There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

A young, heavy on hope, light on experience, Dorothy began one of my favourite childhood movies wishing only to be taken away somewhere over the rainbow. It wasn’t until after being swept away to a magical land filled with fairy godmothers, emerald cities and horses of a different colour, wicked witches from the west and flying monkeys, that it was at home she was most comfortable.

The thought of being on the road – restaurant food, experiencing a different city every night while bonding with the team – seems grand at first look. However after two long road swings last season, the Marlies, like Dorothy, were confronted with the fact that some guys look great in ruby slippers (scratch that) there’s no place like home.

It’s all in the travel hours. And this is where our blue-and-white friends part from the ruby slipper parallel. It took three clicks of the heel for Dorothy to return to Kansas. The Marlies aren’t so lucky.

I recall the look on former Marlies Captain Alex Foster’s face after a 5-1 afternoon defeat to the Hamilton Bulldogs in mid-December. The team had been in Cleveland, Ohio, the night before. The trip from Cleveland to Hamilton is five hours on a good day, not including time spent checking a bus full of Canadian, American, Finnish and Slovakian passports at the border. This wasn’t a good day, it was a winter night.

Here’s your itinerary. You get off the ice at 9:30pm and are on the bus for 10. Casey, the team driver (and teller of great stories), peels out of the parking lot at 10:15 after all the gear has been packed and meals have been handed out. Still buzzing from the game, you pick at your food and shout celebratory cheers out to Marcel Mueller who scored his first North American hat-trick. Weather’s not great but the bus plugs away until getting to the border. Your eyes are heavy but your back is stiff, flashes of that third period offensive zone hit come back with each bout of pain. The hours tick on and on. You don’t know how long it’s been, but you know a significant amount of time has passed. You finally start to sense familiarity as the bus tries to make up time on the QEW. Your breathing finally slows and you’re closer to sleep than you have been for the past 20 hours. Your body jerks forward as the bus comes to a halt in front of the hotel. Checking your watch for the first time you realize it’s 4am and you begin counting the hours remaining until you have to be at the rink, the result being your chance to sleep. You’re in front of a national audience tomorrow, CBC game, which also means early game time – 1pm start. Another thirty minutes to get settled in your room. Travel wears you out.

Three clicks of the heel would be so much easier.

The AHL has made changes in the structure of the schedule to help alleviate these stresses. Dropping four games from the previous 80 contest schedule as well as extending the season by one week is meant to help with the sometimes tough travel schedules. Although the recently released Marlies schedule is much more attractive when it comes to road trips, the team spending consecutive nights on the road only twice from January 15th onward, the upcoming campaign will still present its fair share of challenges. Four to be exact.

Four times the Marlies will play Friday night on the road only to trip home for an afternoon game on Saturday. All four games will see the Marlies trekking from Grand Rapids (Oct 14/15, Dec 2/3, Mar 16/17 and Apr 6/7), generally a six hour trip. Just to prove that nothing comes easy, all four Saturday’s will be played against conference rivals.

Brass tax: playoff points are up for grabs.

Eight points is a lot. Half as many extra points against Lake Erie last season (the Marlies losing the final five versus the divisional foe) would have earned the team a playoff spot. The Marlies 2011 playoff hopes may very well rest on these four inconveniences in the schedule. Going back to Dorothy, Toto and the land of Oz, these four games are the Marlies’ wicked witch trying desperately to take their ruby slippers (perhaps I’ve taken this ruby slippers thing too far). It’s a proving ground. A chance to display character. Will they splash their opponent with a bucket of water, or hand over their shiny footwear?

You’re not going to know unless you’re there.

See the ending unfold October 15th vs. Lake Erie, December 3rd vs. Houston, March 17th vs. Milwaukee and April 7th vs. Grand Rapids.

The schedule’s out friends, time to start circling dates.

Notes: The Marlies longest road trip will span nine games and 17 days from October 27th through to November 14th … Travel goes both ways: Lake Erie will travel from playing in Cleveland on Oct 14th, Houston will be in Rochester December 2nd, Milwaukee will travel from Cleveland March 16th and Grand Rapids will travel to Toronto for the back half of the home-and-home on April 6th

Your buddy,

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