Oklahoma City Barons players Monday morning put on their uniforms — everything but their skates — at their lockers at the Cox Convention Center then carpooled to the Blazers Ice Centre for practice.
Fifteen times this season the Barons have practiced at their alternate rink eight miles south of downtown.
This time, graduation ceremonies made the Cox Center ice unavailable.
In February, the ice was removed for the sports health festival and gymnastics event hosted by Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci. Earlier this season, a pre-paid legal convention booked the entire Cox Center.
“It's nicer when you get dressed and walk just 30 feet onto the ice,” said rookie defenseman Taylor Fedun. “But it's a small thing. It's not the end of the world. Once you're on the ice the surface is the same.”
The Blazers Ice Centre is a high-quality backup option for the Barons. Plus, coach Todd Nelson said the organization is fortunate to practice more than 100 times a season at the Cox Center.
“Actually (an alternate arena) happens more than people think in the NHL because of concerts and other events,” Nelson said. “When I was in Atlanta, we rarely practiced at Phillips Arena. We had a practice rink and offices set up there.
“It's pretty common, especially in the AHL. A lot of teams dress and drive. We have all the amenities (at the Cox Center) to ice down guys or go to the sauna after practice. The players would rather practice at Cox, but it doesn't really have any affect.”
The Barons will leave Wednesday morning for the Western Conference finals that begin this weekend. They will spend Wednesday night in Detroit and bus around 150 miles to practice Thursday in either Grand Rapids or Toronto, whichever team advances.
Of the two possible opponents, Grand Rapids has more skill on the offensive end. Toronto, though, is the defending Western Conference champ. The Marlies defeated Oklahoma City in the conference finals last season.
Both teams have quality goaltenders with goals against averages under 2.70 in the playoffs.
“Both teams are well coached and play their structures very well,” Nelson said. “Toronto is more of a grinding team. They're not as offensive as Grand Rapids, but Toronto is bigger and more physical. It will be interesting to see who wins that series.”
Barons goaltender Yann Danis, who has a 17-5-3 record with 1.94 goals against average and .933 saves percentage since he returned from Edmonton two months ago, was in net last season when the Barons lost to Toronto in five games.
Oklahoma City has gone 13-4-2 on the road the past two months, including playoff games at Charlotte and Texas. But if OKC plays the Marlies, the Barons are 0-6 all-time in Toronto, including three losses in Ricoh Coliseum in last year's Western finals.
“We haven't lost a lot of road games lately, but one of our losses, a close, tight game, was up there,” Danis said. “But that's in the past. You have to keep it positive. It definitely wouldn't be easy, but we can't think about the past. We have to look towards the future.”
Regardless of the opponent, Nelson likes his blend of veterans and youth and momentum the Barons have gained the past two months. Oklahoma City won its series 4-1 over the top-seeded Texas, outscoring the Stars 20-6.
“We're finding different ways to win,” Nelson said. “We've come from behind. We've protected leads. I like the way we're playing right now. We have a lot of character and determination.
“It seems when we stare at adversity that's when we play our best. Our motto all year has been: ‘Complete the mission.' We got halfway there last year. We want to take it further.”