcomed the warmth, as a cold front was settling over Colorado.
Brain Buckets Are For Everyone
No one questioned wearing a helmet. "We're used to getting our heads hit," said one player, turning the light blue, rather feminine-looking headpiece over in his hands. While the outfitter's helmets were a tad weenier than their NHL ones, with a small plastic band for tightening over mullets, their most redeeming features was the names written on them, so guests know which one is theirs. A big defenseman grabbed one labeled "Barbie," prompting heckling from his friends, until they grabbed ones anointed "Tinkerbell" and "Cameron Diaz."
Being in Shape = Strong Paddling
Even though few of them had ever paddled before (except for the Canadians, who had likely canoed), they were far from Bambis on ice. "They followed directions great and each stroke was way more than what you needed," said guide Karl Borski. "Last year we took the National English Rugby Team down and these guys were way better.
There Are No Secrets With Social Media
When word got out via Instagram on what they had done, the comments lit up like a red hockey goal light: "Why would they choose a risky activity like this?"; "It's hard to recognize them in those blue helmets"; "Haven't we learned enough from Flyers and their on-water antics?"; "Like there aren’t enough injuries…let's go rafting on raging waters next to unforgiving, jagged boulders!" And, in reference to their Cousin It-like mascot, "Please tell me Gritty drowned."
— Read more from Eugene Buchanan, including a Q&A from his recent book ‘Comrades on the Colca,’ as well as ‘Ode to the Ducky,’ his tale of wilderness paddling with an NFL lineman.