Vikings aim at smooth transition for London 'home' game

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2013 - 1:06 AM

Team is striving to put players at ease before Sunday’s “home” game. Biscuit mix, coffee and favorite socks will be waiting.

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Rams running back Steven Jackson, left, was caught by Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes during last year's NFL game at London's Wembley Stadium. The Vikings and Steelers will play each other there Sunday.

Photo: Matt Dunham, Associated Press

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The first time he traveled to London with the Vikings, Dennis Ryan learned that sharing a mother tongue with the British does not guarantee perfectly clear communication. Before a preseason game at Wembley Stadium in 1983, his hosts were stumped when he asked how to get the coaches to the press box; when they suggested a crane might help, he realized they thought he was talking about team buses, not team bosses.

The Vikings’ equipment manager hasn’t encountered that kind of epic misunderstanding during preparations for this week’s return visit. Still, in a country where the word “football’’ conjures visions of David Beckham, team officials have taken great care to ensure nothing is lost in translation. Months of planning went into Sunday’s NFL International Series game between the Vikings and Pittsburgh at Wembley Stadium, with the goal of making players and spectators feel as if they’re in a sleek European version of the Metrodome.

The Vikings will send their cheerleaders, the Skol Line drummers, the Gjallarhorn and 20,000 pounds of gear across the pond. Their hotel will be transformed into a mini-Winter Park, complete with replicas of the team’s weight room and meeting rooms. Wembley, one of the world’s most famous stadiums, will be decked out with Vikings banners and videos.

“We’re trying to make it as seamless as possible, so it’s just like a normal home game for us,’’ Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “We’re very excited to get over there and be in such a premier game in front of an international audience.’’

By mid-September, Ryan had shipped 50 boxes of stuff, including the team’s preferred coffee and players’ favorite socks. “I’m more familiar now with the language they speak,’’ Ryan said with a laugh. “We’ve been planning and organizing since late June. We want players and coaches to have all the comforts of home.’’

Even though the Vikings are traveling 4,300 miles to get to London, it is officially a home game. The team will leave Monday evening on an overnight charter flight; a second charter, carrying the entire front-office staff, spouses, corporate sponsors and others, will depart Wednesday.

The game is the seventh in the NFL International Series, which began in 2007 as part of the league’s push to make American football a global commodity. This season, for the first time, there will be two games, with Jacksonville playing San Francisco on Oct. 27. Both sold out quickly in a stadium that holds 84,500.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in June that he wants to expand the series to three games per year, and there has been discussion of putting an NFL team in London. According to Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley, the NFL’s fan base in the United Kingdom has doubled to 11.3 million since the series began.

“The league wants to strengthen their brand and expand their fan base,’’ Bagley said. “That also goes for the Vikings in terms of our brand. We’re happy and proud to take the show on the road.’’

Team officials began exploring the logistics of playing in London in 2011. The Vikings were chosen to participate last fall, and several staff members have since visited the hotels, stadium and other venues to prepare.

The team will spend its first three days in a hotel an hour outside the city center, where a practice field has been set up by the same NFL staff that readies fields for the playoffs and Super Bowl.

A hard-sided tent has been constructed next to the field to house a weight room that will have all the equipment the Vikings use at home. Team operations coordinator Paul Martin also is overseeing setup of a players’ lounge with American TV channels.

Spielman said he was shocked at the effort and expense put into the venues, which have been used by other NFL teams playing in London. The lounge, Martin added, actually is nicer than the one at Winter Park.

“Everything we need for practice will be just like we have [at Winter Park],’’ he said. “Inside the hotel, it’s kind of like our [training camp] dorm at Mankato. If the linebackers have their own meeting room here, they’ll have it over there. We want to keep things comfortable and seamless.’’

To that end, the team had a sleep specialist from the Mayo Clinic speak to players about adapting to the six-hour time difference. Geji McKinney, the Vikings’ director of food service operations, also will oversee meal preparation to ensure the players are served the foods they need and want.

The hotel restaurant will be turned over to the Vikings for their exclusive use during their stay. McKinney visited the kitchen, sent recipes to the chefs and shipped some items she couldn’t find in London. Turkey burgers, Southern seasonings, hot sauces and American ketchup all had to be packed and sent. And biscuits, one of the players’ favorite foods, were completely foreign.

“To [the British], a biscuit is a cookie,’’ McKinney said. “I went to a KFC over there and asked for a two-piece and a biscuit, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I had to ship over Bisquick so we could make our biscuits from scratch. ’’

On game day, the Vikings’ staff will oversee a very purple production. The team has made videos outlining the franchise’s history and profiling current and past players, which will be shown on Wembley’s video boards.

Vikings banners will fly over a giant tailgate party at the stadium, and the cheerleaders, coaches and players will appear at a Saturday fan rally on Regent Street that is expected to draw 600,000 people.

Some will travel from Minnesota, and some will come from the homeland of the original Vikings. Bagley said the team has sold about 3,000 tickets and expects followers from Norway and Sweden to make the shorter trip across the North Sea.

 

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