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BLUE JACKETS PRIVATE PLANE

BY LINDSAY BERRA


JET SET How do you keep a newbie NHL franchise from slipping into the darkest expansion-team funk? You can build a bionic Lindros-or you can do what Blue Jackets majority owner John H. McConnell did: splurge on a swanky DC-9 to cushion the pain of road games. McConnell got the idea last December after the rookie Jackets spent the night in the lobby of a New Jersey hotel while their charter sat buried in a Milwaukee blizzard. Digging deep into his won pockets (the steel magnate won't say how deep, but these babies go for as much as $8 million without the bells and whistles), McConnell unveiled aircraft number N-697BJ this season. So does the rock-star treatment work? ÀSkipping the long lines and layovers is a huge advantage,” says Jackets center Tyler Wright. ÀWe feel spoiled.” And that's just the point.

PIT STOP Airport lines and layovers may be history for the Jackets, but they still have to stop for gas. Here, the plane refuels in Grand Junction, Colo., on its way from Columbus to San Jose. Forty-five minutes, 3,000 gallons of fuel and $7,200 later, the guys were off. But not before they got a chance to poke around the cockpit of an idling T-38 fighter plane the Air Force was flying in the area.

CHECKPOINT CHARLIES No baggage claim, no metal detectors, no ID checks. Jackets equipment guys arrive at Million Air, a private section of Columbus Airport, just a half-hour before takeoff. "I'm not worried," says C Tyler Wright, "We're the only ones who use our plane." Wright's old club, Edmonton, still flies commercial: "Guys had to skip practice all the time because their bags got lost."

BACKSEAT DRIVERS Dick Sanders (below left) and Paul Spreng are two of four Blue Jackets pilots. Left seat flies, right seat navigates and operates the radio. The jump seat behind the pilots is for players. "What was all that noise?" Wright asks RW Kevin Dineen. "The landing gear wouldn't go up," says Dineen, back from his visit to the cockpit. "We had to put it down and try again."

HOME MOVIES By this January, personal-screen DVD sets will be installed into every seat. Until then, passengers are on their own. Here, head coach Dave King watches game action on a portable DVD player. D Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre travels with a DVD library and lends to players with laptops. Team faves? The Green Mile, Dumb & Dumber and, yes, a few skin flicks.

PLANE DEALER Head trainer Chris Mizer applies a small electric-stimulation machine to team captain Lyle Odelein's sprained finger. The machine is so tiny, Odelein had no problem dealing a game of hearts-or winning the dollar-a-point pot. But G Ron Tugnutt says the main goal isn't the cash. "We play hearts for laughs," he says, "and to piss each other off."

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES Flight attendants Sue Kurlas (below left) and Linda Lafever are new to hockey (they stow Hockey for Dummies on board), but are pros when it comes to hospitality. Both worked for airlines for years before signing on with McConnell, whom Lafever met at a party. Kurlas says her job is a breeze: "The guys are gentlemen-much nicer than I thought they'd be."

FLYING DREAMS The cushy leather bucket seats are so comfy, Serge Aubin (above left) and Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre are about to miss the per diems ($80 on off days, $40 on game days) that team services manager Jim Rankin is handing out. But that's no problem. Rankin is so jazzed about the plane, he cruises the aisles all flight. No wonder the guys call their plane Rankin One.