Back on the Bus: Life in the WHL means rolling along highways and byways
By George Johnson, Calgary Herald
May 3, 2010 10:13 AM
Hitmen hockey player Zak Stebner loads his bag on the bus for the 10-hour trip south to face the Tri-City Americans on Tuesday.Photograph by: Christina Ryan, Calgary Herald
Life in the Western Hockey League means long days and nights
rolling along North America’s highways and byways
“The wheels on the bus go round and round,
Round and round, round and round,
The wheels on the bus go round and round,
All through the town.”
— Popular children’s song
And other towns, too. Through Piapot. Into Portland. And Kamloops. Into the teeth of wicked winter whiteouts, on black ice. And over the bodies of bone-stupid prairie dogs.
In darkness and daylight. On ice-slickened highways. Past the flatlands of Saskatchewan and into the scenic mountain passes of British Columbia.
If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium? Not in the Western Hockey League. If it’s 1:30 in the afternoon, you might be passing the Dairy Queen in Moosomin rumbling along the Trans-Canada.
“The bus travel,’’ argues Calgary Hitmen coach Mike Williamson, “is not as bad as people think.’’
Maybe. But Michael Stone won’t use public transit, regardless.
“When I was 16 here, there were three of us, and no car. So I had to take the C-Train to school,’’ recalls the Hitmen captain.
“But buses?’’ Nothing personal, understand, but Stone shakes his head, sorry.
“No, thanks. I spend enough time on buses.’’
The call is for a 9:15 board on this Sunday morn, or roughly 10 hours after dismissing the Tri-City Americans to grab a 2-0 hold on their Western Hockey League championship series. The bus leaves 15 minutes later. The trek to Kennewick, Wash., will last another 10 hours or so, the Hitmen rolling into town for Games 3 and 4 Tuesday-Wednesday around 6:30.
Ripped yellow foam piled atop a set of grey lockers outside the Hitmen dressing room down at the Pengrowth Saddledome is used as floor bedding, for those who went to stretch out and catch 40 winks in the aisles. A new card game, Kaiser, introduced by sniper Joel Broda, is all the rage at the moment.
There’s a pecking order for seating. And unlike airlines, with business class, the most coveted are found at the back. Based on seniority. No choice of chicken or steak, though.
“I’ve been here for four years and worked my way back,’’ says Stone. “I’ve got three seats to myself now. Man, is it . . . nice. When I was 16, we’d have to double up every so often depending on how many guys we had on. Then, at 17 I moved back to a seat in front of the TV. That was sweet. Last year, made it three-quarters of the way to the back.
“This year, I graduated to ALL the way back.’’
“Kids today have so many options to kill the time,’’ says Hitmen GM Kelly Kisio. “DVDs. Their own DVD players if they don’t like the movie selection. IPods. Games. And, yeah, they still play crib and cards. Which is nice to see for those of us of an . . . uh, older generation.
“Back in the day, you had nothing to do but read, play cards or stare out the window. For 15 hours sometimes. Arm rests between the seats that didn’t move, so you couldn’t lie down, you had to sleep sitting up.”
Now a lot of buses have fold-out beds. All kinds of stuff in the armrests.’’
Any movie that got a quick Siskel-and-Ebert Thumbs Down?
“Oh yeah. A couple of years ago, someone slipped in one of those Jackass movies while I wasn’t looking. I mean, there’s a limit.
“After about five minutes, I went up and shut the thing off.
“Jackass is right.’’
The Brandon Wheat Kings reportedly face a more punishing schedule that any team in the WHL.
“I haven’t any idea how many miles we travel in a year,’’ confesses coach/GM Kelly McCrimmon. “I thought it might be Prince George, but apparently we get the honour. Hey, it’s part of junior hockey. Three games in the three nights. Some late nights. People make a lot out of it, like to tell you all kinds of sad stories, but . . .
“We’ve had some challenging trips, like any other team. Last year we played Kootenay in the playoffs, for instance. We left Brandon at 10 o’clock at night and ran into some weather issues between Moose Jaw and Swift Current. Got stuck behind a semi that couldn’t make it up a hill. So we sat behind him for seven or eight hours before we could continue. That makes a long trip even longer.
“We rent our bus from a Winnipeg company. It has fold-out beds. Seats to beds in 60 seconds. Can’t beat that.’’
In his rookie year, Stone remembers having to get on and off the bus, attaching and detaching chains to get the bus through a blizzard in Washington.
Most of the players learn quickly enough how to at least temper the monotony of the long trips.
“We had a player on our team in Portland, Doug Strobel, who could absolutely not sleep on a bus,’’ recalls Williamson. “No matter what. The two years we had him I bet he didn’t sleep a wink. At night, in the middle of nowhere, you’d be trying to get comfortable at the window. The bus was quiet, three or four in the morning. You’d be fidgeting, glance back and Doug would be sitting up, straight as board, and without fail — didn’t matter, day or night, where you were — he’d just give you a little wave.’’
If anyone can relate to junior hockey bus travel, it’s Medicine Hat CHAT Radio legend Bob Ridley. The 65-year-old institution has been driving the Tigers’ bus for 39 years, almost since he began calling the games on radio.
“The equipment,’’ says Ridley, “is so much better now. No comparison. They give the buses the once-over twice a year and they’re always in real good shape, ready to go. There are very strict rules and regulations about upkeep and safety. Makes a driver’s job a lot easier.
“The first bus I drove had Armstrong steering. Not power. You were crawling up hills, and in real strong winds, especially side winds, you’d get off the bus and your arms would be numb from trying to hold ’er straight.’’
The list of alumni during his time at the wheel is familiar: Lanny McDonald, Trevor Linden, Bryan McCabe, Chris Osgood, ESPN mullet-man Barry Melrose. Any of them stand out in Ridley’s mind?
“If you’re the regular driver, you get to know the kids really well. Almost became a kind of second dad.
“I don’t like to pinpoint just one player but . . . I’d say Kelly Hrudey. He always used to ride up front of the bus. Said he couldn’t sleep. I’d want to talk about hockey and you know what? He’d want to talk about media. About broadcasting. Funny, huh, that he’d end up on Hockey Night in Canada? But I guess I’m not really surprised.
“Even as a kid, he showed an interest in the business.’’
Right now, the business at hand for the Hitmen is polishing off the Americans in five games, max. Not only to reach the Memorial Cup, but so they can save themselves another 10-hour junket to Washington.
“Riding the bus gets old pretty quick,’’ sighs Stone. “But, actually, it isn’t that bad. You get used it.
“You’re a junior hockey player. Goes with the territory.
“They tell you when to show up. You get on. You go.’’
And so the wheels of the bus go round and round, Round and round, round and round . . .
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