Vikings try to make London trip just like another home game
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Bisquick.
Among the can't-forget items the Minnesota Vikings brought with them to the United Kingdom for this week's international series game was Bisquick, the food staple of course produced by local Minnesota company General Mills.
The Vikings have tried to make their week-long stay in England as close to home as possible. Geji McKinney, the team's director of food service operations, knew the players wouldn't do without biscuits. Along with pre-shipping many other items like seasonings, spices, hot sauce and even ketchup, a supply of Bisquick was there waiting for McKinney.
"They don't know what a biscuit is; to them it's a cookie," McKinney said. "I went to (Kentucky Fried Chicken in London) and I asked for a two-piece and a biscuit and they looked at me like I was crazy. Seriously, they don't know. So I had to ship over Bisquick, so they can just make our biscuits from scratch. That is a must have. (The players) love biscuits."
Months of preparation and years of planning went into Minnesota's week-long trip this week and will culminate in Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in London's Wembley Stadium. The first fact-finding trip was made back in 2011, before the Vikings had announced their willingness to the NFL to play in the international series, which dates back to 2007 in its current form.
McKinney and many others made an advance visit in May to prepare for the trip and Minnesota's preparation ramped up over the past two months.
"We're trying to make it as seamless as possible, so it's just like another home game for us," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said recently.
When the team arrived early Tuesday morning, England time, players and coaches were part of a community outreach event, the NFL's Play 60 campaign, with kids at Wembley stadium. From there, they traveled to the countryside and their hotel for the first few days.
The Vikings spent time at the Grove Hotel about an hour outside of London before moving downtown closer to the stadium on Friday afternoon. In all, it's two hotels and over 2,000 room nights, according to Luther Hippe, the team's director of operations for team travel.
Minnesota wasn't planning from scratch though. They've followed the same blueprint NFL teams have used for games for many years. The Grove Hotel has hosted several NFL teams during the international series, and is complete with a full restaurant -- for McKinney and her crew to make biscuits -- and a practice field.
Outside, the hotel sets up "marquees," hard-sided tents which house the Vikings makeshift locker room, trainers' room and weight room.
"I was shocked when I went over there and saw the amount of time and effort and finances they put in to make sure that the quality is there of an NFL venue," Spielman said. "Where we're staying, the practice field that they put at the hotel is basically inspected and run by the same people that get the playoff fields ready and the Super Bowl fields ready. They were immaculate.
"The hotel that we're staying at was almost identical to what our players and our coaches are used to when we're here in the states. So, all of that stuff is in line where the only difference is we're going to have to travel over there. Everything else should be as seamless for a smooth transition for what our football club normally goes through in preparation for a game."
Minnesota still had a lot of work to do.
Equipment manager Dennis Ryan was with the team the first time they played in London in 1983. He's traveled with the Vikings to London, Goteburg, Sweden, Berlin and Tokyo.
"(It's a) little comforting to know that not everything has changed, I'm traveling over there with the Vikings and Queen Elizabeth is still the reigning mom," Ryan joked.
Ryan pre-shipped as many items as possible too, right down to the coffee maker and some Caribou Coffee French roast. Ryan figures the team has sent over 12,000 pounds of equipment and supplies to England and a truck full of luggage the team wouldn't be traveling with usually.
"Feels like I've had a tape measure in my pocket since June and I know the measurements of every package, bag and trunk in the building," Ryan said. "I know what's inside. We have all the inventory. Everything's weighed. And we're pretty sure the players and coaches are going to have everything they want from their favorite socks to their broken-in cap...
"We want the players and coaches to feel like they have all the comforts of home."
The Vikings made the decision to bring over the entire full-time staff and has a traveling part of at least 179 people going to London this week in two separate trips. The team left Minneapolis on Monday. The rest of the staff, as well as families flew over Wednesday.
Strength coach Tom Kanavy put in his request and the team will have a full weight room on the premises for working out. Any necessary rehab machines were in place for head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman and his staff.
"Everything that we've done, and the reason we feel so confident going over there, is because the players and the coaches, once they get over there, besides you're in a different country, it's pretty much going to be very familiar to them," Spielman said.
Part of the familiarity is McKinney's menus.
She taste-tested the food on her advance trip to prepare for the differences in cuisines. Specific snacks not available in the United Kingdom were pre-shipped. Spielman said ketchup has a different taste, so that was part of the shipment. Turkey is also considered a holiday-only item, so McKinney had to prepare for turkey burgers.
McKinney has been sending recipes to the hotel kitchen staff in preparation. She also planned on going through and "dotting" each of the menu items as she does in the cafeteria at Winter Park. A red dot means the food is high in calories. Yellow means moderate calories and "green means go," McKinney said.
"To make sure players are getting what they need and what they want," McKinney said of her preparation.
"If the players don't like the food or the taste of the food, then they're not eating and they're not getting the same nutrition that they would get over here," Spielman added.
Paul Martin, the team's operations coordinator have helped make the stay at the hotels as welcome as possible. Martin and some of the team's staff traveled a week ahead to prepare the venues for the Vikings' arrival.
Players were able to get their own rooms, instead of needing to double-up as they do typically on road trips. Martin and the staff also coordinated for American TV stations to be available to the team. For Martin, who is largely responsible for the set-up in Mankato, Minn. for training camp, likened the early part of the week at the Grove Hotel as a training-camp atmosphere. Martin said the Vikings occupy about 80 percent of the hotel. The team also helps set up a money exchange at the hotel.
One of the most time-consuming aspects was making sure everyone had passports, and the team didn't take any chances. Once they had all been secured, there were put in a safe.
"Not knowing who was going to be on the roster, we had to make sure that everybody that was on the roster this summer, all 90 guys, went through the process and got their passports," Martin said.
One of the struggles for Martin and the rest of the staff was communication with contacts in England. Martin said days in Minnesota would often start with phone calls because of the time difference.
Time was also a consideration for the team.
"We had a sleep specialist from the Mayo Clinic actually come up and talk to our players during training camp and how to adjust to the time change," Spielman said. "And suggestions on making sure you're going to be able to perform at the level you normally do by going through this sleep specialist and some of the suggestions that he has given us."
Sunday will be a true home game for Minnesota.
According to Lester Bagley, the team's vice president of public affairs and stadium development, the Vikings sold more tickets to the game than any in the seven-year history of the international series, estimating about 3,000 tickets had been sold. Bagley said 11.3 million people in the United Kingdom identify themselves as NFL fans, which doubles the total when the series began in 2007.
The NFL has set up Gene Simmons, of KISS, to sing the national anthem.
The Vikings have brought the local band, Hairball, to play during an event on Friday night. The team reserved the Tower of London for a special team-only dinner on Friday. There will be an NFL block party on Regent Street Saturday with an anticipated attendance of 600,000 people and the NFL will host a tailgate party at the stadium for the first time on Sunday morning.
The team brought its cheerleaders, drum line, mascot and even the traditional gjallarhorn, blown at the start of each home game. The Vikings will control many of the video and musical elements in the stadium and will get to announce their starters.
"Goal is to have it be as much like a Vikings' home game as you would see down at Mall of America Field," said Bryan Harper, the executive producer of the Vikings Entertainment Network.
An overseas experience with the comforts of home, even down to the biscuits.
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