The Iron Lung

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When motorized transportation replaced horse-drawn transportation in 1905, a motorized coach was designed to transport masses of people from one location to another.  In North America today, coach buses provide the cheapest and slowest form of mass transportation to long distances across the country. Coach buses are the transportation of choice for minor league sport teams in North America which often lead to these leagues being deemed, “The Bus Leagues”.

I didn’t know what a real road trip was until I turned pro. In the NCAA we used to take coach buses on the road when we would travel to New England to play Harvard, Yale, Vermont, or Dartmouth. Our trips consisted of a weekend and we never felt put out or uncomfortable. We stayed in the nicest hotels like the Marriott and the Westin and ate at nice restaurants like the Macaroni Grill and the Olive Garden. With our big University budget, we lived like kings.

When I turned pro, I began to realize hockey was a business. When business was booming and money was plentiful, the players reaped the benefits, but when the economy was in the ditch and owners were scrambling, players felt the squeeze more than anyone.  Corners would be cut in every area and you would really notice it when we would hit the road.

Luckily when I played, we had the benefit of a union to look out for the player’s basic needs and interests. The Professional Hockey Player’s Association (PHPA) was in place to make sure owners couldn’t just use and abuse players the way they used to. According to the PHPA, all our medical costs would be covered no matter what, and any and all compensation that was due to players, including travel costs to and from camp, prescription drugs, and medical costs for your wife and kids were looked after. We even got paid compensation to the tune of $1,000 per stitch earned in an on-ice battle (but only in certain states, like New York). Any form of mistreatment from a team would be grieved with the union just as the NHL had in place with the NHLPA.

During the recession years when owners were jumping ship all over the globe, the PHPA made sure that at the very least our basic needs were met. Perks were going to be slim and far between, but at least we wouldn’t have to scratch and claw for what was rightfully ours.  It was tough enough to put your body on the line every night. We didn’t need some greedy owner skimming us over.

One area that owners could and always tried to cut corners was with regards to road trips and transportation. In order to save money, schedules were set up around the minor pro leagues in the fashion that teams would have long stretches at home and long stretches on the road. That way if you were going off to play in Forth Worth for a couple games, you would also hit Rio Grande, Laredo and Odessa on the swing back home.

Owners and league officials worked together to group road games geographically in a trek that would minimize the time you would spend on the road year round. This, in turn, would help teams save money on hotels, gas, per diem and meals along the way. Owners would use any shortcuts they could to minimize costs and overhead. If your team was located close to a lot of other teams, road trips wouldn’t be so bad. You could make day trips and still save money. But if you were located in Colorado when most teams in your conference were in Texas, Oklahoma and New   Mexico, then you would have to get creative with scheduling.

Most teams in minor pro hockey would have their own team bus, especially the teams that were going to be logging a lot of mileage throughout the season. When I played in Augusta, our division had some teams that only required day trips like Columbia, Charlotte, Gwinnett, and Charleston. We didn’t own our bus, but would rather use a bus company because financially it made more sense.

When I played in Amarillo, we had some pretty long and vast road trips. In our division alone we played in five different states. We also played a lot of cross-over games against other divisions and played teams from an additional four states. When I played in the CHL, there were teams scattered in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kansas, Oklahoma, South   Dakota, Colorado, New   Mexico and Arizona. Seventy plus games, throughout nine states required lots of fuel, patience and a strong bond between team-mates.

One of the best ways to bring a team together is to kick off a new season on the road. Nothing brings a team together better than a week on the old “Iron Lung” (This is what the players referred to the bus as). When you are on the road for a week at a time, you spend most of your time inches from all your team mates on the bus. You share accommodations, food, laughs and beers on the road. It helps everyone get to know each other and establishes a brotherhood and a sense of family within the team.

When I played in Amarillo, we logged over 25,000 miles during the 2008-2009 season. We had Tina Turner’s old tour bus which was equipped with 15 bunks, one bathroom, two card tables, a fridge, a microwave, two lounge areas, and it even had mirrors on the ceiling! I bet in its day it was quite the state of the art tour bus, but when we first boarded, it was clear its days were numbered.

We had a wild Mexican-American driver we called Mejo. He loved to tell dirty stories and loved his tequila. Mejo was a great driver because he knew every shortcut in the south and wasn’t afraid to step on it to get us to the next destination. On the long roadies up to Rapid   City or down to Laredo we would bring along a second driver so that they could take turns as we rattled through the panhandle.

Next to Mejo, in the tour guide seat of the bus sat the legendary trainer Kenneth “Gunner” Garrett. Gunner was one of the greatest personalities around minor pro hockey. Gunner’s training and equipment managing career spanned 48 years from 1961 when he started out with the EHL’s Johnston Jets right up to his last season with us in Amarillo in 2009. Early in his career, Gunner suited up for 22 games with New Haven Blades of the EHL over five seasons. Back then teams usually only carried one goalie and the trainer served as the backup. During that span, Gunner even recorded back to back shutouts.

Gunner’s career took him through the NHL, AHL, EHL and CHL. During his 48 years in the business, Gunner worked in more cities across Canada and the US as a trainer than he can even recount. Before he caught on with the Gorillas for the 2008-2009 season he worked for ten years with the Austin Ice Bats until they closed up shop following the 2007-2008 season.

During the 2005 season, Gunner suffered what was thought to be a fatal heart attack at the rink in Austin. He was rushed to hospital and false word was spread that he had died. Not knowing that he was actually alive, ownership had a large banner made up that was to be hung from the rafters during the next night’s game in memoriam of Gunner. When word came out that he was indeed alive, the banner was given to him as a keepsake and reminder of the close call.

Gunner hung that banner up just outside our dressing room.  I remember the first time I saw it, I was thinking, “What the heck?!” Gunner was quite the character and had quite a few great stories to tell the boys. One time during a chat with the old trainer, we came to the discovery that he had hired my best friend from home for his first job ever, which was “Stick Boy” for the PEI Senators AHL team. Gunner was the trainer for the “Baby Sens” at the time and he hired my long-time pal Jordan Reid. What a small world it really was.

Gunner was an eccentric man. He used to sleep right at the rink on a couch that was tucked in under the arena stands in the stick room of our dressing room facility. I remember making the mistake of walking in there one time and flipping on the lights during one of Gunner’s cat naps. I caught the full wrath of Gunner after that one.

Gunner was the kind of guy who used to love to razz up the boys. He would always have some kind of one-liner to throw at you and loved to poke fun at your style of play. One of his favorite things to do was to hang around the trainer’s room when guys were getting treatments for injuries. He would bark out stuff like, “What’s wrong? Need your tampon changed?” Or something like, “What’d you do? Tear your motivator cuff?” Gunner liked to keep things light around the team. If he was ripping on you, that meant he liked you.

Once the bus would hit the road there would be a variety of activities going on. Some guys used to like to just crawl into their bunk and hibernate for the duration of the trip. You would see them as soon as you got on and then they’d disappear behind the curtain of their bunk and be out cold until we’d arrive wherever we were going. Other guys used to like to socialize and play cards or watch movies. One card game that reigned supreme in pro hockey was “Shnarples”.

Shnarples was a card game that was similar to spades and was played for money and kept track with a pen and paper. No one outside of hockey that I know of has ever heard of the game and it has been rumored that it was invented by former NHLer Harold Schnepts. Once the boys started playing shnarples, you never knew what could happen next.

On every road trip the boys would anxiously await their per diem. Per Diem varied from level to level in the amount that was given out per day. When I played at the AA level, we received $37.00 per day to cover our meals for the day. Quite often the boys would use this money to gamble on shnarples or euchre. You had to make sure you collected right away from those who owed you because if you waited even a day, there would be a huge argument.

Road trips were also a great place for pranksters to hone their skills. One of the common pranks was to stuff all the garbage you had acquired along with everyone else’s into someone’s bunk when someone got up to go to the bathroom. You kind of expected that to happen every time so it basically lost its zip as a joke and just became a good way to cause a nuisance.

One prank that we used to play on a particular team-mate was to hide a rubber snake in his bunk. He was terrified of snakes and we found a big rubber water moccasin and waited until just before he finished a game of shnarples and was ready to hunker down for the night to slip it into his sheets. He flew out of his bunk like he had been shot out of a cannon. That one had the whole bus in stitches.

Every time we would hit the road it always seemed that something would go wrong with the bus. The first time I hit the road with the Gorillas, we hit a big deer and the front of the bus was in need of a serious cleaning and some repairs. Since money wasn’t growing on trees that season, we toured around for the next couple months looking like the bus from the movie “Slapshot” after Walt sledge-hammered holes in the side.

On another trip the heater was broken. Now with most of our trips this wouldn’t be too much cause for alarm, but it happened to be in January and we were heading up to Fort   Collins, Colorado to play a three-gamer with the Colorado Eagles. We hit some serious snow drifts coming up through the Rockies and we were all bundled up, breathing steam. It was so cold that Gunner had to sit with a heat gun on the windshield to create a hole in the frost so that Mejo could see the road.

For some reason, we always had the worst luck when we had to head up to play in Colorado. On our next road trip up there we had a major problem with the bus. We had just finished beating Rio Grande at home and we boarded the bus at about 11:30 pm to make the eight-hour trek up to Fort Collins, Colorado. At about 2 am, two hours or so into the trip, the air shock pockets on the bus both burst and we had to continue on though the Rockies with no shock absorbers.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of taking the winding highways through the Colorado Rockies, it can get pretty bumpy even with shocks. That night, not one player slept a wink as we bounced around in our bunks the whole trip there. It was so bad that we literally were bouncing up and down from top to bottom in the bunks. We were so tired that we kept laughing hysterically at our bad luck and jokes were flying around about how cheap our owner was.

We arrived in Fort   Collins at 8:30 am, ragged and exhausted. Everybody grabbed their hotel room cards and collapsed in their beds until pre-game meal at 2 pm. We even cancelled our pre-game skate that morning, which we usually would never miss because it’s beneficial to get the skate in to adjust to the altitude in Colorado. A lot of guys skipped pre-game meal and slept right on to 5 pm when the bus would depart for the rink. This is where things would get even more interesting.

Our bus had been sent in for repairs and as it turned out, they were going to have to keep the bus in town for a week until the parts were ordered in. Now our bus was out of commission and the rink was a 30 minute ride from our hotel. So we took the shuttle van at the hotel which only held 11 passengers at a time. The first wave of players arrived at the rink at 5:30, an hour and a half before game time. The shuttle then had to trek 30 minutes back to the hotel, pick up the next wave and drive 30 minutes back to the rink. The second wave of players arrived at the rink at 6:30. Warm-up started at 6:30, so only half of our team was on the ice for the warm-up.

With the night of banging around the bunks, no sleep, no pre-game skate to get adjusted to the altitude, most players missing pre-game meal to catch up on sleep, the fiasco with the shuttle van, and half our team missing warm-up, it was clear that we were extremely unprepared for our match-up against the CHL’s most dangerous team. We went out and got demolished that night 10 – 1.

The group that I always felt the worst for on road trips in Amarillo was the rookies. Since we only had 15 bunks and we usually brought 19 or 20 players, 4 or 5 rookies would have to sleep on the floor and the couches up front. Some rookies had it down and made beds out of big foam pads and extra blankets along the aisle between the two rows of bunks. The problem with that was that every time someone would groggily get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, they would get trampled and woken up.

The way seniority worked in the minors was simply by games played. Whomever had the most games played in either, the NHL, AHL, ECHL, CHL, IHL, or elite European leagues, had the most seniority. Since I had already played a couple of seasons, I was lucky that when I arrived I could kick someone out of a bunk. I always liked having the top bunk near the back so that I could look out and see everything that was going on.

My bunk was directly above one of the funniest guys I ever played with, Joe Guenther. “Gunz”, as we called him, was a vet of about six pro seasons and lived with his wife Dawn and beautiful little daughter, Chloe. Gunz was obsessed with Eminem and had one of the best burned movie collections I had ever seen. I used to like to watch a movie on my laptop in my bunk before I fell asleep and Gunz always had the hottest new flicks.

Across from my bunk was my old buddy from Augusta Lynx training camps, AJ Bucchino. We picked up AJ, shortly after I arrived in Amarillo. AJ was an Italian from Long Island, NY and had the greatest Long Island accent going. He was always complaining 24/7 about the bus, the hotels, the food, about how annoying people were in Texas, etc. I was in a car with him one time when a Texas state trooper pulled AJ over for rolling through a stop sign. The “Statey” was going to give AJ a ticket until he began to complain and whine about the situation and how stupid it was to have a stop sign there, that finally the cop just let him off with a warning because he couldn’t take it anymore.

It was great being across from AJ because Gunz and I loved to play pranks on him. Sometimes we would take the battery out of his laptop when he went to the bathroom and he would smack his computer around when he got back, not knowing what we had done and why it wouldn’t turn on. Other times we would carefully rip pages out of the book he was reading that were right after where he had placed his bookmark. Everything would be fine for about five minutes then you could hear him cursing and flipping the pages back and forth trying to figure out why the story didn’t make sense. Our favorite trick though was that one of us would hide in AJ’s bunk, covered up in the blankets at the far side of the bunk, as tight to the bus wall as possible. When he would climb into his bunk and pull the blankets over himself, the hider would roll over and scare him half to death.

For an owner, owning a team bus had a lot of beneficial purposes. For one, you never had to worry about scheduling problems. Also, having your own sleeper bus meant that you could save a lot of money on accommodations by leaving late at night the night before a road game, sleeping on the bus as the trek was made. It wasn’t unheard of for owners to purchase a bus in halfway decent shape, use it for the season, make a couple repairs and sell it to another team for about what you paid for it. When you played on a team that logged a lot of miles it just made sense to make the investment.

In order to keep the bus in good shape, there were always a lot of rules when it came to the road. For one, each team came with its own built in maid service: rookies. Rookies, while having to endure many other humiliating duties, were in charge of making sure the bus was always neat and in order after each road trip ended. That meant sweeping, mopping and making sure all garbage was picked up. Another rookie duty was to load and unload all of the trainer’s luggage. This consisted of, the skate sharpener, travel trunk, extra sticks and equipment, medical bags, jerseys, and any other equipment that was used on the road. Some veterans even paid rookies to load and unload their bags which included packing and unpacking.

Another rule of the road was that no one would take a “number two” on the bus. The bus was our living space on the road. It’s tight enough on the bus as it is. No one wants to smell that for the next hour. One small rule that usually applied to rookies was that no rookie would get off the bus until all the veterans were off. It was more of a respect thing than anything, but it was always fun at the beginning of a season to catch a bunch of rookies forgetting that one.

When you went to a restaurant as a team on the road there were always some fun rituals. One of my favorites was the “Shoe Check”. This was a game that we always played when the entire team would be at a restaurant for a meal. One member of the team would scurry under the table with some form of sauce or food and place it on another team member’s shoe. Once the culprit was back in his seat, he would begin to tap his glass with his fork to signal that someone had been had. The rest of the team would join in the tapping and everyone would check their shoes to see who had been sauced. The victim would then stand up and acknowledge all of his chirping and razzing team mates with a wave. Usually ranch dressing or ketchup made for the best form of weapon for the “Shoe Check”.

Once the game had been played a few times and the season wore on, everyone became more aware at team meals so the “shoe checkers” had to become craftier and slyer in their attempts. Quite often shoe checking would be done in groups and one, two or three other team members would aid the shoe checker with some distraction tactics in order to rope in a victim.

The best shoe check I ever performed came at my friend, John Sullivan’s wedding. “Sully” got married in a ritzy affair in Manchester, NH and during the dinner, four of us, all former team mates of Sully, conspired to pull off a groom shoe check. It took some maneuvering, but we pulled it off to a grand ovation once he realized that the tapping of the glasses wasn’t for him to kiss his new bride, but to rather check his shoes for ranch dressing.

Another game that we used to like to pull on the road was at restaurants when a few of the guys would go for a dinner or lunch. After dinner was done, we would all put our credit cards in a hat or napkin and shake it up. Then one of us would reach in and pull out a card. Whomever’s card it was had to pick up the tab for the whole table for dinner.

Hitting the road with the team, more than anything, brought the team closer together. When you live for six to eight months with a group of 20 guys you develop a bond that is family-like. You share ups and downs, joys and pains, and in the middle of it all you become iron-clad. At the beginning of a season, everyone eyes each other up and puts up guards. Once the team is announced and that first road trip is under your belt, you come back with a newfound respect for the guys you go into battle with night after night. When 20 years goes by and you’re left scarred, grey and hobbled, you can always look back at those days on the old “Iron Lung” and smile. Those were the days when nothing else mattered but the next two points.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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