Playing in the minor leagues comes with the prestige of being deemed a professional athlete. That prestige ends with the title. Once the contract is signed, you become a soldier at the bottom rung of the ladder. My dreams of flying first-class charters and staying in five-star hotels were quickly dashed when I boarded a musty, laminate-walled sleeper bus with faulty shocks, heading 12 hours south to Nowheresville, Texas. I became a tad giddy when the trainer handed me an envelope containing $37, a day’s worth of per diem, until one of the vets in the back scoffed that NHLers receive $100 a day on road trips, despite making millions.
It’s the first road trip of my professional career. Up until now, my previous road trips had consisted of two to seven-hour bus rides the night before a game and checking into an upscale hotel. We would eat three-course meals at nice restaurants. Our trainer would prep our dressing room overnight while we slumbered on down-filled pillows, dreaming of all the great things we would do in our hockey careers once our college days ended. We would play two games at some Ivy League university, built in the 1800s, before heading back home. Surely, this five-game road trip would no different.
I made my way through the bus, ducking, turning sideways and stepping over coolers of Gatorade and boxes of expired beef jerky until I met one of the vets loading his pillows into a bunk. “Which bunk is available?” I asked. The grizzled vet turned to me and laughed.
“Since you’re a rookie and we only have 15 bunks for 20 guys, you’re standing on it,” he said, pointing to the floor.
“What hotel are we staying at tonight?” I asked him.
He turned to me, as if I was from Mars, waved his hand in a circle and said: “You’re looking at it, kid.”
The bus finally pulled out of the rink at 10:30 p.m. We were scheduled to arrive at our next destination at 10 a.m., just in time to unload and be on the ice for an 11 a.m. pregame skate. I tried to stay up, playing a card game called “shnarples,” to avoid making my bed in the high-traffic aisle. I’d never heard of shnarples, but I got the feeling that the vet teaching me how to play was taking advantage of me, rather than helping me. Within two hours, all my per diem was gone.
At about 2:30 a.m., I found myself slipping in and out of consciousness at the card table. I bundled up some foam given to me by one of the vets, who said “this stuff will save your career,” and constructed a makeshift bed in the aisle between the rows of bunks. I laid down sideways, the only way I could comfortably fit in the narrow aisle, and quickly fell asleep, despite my orthopedically dysfunctional position.
As I dozed off, I felt a heavy thud on the outside of my right thigh that jerked me out of my slumber. “Sorry, Rook,” came a voice amid the darkness, one the vets trying to make his way to the washroom along the cramped aisle. I quickly fell back asleep, only to be woken up shortly afterwards by another heavy heel, this time awkwardly placed on my shoulder.
“Fuck, Rook, I didn’t even see ya there! Sorry, pal,” an unidentifiable player said.
This parade of missteps continued for the next three hours, until the bus came shuddering to an abrupt halt. The overhead lights blasted on, followed by a chorus of groans and expletives.
“What the fuck is going on now, for fuck sakes,” barked one of the captains.
Another player snapped: “Fuck, Bussy, you back on the Quaaludes again?”
Slowly, everyone got out of their bunks and moved to the front of the bus, like a swarm of zombies, to determine what the issue was. As I stepped off the bus, I saw that we’d hit a deer, a big one at that. The deer, or what looked like the upper half of a deer, was a bloody mess. The antlers were jammed into what was left of the grill of the bus, and our bus driver and trainer were yanking on the antlers and arguing in Spanish.
One of the players, an avid hunter, was gleefully jumping around shouting: “That’s a 15-pointer! Open up the side compartments! Someone grab me the saw. I’m gonna mount those antlers on the front of the bus!”
After a half-hour delay, we were back on the road with a new color scheme on the front of the bus. At about 8 a.m., we pulled off the road again to stop at one of the most popular haunts of minor pro teams across the southern U.S., the Waffle House. The coach gave us the option of staying in bed or going in to grab some breakfast. Wired from our run-in with Bambi, combined with the fear of being trampled by a mob of hungry lead-foots, I decided to join the breakfast club.
Disheveled and decked out in team tracksuits, we lumbered into the establishment and piled into booths. I flipped through a menu of artery-clogging dishes and settled on the standard Waffle House two- egg special. Since I lost my per diem playing shnarples, I paid for the nutritional feast with some of the money I earned bartending in the summer.
After marveling at the old jukebox selection, watching an interestingly colored spider devour a fly, slurping back four coffees and slopping down a ketchup-smothered grease plate, I headed back onto the bus to round out the last couple hours of the trip playing euchre with three other wide- eyed rookies.
We finally arrived at (insert American conglomerate of choice) Arena at 10:15 a.m., and lugged the load of trunks and bags up the loading dock ramp and into the visitors dressing room hallway. One of the vets offered me 10 bucks if I would carry his bag in and hang up his gear, which I snatched quickly from his hand, all too eager to prostitute myself out for petty cash. The pregame skate was optional and this particular 13-year vet was taking the option to spend the next two hours sleeping in his bunk.
After breaking my skate blade trying to pick up an errant pass four minutes into pregame skate, I was forced to call it a morning. The trainer informed me that he had to trade with the other team for a replacement blade, since he didn’t have my size in the trunk.
After showering, I took a stroll around the concourse of the arena, looking for a pocket of space where I could get service on my pay-as-you-go Verizon cellphone. Finally, I found a hot spot between the “Whataburger” stand and “Section 22.”
I punched my parents’ home phone digits into my phone and after two rings, my dad answered, “Hello?”
“Hey dad,” I replied.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
I tilted my head to ensure I stayed in the airtime hot zone. “Not much. Just got off the ice from pregame skate. I broke my skate blade so I had to get off early.”
He started into an old school sermon. “Oh ya? Are you wearing those ugly silver skates? Those things are ugly. You should get a pair of all black skates. They look much better.”
“Ya, ya dad, the tube skates went out of style with the leather helmets. I’m wearing Vapor XXXs. They’re the best ones now,” I replied while rolling my eyes.”
“Ya, well they look stupid,” he said.
I looked to change the subject. “What’s mom up to?”
He let out a delayed sigh. “I don’t know. I think she went to get groceries.”
I continued down the laundry list of family members. “How’s Nana doing?”
“She’s good. What time is your game tonight?” He asked, clearly wanting to change the subject from the boring, formal drib drab.
“It’s at seven o’clock central time, so it’ll be eight your time,” I replied.
“Well make sure to go with it. Don’t just throw it off the glass,” he said, trying to add in some fatherly advice.
“Dad, I gotta do what the situation offers me,” I whined.
He eases off with one last piece of advice. “I’m just saying you should go with it more. Take more chances.”
The airtime pocket began to close in on me as my dad’s voice cut in and out. I wrapped up the conversation quickly, “Dad, you’re cutting out. I gotta go anyways. Later.”
I made my way back around to the loading dock and hopped back on the bus. Once the rest of the players who opted to skate filed on, we headed to a hotel. We pulled into what was actually a pretty nice hotel, considering some of the dumps we later stayed at. Since we were going to be playing the same team for the next two nights, we checked in on the first day and would be grabbing a late checkout the next day, before playing the second game. After the second game, we’d be back on the oversized hearse on wheels, complete with 15 coffins.
At the hotel, our coach passed out rooming assignments. When he got to my name, he announced that three of us would be bunking together instead of the usual two per room. Since owners don’t want to shell out for an extra room for one guy, they will jam three to a room and order a cot to save some cash. The three of us looked awkwardly at each other, trying to figure out who was going to be the weak link that got relegated to the creaky military cot.
After dropping off our stuff in the room, we headed down to the lobby restaurant for a pre-ordered pregame meal of overcooked pasta, rubberized processed chicken and runny tomato sauce. The meal wasn’t nearly the best I’d ever had. In college, we used to eat pregame meals at the Macaroni Grill or Olive Garden. At this point, given what I subjected my poor stomach to that morning, a free meal that isn’t from the Waffle House or Chick-Fil-A sounded great to me.
Clique by clique the players started to head back up to their rooms after the meal to grab a two-to-three hour nap. Most players nap in order to be fully rested and energized to hit the ice and give it their all. I tried to nap in the past, but always found that I woke up cranky and lethargic and came crawling out of the gates, unable to find my stride until the later stages of the third period. By that time, I had probably been burned more times than Cajun chicken and been reamed out and benched.
Instead of napping, I just laid in my bed looking at a sliver of light shining in from the corner of the blackout curtains. I started thinking about my life, my career and about how I got to that point. Back when I was in college, everyone’s dream was to have a big year and sign an NHL deal. I had stopped Phil Kessel on a one-on-one and laid out Matt Moulson, so why shouldn’t I think I had a chance.
Back in college, we looked down upon leagues like the ECHL and CHL, thinking that if we ever did have to play at a level that low, we’d just be there on a conditioning stint or for a week or two to start a season. Even when my college days ended and I signed in the CHL, I always figured I’d light it up and get called up before I knew it. Yet, there I was, in the middle of a dusty town, just hoping that I played well enough to last another week.
Somewhere in the midst of self-pity, I ended up dozing off. My journey into dreamland was cut short by the sharp ring of a rotary phone on the bedside table. I panicked, knocking over one of my roommates’ chew spitters, sending revolting black goo all over the carpet as I reached for the phone. It ended up being the wakeup call we ordered. I was pissed off at myself for falling asleep because I felt like complete ass. I moaned and groaned and reluctantly splashed water on my face and hair, trying to look presentable. After putting on my suit, I headed down to the lobby, where most of the team had gathered. We then filed onto the bus. Already I was getting sick of that thing.
After a short, five-minute drive, we pulled up to the rink to get ready for the game. For the next two hours, everyone dispersed and partook in their pregame rituals. Some guys spent the next hour pampering their sticks while others rode stationary bikes, ran stairs and went through a series of stretching techniques. Some guys sat in the stands, looking out over the calm, misty ice and chewed tobacco while envisioning themselves scoring a hat trick. Others kicked a soccer ball around in a circle playing a game we affectionately called “Fuckball”. Certain players, who were nursing an injury of some kind, got treatment and had appendages taped and prepped while others went over systems with veteran players and coaches. Players do whatever they need to do for an hour and a half before warmup in order to get ready, preparing themselves mentally and physically.
I performed the “Rookie Double-Check”. I checked the bottom of my skates to make sure there was no clear tape on them. I then examined my jersey to ensure that there weren’t any creative alterations. My gloves, shin pads and elbow pads turned up shaving cream-free, much to my delight, even after you clean that stuff out, it leaves a slimy film behind. The last and most commonly targeted piece of equipment for pranks, my helmet, was checked. I carefully lifted it straight up to discover a cup of Gatorade sitting underneath, which I cheerfully chugged. My discovery brought about groans from some nearby pranksters. Not going to get me with the Gatorade shower today, boys!
When we hit the ice for warmup, one of my favorite songs, “Kickstart My Heart” by Motley Crew, was pumping over the large overhead speakers in the arena. After a few twirls around the ice, I perched myself near the red-line to stretch and catch up with a former teammate from college who was playing for the other team.
“What the fuck is there to do in this dump of a town?” I asked him.
He replied with a hint of agony in his voice: “I knowwwww, it’s almost as bad as Wheeling.”
I shot him a shocking look. “That bad, eh?”
“We went to the bar the other night and I almost went home with a three,” he replied.
He sets me up perfectly, so I slam home the chirp. “Well that’s not that bad. I remember you taking home a lot of twos in college.”
He playfully speared me. “Fuck you, scumbag. I always went home with the prom queens.”
Laughing, I replied: “Well the prom queen of Sausage Fest University doesn’t exactly say much.”
He nodded, conceding that there was some truth to my remark. “Whatever, they all look the same in the dark. Hey, I played against Vinny the other night.”
“Ya? How’s he doing?” I asked.
“Same old. Apparently he’s got some 40-year-old broad on the go with a built-in family. Her dad’s some oil industry big shot.”
I laughed while changing stretching positions. “Doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
We both stood up and tapped each other on the shin pads. “Good seeing you, pal, keep your head up,” I chirped.
He shook his head and scoffed: “I’ll just go hang out in the corners. Lord knows you won’t be there.”
After warmup, everyone got settled for a quick, cliché-filled pep talk from coach. “All right, fellas, we didn’t drive 12 fuckin’ hours into the middle of Buttfuck, Texas, to lose to these guys. Up and down the lineup we’re bigger, faster and just downright better than these guys. It’s going to come down to which team has more heart tonight. We’re going to outwork ‘em in every zone. I want quick shifts, everyone finishing checks, pushing the pace for 60 minutes tonight. Stubbsy, you’re in nets, Moose and Whiskers on the point and Chuckie’s line goin’ up front. Let’s pay the bills, fellas!”
It’s basically the exact speech used by every coach in history, with different clichés substituted in, yet we always flew out of the room to hit the ice like we were about to cross the Rubicon to invade Rome.
Our opposition hit the ice to the crackle and flash of some entrance fireworks, accompanied by a cheesy theme song. After some taunting by a furry mascot on skates, the starting lineups stood on the blue-line for the national anthem, followed by a prayer. Yes, I just said prayer. In most parts of the South, religion is a big part of everyday life. A prayer was often recited after the national anthems in a large number of arenas to ensure the safety of the players and the officials. It was ironic, because three minutes after the prayer ended, they’d be screaming to have the opposing players’ and ref’s head removed from his body.
The first 10 minutes of the game were intense, with lots of hits and chirping. As the period began to wind down, the pace slowed down considerably as the wear and tear of playing five games in seven nights began to take its toll on both teams. Skating on the ice at this point was like running on the beach. The puck was bouncing around the rut-filled surface like a tennis ball. Just before the close of the period, we scored a goal amid a furious scramble in front of their net.
In between periods, Chuckie got eight stitches above his lip to repair the after-effects of a high stick. Some guys retaped and waxed their sticks, swapped complaints about the refs and re-enacted plays that happened in the first period. Other guys took off half of their gear and sat back and put in a chew, while others got their skates sharpened and whined about how bad the ice was.
With about four minutes left on the intermission clock, coach came back in for another generic rant. “We’re up by one on the scoreboard, but I have us losing that period. We got outworked, outshot and most of you are playing like your jobs are safe. I’m here to tell you, boys, that nobody’s job is safe. You better start playing like you’ve got something to lose or I’ll be on the wire tomorrow looking for guys who will!”
The second period was much of the same as the first, aside from a good scrap between the team heavyweights and a goal for each team. After two periods, we were leading 2-1 in our fifth game of the season, first on the road.
The rituals between the second and third periods were the same, and the speech from coach was a bit more uplifting. “That was a much better period. Good scrap by Clank. A couple clicks for Scribbles for netting his first pro goal. We’ve got some momentum here boys, but the key is not to get complacent. Let’s keep the pedal to the metal and finish these pukes off!”
The third period started off bad as Chuckie took a slashing penalty and our opposition scored on the power play. They added another goal three minutes later to put us in a hole. Nucky tried to kill the momentum with a scrap after they took the lead, and the rest of the period was pretty even until the last minute, when we scored on another scramble with the goalie pulled. Overtime solved nothing and we ended up collecting an SOL (shootout loss) after losing in the seventh round of the shootout.
After the game, doors were slammed and Gatorade jugs were kicked. Guys hung their heads and F-bombs were hurled at no one in particular. Coach came in and reminded us that we had 67 more games to go and that we showed a lot of character coming back late in the period. He threw a not-so-anonymous dagger about taking bad penalties and reminded us that 45 minutes of hard work does not make a 60-minute game.
After showering up, we partook in a buffet that was laid out by the home team’s booster club in the lower concourse. There were silver pans of fried chicken, rice, scalloped potatoes, coleslaw, caesar salad and buns. The surprise spread was one of the many small perks of playing in the minor leagues. The fans were very loyal and accommodating of both the home and opposing teams. That meal saved me from dipping into my bartending money for a late-night run to Chick-Fil-A.
After the quick post-game meal, we hopped back on the bus to head to the hotel. Since we were playing the same team again the next night, we slept in nice, lush beds at the hotel instead of on the bus, teetering along to the next small town.
Coach addressed everyone when we got off the bus. “I’m not your babysitter and you are all grown men. If you want to go out and have a couple pops tonight, then so be it. I have two rules about when we’re on the road. One, no drinking in the hotel lobby bar, and two, no bringing ditch pigs back to the hotel. You want to bury the sausage, you do it in the back of Bobby-Sue’s Chevette. Just remember, we have another big game tomorrow and three more games after that before we head back home. Take care of your bodies and your bodies will take care of you.”
Knowing that I probably wouldn’t get another good night’s sleep, I’d be sleeping in the aisle of the bus the rest of the road trip, I headed straight upstairs to pass out. Following tomorrow’s game, we’d be spending the next four nights traipsing from small southern town to small southern town, chasing a dream. Each game and each day represented a tick on the clock. The clock is a countdown to the end of a dream and the end of a career. Too many ticks at this level signified another window of opportunity closing. Maybe in one of those sun-scorched towns there would be a set of eyes that would swing the tides in my favor.