IT'S FIGHTS ON ICE; Life on the road with the Austin
motion it's quite a sight, this hurtling metal cylinder
of red, white, yellow and blue, tricked out with team
logos from bow to stern, shuttling its heroic cargo
from rink to rink and state to state. Making a getaway
from an opposing arena it becomes a moving target, weathering
a fusillade of jeers, curses and obscene gestures, anything
short of rotten fruit. Sometimes, a spirited group of
young women will come into view, happy to greet the
bus' occupants with a smile, a wink, a patch of flesh
-- and not just midriff. Mostly though, the Bat Bus
spends six months and too many days in a row passing
through the middle of nowhere, only to arrive in a place
that barely meets the definition of somewhere.
All of that,
however, is when the bus is moving. Right now, it isn't
going anywhere. It's October. It's 4:30 a.m. Nine hours
earlier the puck dropped in Lake Charles, Louisiana,
marking the first exhibition game of the season, Ice
Bats vs. Ice Pirates. Five hours earlier 20 hockey players
hit the Players Island Casino dinner buffet, possibly
the nicest road meal in minor league history. A few
of them scored pre-season bonuses at the blackjack table.
asleep, oblivious to the fact that the bus has been
sputtering along at 20 miles per hour the last couple
of miles. Finally, it whinnies to a halt at the side
of a rainsoaked two-lane highway in Ellinger, Texas.
274 citizens strong, Ellinger is a country town that
has escaped development, just a dot on the map between
Austin and Houston to most folks.
The groggy souls
who notice the stoppage in play chalk it up to the driver's
tiny bladder, or his jones for coffee, or both. No need
to dwell on the way he wanders around the well-lit but
unmanned Texaco station without any purpose. Surely
it's too soon to wonder how many cabs might have to
travel from Austin -- nearly two hours northwest of
here -- to get everyone home.
off the bus. Ellinger's entire retail district -- pretty
much all of Ellinger, in fact -- lies before them. But
neither the Texaco nor Hruska's Instant Shopping across
the parking lot is available for relief or sustenance.
A nearby puddle does the trick for the former. The scent
of frying bacon suggests the latter will be ready when
the convenience store greets its early-rising farmer
clientele with biscuits and breakfast sandwiches at
The Ice Bats
can wait until then. They aren't going anywhere.
believes otherwise. He's already under the bus, tinkering.
"I like this
guy," Chris Morque, a returning veteran who will captain
this Ice Bats squad, says of the 19-year-old rookie
netminder. "He can stop the puck, and he can tell us
what's wrong with the bus."
strawberry blond, with a face that's destined to get
carded well past 40, Fairfield is, quite literally,
fresh off the family farm in Omemee, Ontario.
It took about
two seconds for the boys on the bus to saddle Fairfield
with the nickname "Tex" -- the youngster showed up in
Austin ready to two-step, already outfitted with the
hat, the neatly pressed Wranglers and a couple of fancy
is fancy enough that Fairfield peels it off before embarking
on his mud-splattered journey to the innards of the
bus. The driver lays out triangular hazard markers,
wielding a flashlight while the goalie does the real
"Get out from
under there before you get your country ass run over!"
knows what he's doing. On the farm, when he wasn't delivering
calves and such, he messed about with tractors and plows.
He understands the workings of a diesel engine.
"If he gets
us out of here, he makes the team," medical trainer
Eric Seeber suggests.
a bummer, but the Bats are not particularly fazed by
their predicament. Rookie Jason Rapcewicz rode a train
from Hamilton for 40 hours to get a tryout -- he is,
as the cliche goes, just happy to be here. Chris Morque
has been here, more times than he can remember. When
he and Andy Ross and Mike Jackson played for the Memphis
River Kings, their bus would fritz out after a couple
of hours and the players would hitchhike back to the
city they came from, setting up camp in the lobby of
the hotel they'd just checked out of -- the team wasn't
about to spring for another night of rooms.
And while it
might be wet, it's still 60 degrees. The last time Tim
Findlay had to wait around for roadside assistance he
was in Sudbury, Ontario, where a February night at 30
below might be considered idyllic. A hotshot sniper
for the Windsor Spitfires of the junior Ontario Hockey
League, Findlay arrived in Austin this morning from
Detroit, where he spent four weeks with the Vipers of
the International League, the best league you can be
in if you're not surefire NHL material. The Vipers wanted
to stash Findlay with their AA team in Flint, Michigan,
but neither the warm fuzzy feeling Flint has had ever
since the movie "Roger and Me" nor the exciting prospect
of 10-hour bus rides to Thunder Bay were enough to keep
him there when Ice Bats coach Jim Burton called. Also,
Findlay's best friend and former Windsor teammate Ryan
Pawluk is on Austin's roster.
career is just three hours old, but he already wants
to know who won the scoring title last season. Told
the answer -- Chris Brooks, with 45 goals and 65 assists
for the Amarillo Rattlers -- the rookie, who found tonight's
action to be a little slow but also chippy enough that
he plans to wear a visor in future games, nods calmly.
"I'll have to take a run at that," he swaggers.
By now it's
6 a.m. Brian Fairfield has figured out what the driver
probably knew all along but didn't want to confess.
The bus is out of gas. And with diesel engines you can't
just fill 'er up.
If one more
thing could go wrong, it would be this -- at 6:35 the
rain begins to fall again, hard. Fortunately, the back-up
bus lumbers down Highway 71 at that very moment. The
players drag their gear onto the new bus, and 10 minutes
later, as the sights of LaGrange (former home of the
Chicken Ranch, a.k.a. the Best Little Whorehouse in
Texas) fly by, the sun is up and the Bats are back to
So -- first
day of the season, new team, new coach, new bus -- it's
a good thing hockey players aren't superstitious! Jim
Burton tries to put an optimistic spin on the ordeal.
"This is a good
sign," the coach reasons, displaying a glass-half-full
optimism that should serve him well in certain post-game
interviews situations. "It means it won't happen again."
The team pulls
into the parking lot of the Chaparral Ice Center at
8 a.m., just in time for morning traffic. Practice is
in four hours.
The bus had
left for Lake Charles the previous morning at 11:05
a.m., which for the Ice Bats is a remarkably accurate
approximation of 11.
Not for the
first time, Burton expresses his amazement at Gunner
Garrett, the team's equipment manager, who occupies
the first row on the left. He's seen Gunner do his thing
a million times, but this is his first close-up look.
does is sleep. Sitting up, head back, pillow between
his face and the window, he sleeps and sleeps and sleeps
and sleeps. If the trip is three hours long, Gunner
needs three hours of sleep. If it's 10 hours long, Gunner
can stay unconscious for the duration. If the bus stops
for lunch Gunner will wake up, eat and konk back out
without warning. When an older player tries to tease
him about it, Gunner is quick to strike back. "I sleep
for five hours on the bus. You sleep for three hours
after we get to the rink," he says. Besides, the 55-year-old
former goalie earns his naps with all those late nights
and early mornings, doing laundry and maintaining sticks
and skates. "This bus will add 10 years to my life,"
Gunner speculates before nodding off. "It has seat belts,
so I won't slide forward."
out loud if it's okay for him to use the aisle seat
in Gunner's row as a footrest.
"I did that
all the time," Stoughton says, "but he always pushed
me away when my feet got too close to his crotch."
Around 2 p.m.
the bus stops in Houston for lunch, settling on a versatile
suburban strip on the west side of town that features
a Pappadeaux's, a Pappasito's, a Fuddrucker's and a
Macaroni Grill. Most guys opt for the latter establishment,
pasta carbo-loading being the pre-game ritual of choice
for most. The waiter brings out a basket of bread with
a plate of olive oil for heart-healthy dipping. "You
don't see that in Peterborough," Jay Hutton says, before
discovering that he doesn't care for the taste of olive
oil. Kyle Haviland does -- he ends up pigging out on
the bread before his salad and spaghetti come. Another
player might worry that he'd lose a step during the
game, but Haviland is a tough, immobile crease-clearing
defenseman and enforcer. He doesn't have a step to lose.
Andy Ross ends
up at Fuddrucker's, where he enjoyed a nice plate of
lemon pepper chicken. This information is made public
because "Roscoe" -- the nickname goes all the way back
to the "Dukes of Hazzard" -- has been getting teased
about his diet since he showed up in the morning with
a bag full of McDonald's.
needs some potato chips," Stoughton had cracked when
the bus stopped at a convenience store. The truth is
Stoughton and Burton have been pleased with Ross's training
camp conditioning so far, but because he's a smoker,
and has been known to enjoy a libation or two, they
ride him hard. They understand him all too well. Burton
happens to be the other guy pacing outside the bus when
it's time to light up, and there's little doubt that
when Stoughton was in the NHL he was also a "play hard,
play hard" kind of guy. When Stoughton was in the NHL,
By the time
lunch is finished it's 3:30 p.m. and the bus is on the
wrong side of Houston, right in time for early rush
hour. Thanks to the ensuing traffic jam the team is
still at least 60 minutes away from Lake Charles . .
. at 5:30.
tomorrow, right?" asks Gunner, who has woken up to navigate.
In fact, not
only is the game tonight, it's at 7, not 7:30. The Ice
Bats are comically late.
At 6:20 the
bus whizzes past the oil refineries and into downtown
Lake Charles, which consists of two neon pink-and-teal-colored
casino boats and one generic shiny glass building. It's
a muggy, 65-degree night, but outside the arena a group
of kids are playing in a pile of snow -- the telltale
sign of a nearby Zamboni. The players change into their
khakis and golf shirts on the bus. They're supposed
to be out on the ice for warm-ups, sticks bent and taped,
skates sharpened, pads and sweaters on, in just 10 minutes.
touch those cases," Gunner tells the bus driver when
he attempts to offload some gear. "I got the rookies
for that." The rookies aren't quite sure what to make
of the Gun Man yet -- he maintains a gruff, laconic
demeanor that puts the fear of God in them if they do
the wrong thing. "I don't carry skates son, I just sharpen
them," he tells one naif. And: "If you don't put your
sticks in the right place, you can take 'em to the bench
is fairly meaningless, but there is a subplot, and its
name is Bobby Wallwork. Wallwork was the Ice Bats' player
assistant and leading goal-scorer last year, but, after
some fractious and mutually bullheaded negotiations
with Stoughton, he fled for Lake Charles, where the
team also got him started on a real estate career. Some
of his closest friends are Ice Bats. Many of them played
together before in Memphis and Muskegon, Michigan. Wallwork
was the guy who brought everyone together in Texas for
the inaugural season.
When the bus
pulls in, "Wally" is waiting. He has a hug for Ryan
Anderson and happily braces himself for Gunner's greeting.
"Just what I thought: afraid to play," Garrett says,
eyeing Wallwork's street clothes. In fact, Lake Charles
is sitting seven of its best players tonight so they
can give the ice time to less proven commodities. Before
returning to his new team's locker room, Wallwork makes
sure his buddies realize exactly how little he misses
Austin. "Check out the talent in the stands," he gloats,
gesturing at the wide assortment of exotically beautiful
This will be
the first night of hockey for Lake Charles and its civic
center. The game isn't even open to the public, just
boosters, advertisers, corporate sponsors and other
local dignitaries. Sixty-five miles away in Lafayette
the East Coast League team draws 10,000 people a night,
so hopes are high for this market. The visiting locker
room isn't finished -- the lavatory consists of two
toilets, sitting there wide open like some sort of conversation
pit -- and the home team doesn't have its uniforms.
Most of the players wear plain yellow or white jerseys,
but there are more training-camp aspirants than shirts,
so a few guys sport generic "NHL" practice sweaters.
While the players
guzzle Powerade, Jim Burton puts on a sports coat and
ponders who to start in goal. As the incumbent, Chad
Erickson assumed he would get the initial minutes, but
that does not turn out to be the case. Erickson tells
Burty that advance notice would be appreciated next
to know," he explains.
grudgingly and half sincerely, invites Chad to help
him out with any other useful pointers.
Erickson grumbles. "Gotta break 'em in."
The team quiets
down for Burton's first official locker room address.
things I dislike," he says. "One is negative talk --
backstabbing, complaining on the bench. The other is,
you can't play for me if you're lazy out there. You
don't have to go retarded all the time, but don't be
lazy. Short shifts. Have fun.
"And if you
wanna show me something," he adds, referring to the
rough stuff, "show me in the third."
rules state that if you fight twice, you're automatically
ejected. But fighting is pretty much what the night's
about, much to the delight of the crowd. "You ain't
got no crazy @#$% like us in Texas!" says Brad Downs,
a slightly tipsy fan who leads "Let's Go Ice Pirates"
cheers all night.
to pump 'em up," Downs explains, adding that he thinks
the fights are the best part.
"We like the
fights," Brad's friend Beau Diamond clarifies, "because
we don't know the damn rules."
That will come
in time. When Kyle Haviland uncorks a slapper that sends
the blade of his stick flying over the crossbar, Gunner
can be seen explaining to a bench-side fan how the stick's
construction makes that possible. And between periods,
the Pirates put on a demonstration of how icing works.
is more fighting than icing. Over the course of the
evening, seven different Bats drop the gloves, including
Rapcewicz, who'd been taken aside by Burton before the
game and told to stir it up at least once.
scores a goal, but that's of little consequence compared
to his skirmish, an ill-tempered, verbiage-rich tiff
that leaves onlooker Ryan Anderson chuckling appreciatively,
as if he was remembering a long-ago time when he too
was prone to such youthful indiscretions.
his turn, though. In the third an Ice Pirate calls him
out with this simple taunt: "All you Western Canada
boys are (wussies)."
"So I went after
him," Anderson says. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't
plays well between the pipes. His counterpart Erickson
does not, much to the amusement of his teammates. But
the veteran goalie is happy to play along. "I handled
it like a girl," he says of a textbook wraparound chance,
joking that he let it by on purpose so the aspiring
Ice Pirate who took the shot would have a better chance
to make the team.
Jackson also has a big night, earning himself the old
"Gordie Howe hat trick" -- a goal, an assist and a fight.
But the stars of the evening are Jake's new linemates,
who each lit the lamp, while also assisting on his score.
"Those two kids that just came -- number 8 and number
9," Anderson says, referring to Findlay and Pawluk.
"They're gonna be great players. I don't even know their
Greystone Books, Canada.