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Calculated Risk: NHLers Turn to Classic Game for Entertainment on the Road

The back of the team plane is known for its high stakes poker games. The front, however, that's where you can find the NHLers who partake in a game of Risk.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The rhythms of the road can grow tedious for any NHL player, between bus rides and plane flights and endless afternoons cooped in hotel rooms, so everyone passes the time with different activities. Card games are most common—poker, euchre, a derivation of spades called Snarples. Some binge-watch Netflix movies and TV shows. For almost a decade, Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury waged battles against fellow Pittsburgh teammates in SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs on their PlayStation Portables. Others pursue educational enlightenment with books.

And then there are rare breeds like Joe Thornton. For the last five seasons, the shaggy-bearded Sharks center has ended virtually every evening on the road with the same ritual, indulging a childhood pastime now available in app form on his iPad. “Playing Risk,” says Thornton, “it’s a perfect night before you go to bed.”

You remember, of course. The Hasbro board rendered with a world map, segmented into territories such as Western United States, Middle East and Greenland. The plastic, monochromic army pieces—infantry and cavalry and cannons destined to conquer. When he was younger, Thornton spent many summer nights playing Risk with his older brothers out by their backyard camper in St. Thomas, Ontario, casting die until the sun went down. Now he logs online and anonymously faces random opponents around the actual globe. “It’s a timeless game,” Thornton says. “I love it.”

Rick Nash knows. As teammates in Switzerland during the 2004-05 lockout, Thornton roped him into regular combat at their apartment. There weren’t many English channels on television and HC Davos only had games twice a week. “A lot of downtime,” Nash says. “Geez, we probably played three times a week. Sometimes we’d play for a few hours and just leave the game setup on the table and come back next time. Sometimes you don’t even finish in a night.”

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Indeed, the actual board game can become a drawn-out affair—not unlike, say, Monopoly—which is why Thornton prefers the app, where initial setups are randomized, dice rolls are automated and matches rarely last longer than an hour. He’s hardly alone too. On an early-December afternoon following practice at the Washington Capitals’ facility, forward Jay Beagle sips a protein shake and stretches on the locker room carpet. “I’m really good at conquering the world,” he explains, with all the nonchalance of a seasoned general. “It’s a gift.”

Beagle wasn’t always blessed with such tactical acumen. A technological troglodyte who owned a flip phone nicknamed Flipper until several years ago, he at first had to borrow an iPad to join several teammates in their Risk games over Bluetooth on team flights, because they needed one more to avoid using the finicky CPUs. He had heard of Risk but never played before. This led to him getting smoked. “But I learned the ropes,” Beagle says. 

Much of his domination education can be traced to a single source. Former Capitals forward Eric Fehr can’t remember how he got into online Risk, but convinced defenseman John Carlson to join. Together they played so much that both ascended to world-ranked status on the app, though Fehr can’t remember how high. Like some sort of strategy sensei, Fehr and Carlson helped Beagle along and then released him into the world.

For the 2014-15 season, Beagle assembled a new group featuring forwards Tom Wilson and Aaron Volpatti. Wagering small amounts of per diem – $10 or $20, loose change compared to the hundreds dropped in poker games at the back of the plane – they played Risk on almost every single road trip, an estimated 100 games in total. The student became the map master. “I don’t think I won a game that year,” Wilson says. “Beags was definitely the master. I grew up playing the board game as a kid. You roll the die, you try to take a country. Whereas Beags has this huge strategy. He plays it to a tee. He just waits. If he needs to wait, he waits. He never does an emotional move. He’s always very calculated about what he’s doing.”

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This is an accurate assessment. “At first you want to attack, conquer as many continents as you can,” Beagle says. “That’s a rookie move. If you can get Australia, it’s a tap-in. I’ve never lost with Australia. One-hundred percent with Australia. You can never hold Europe. You can never hold North America enough to make it worth it. South America’s the second spot you can go and maybe hold, then Africa third, depending on how your forces are looking around you. Know what I mean?”

The others didn’t at first, but soon they all became obsessed. A text thread formed, titled The Risk Crew, which really only served one purpose: If someone typed “Game’s up!” that meant another round was beginning soon – on the bus, on the plane, at the hotel. It got to the point where they would board the charter to mocking catcalls of “Game’s up!” from fellow Capitals, some of whom were surely nonplussed to be awoken from a mid-flight nap to the sound of Beagle shrieking, “OH, I GOT AUSTRALIA AGAIN!” 

Alliances are technically frowned upon, but happen under the table nonetheless. “A lot of heated battles,” Wilson says. “It gets pretty personal when you’re attacking another guy. Tempers flare. I think Beags got upset with Volpatti a couple times, kamikazied him on the way out and laid up the game to me.”

“One time, we were coming back from somewhere after a loss,” says Volpatti, who now works as an investment advisor in British Columbia. “It was quiet on the plane, a no-fun kind of thing. I yelled out something. Probably swore at one of the guys, like ‘Screw you buddy, that’s my territory.’ And everyone looked at me, like, ‘What are you doing?’”

The tradition fizzled following the ‘14-15 season. Fehr left for the Penguins in free agency. Volpatti retired due to health issues stemming from a cervical disc herniation. The old app eventually shut down. Then, earlier this year, Risk was revived. On a whim, Beagle and Wilson downloaded a new version and coaxed defenseman Aaron Ness and rookie forward Nathan Walker into joining them. This lasted about 10 games, until Ness was reassigned to the minors and Edmonton claimed Walker off waivers. 

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“We haven’t played since,” says Beagle. “Risk is dead.”

Well, not quite. On a trip to Washington D.C., last week, a trio of young San Jose players were lounging in Thornton’s hotel room when they noticed him nose-deep into another Risk game on his iPad. Before long, Chris Tierney, Barclay Goodrow and Aaron Dell had all downloaded the app on their phones and played themselves. (Tierney won, wiping out Dell when the goalie tried attacking from South America.) Now they want to buy the real version and host a game night at Thornton’s house.

“We were real confused at first,” Tierney says. “I started blitzing every continent, every country I could see. That might’ve been my first time playing. But I started a game this morning. I guess I’m hooked on it now.”