Eric Tangradi

Winnipeg Jets' Eric Tangradi celebrates a goal against the Nashville Predators' on Nov. 8. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

The holidays can be a difficult time for professional athletes.

These special occasions are usually spent on the road or consumed altogether by a team’s hectic schedule. Teammates replace family at the dinner table and connection back home is often limited by a phone call.

So when Jets forward Eric Tangradi saw that the Jets would be in Philadelphia the day after American Thanksgiving for a Friday game against the Flyers, it was just one more thing he had to be grateful for.

“Whenever you live so far from home you don’t get to see family much,” Tangradi said after practice Wednesday in Long Island. “Any time you get to see them it’s great but especially during holidays it’s even more special.”

Tangradi grew up playing hockey in Manayunk, an area just 10 minutes west of downtown Philadelphia before moving to Canada to play three years for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League and later to the NHL.

Turkey and green bean casserole

The Jets are currently on a six-game swing through the Eastern Conference, touching down in Philadelphia late last night following a 3-2 win against the Islanders in Long Island. They had practice this morning and after, Tangradi headed home for a rare Thanksgiving dinner with family.

And the 24-year-old couldn’t be happier, even though things can be a little tight.

“We bunch together shoulder-to-shoulder in the house for most of the day,” he said, noting there would be close to 15 to 20 bodies stuffed in to one room, a number he said was small in comparison to most households in the area.

“I think it’s a holiday we all definitely enjoy because it’s all very laid back and very casual. It’s just an opportunity for everybody to get together before we get ready for Christmas.”

Turkey, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole are just some of the favourites at the Tangradi household. Asked if being the guest of honour meant he had a say in what’s on the menu, Tangradi just smiled.

“Growing up with my family the one thing I’ve learned is don’t ever mess with mom’s recipes,” said Tangradi. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’m going to let her do her thing. I always have and I’ve never left unsatisfied, that’s for sure.”

So just how good is his mom’s home cooked meal?

“She makes a really great and unbelievable turkey,” said Tangradi, almost as if to hold back the drool from just the idea of the juicy bird. “I’ve had a bunch of different turkeys from different places but whether it’s the seasoning or how she stuffs it with stuffing and all kinds of stuff, it’s always the best.

“But her go-to has to be the green bean casserole and mashed potatoes. For some reason just growing up on those - you go around to the finest restaurants in the world and yet nothing compares to mom’s home cooked meal.”

Beyond the food, which the big man will sure to score second or third helpings, the holiday is also a chance for Tangradi to reflect on what he’s grateful for both in personal and professional life.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it weren’t for the people that surrounded me in my life and I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity I’ve been given to be able to do what I love every day,” he said. “Not many people can say that they can do that so I think just being surrounded by caring, loving people and just having good health and having an unbelievable dream that I’m able to chase it something I’m thankful for.”

Reunion at the rink

And the festivities won’t end Thursday. Tangradi will rejoin the Jets tomorrow where they’ll look to snatch up their third straight road win against the Philadelphia Flyers in a rare Friday morning game (10:30 CT). The game will be yet another chance for the Jets winger to catch up with old friends and family.

“My dad puts a really good thing together whenever we go to Philly,” he said. “He’s sending emails out, making phone calls. I remember last year we had to meet up on the concourse [after the game] and there was 50 people there. Old high school friends, it’s almost like a reunion at the rink.

"Every year it’s been a little bit bigger and it’s been really great so I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces and also probably some ones I haven’t seen in a while”

But today, it’s all about family and escaping, even if just for a few hours, the hectic life of a professional athlete. That is, if he’s able to get out of dish duty once dinner ends.

“At this point, not being home a lot, I might be able to milk just laying on the couch. Just the fact that I’m home my mom tends to spoil me a little bit more than everybody else cause she doesn’t get to see me very often.

"I’ll try to work the current system and see if I can’t just lie around. But I’m betting I’ll be in the kitchen.”