"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

TONIGHT, IT'S FIGHTS ON ICE; Life on the road with the Austin Ice Bats

BY JASON COHEN

In 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.

Now everyone's 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.

Guys wander 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 five o-clock.

The Ice Bats can wait until then. They aren't going anywhere.

Brian Fairfield 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."

Freckled and 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 western shirts.

Tonight's vestment 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 work.

"Get out from under there before you get your country ass run over!" someone shouts.

But Fairfield 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.

Breakdowns are 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.

Findlay's WPHL 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 sleep.

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.

What Gunner 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."

Burty wonders 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.

"Wait, Roscoe 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, everyone was.

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.

"We're playing 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.

"Don't ever 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 yourself."

Tonight's game 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 Louisiana gals.

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 time.

"Goalies like to know," he explains.

Burton, half grudgingly and half sincerely, invites Chad to help him out with any other useful pointers.

"Rookie coaches," Erickson grumbles. "Gotta break 'em in."

The team quiets down for Burton's first official locker room address.

"There's two 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."

Exhibition game 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.

"I'm trying 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.

Tonight there 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.

"Scrapsy" also 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.

Anderson gets 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 enjoy it."

Brian Fairfield 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.

Mike "Jake" 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 names."

Copyright 2001, Greystone Books, Canada.

 


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