56 games into a 56 game season and I was finally struck by the urge to put together a roadtrip blog for all of the Ice Bear fans who have been asking for one all season. It’s not that I don’t enjoy blogging and it doesn't have anything to do with a lack of content – this year’s edition of the Ass Bears is good for many entertaining story worthy moments – it’s simply due to the fact that I spend most of my hours on the road hoping that we don’t end up along the side of it. One of the truly consistent and realistic parts of coaching a team at this level is the fact that transportation, scheduling and everything that lies in between usually require an “it is what it is” mindset to get through it.

                The Ice Bears travel on a Prevost bus that, to put it nicely, is roughly 500,000 miles past its prime. The organization purchased “the pig” 6 years ago and though it has served honorably during its tenure as our primary transportation and we've had the luxury of owning, not leasing over that time period; I’ll be motioning that we trade it in for a box of Fruit by the Foot and some seat cushions for the Coliseum this summer.

                This morning’s road trip kicked off in style with veteran forward Matt Pierce pulling the wool over Kevin Flather’s eyes in convincing fashion. Since the trip to Desoto County is too long for one driver to make the trip up and back in one day by himself, we use a back-up driver to cover the couple of hours that remain in excess. Our back-up driver Jeff Christian sits in the navigation chair up next to the driver and when Flats’ stepped up onto the bus he was a little confused by the new face. He turned to Piercey and said, “who’s that guy?” Without missing a beat and with a straight face Piercey answered, “Mikey brought in a new forward for the playoffs.”

                For those reading this blog who are familiar with the culture of professional hockey, you’re already chuckling a little bit. For those of you who aren’t, well….. the daily life of a hockey player at this level consists of constant roster moves, job uncertainty and regular doses of humble pie and self-doubt. Flather is a fairly new player for this organization having only been with us for just over a month and that only adds to the uncertainty. After letting Piercey’s information register for a minute, Flats’ began his investigation and sat back listening to Jeff chat with the guys and Lynn, the other driver. To try and paint a picture of Jeff’s “demeanor” for my readers, let’s just say that if you listened to him talk for ummmm, let’s say 10 seconds, it would be pretty clear that he’s a Southern fella. Jeff has an unmistakably heavy Southern drawl and could be fairly referred to as a good ole boy.
                This only confused Flats’ more. First of all, why would we be bringing in a new player with 1 game left in the season? Second of all, why would he get one of the prime seats on the bus? And thirdly, he seemed a little older than most players at this level appeared to be. “Where’d he play?” Flat’s asked. “Somewhere in West Virgina. Old teammate of Oly’s.” Answered Piercey. “What’s he play?” Flat’s wondered. “I dunno man. Power forward or something.” Fired back Piercey.

                Kevin Flather processed this cruel joke for about 10-15 minutes in the back of the bus after alerting all the rest of the forwards who were unaware that somebody may be losing their job shortly before it finally dawned on him; it was a joke! That little charade got us almost to the Watt Rd exit and 20 miles into our 400 mile trek. A good start to the day.

                Another staple of the Ice Bear Express would be the ongoing jockeying for bunk seniority. The set-up of this particular interior allowed for only 12 sleeping bunks and limited space for lounging, and more importantly, sleeping. The 12 most senior players on the roster from Olauson at the top plus whoever is the starting goalie that night all roll into the bunks and take up vacancy. After that there is “U” shaped couch in the back of the bus which is referred to as the “rookie ranch” because it is usually home to a handful of least senior guys. The ranch can sleep 2 on the couch and then a foam mattress is placed on the floor to accommodate a 3rd body. This is always an entertaining scenario as well because in order for the rookie ranch to achieve a complete state of lights out and sleep, everyone has to be in agreement that it’s bedtime. As you can probably guess, that is a rare occurrence. Some guys like to stay up late after games, some guys don’t nap as much during the day trips, some guys talk on the phone, some guys want to watch TV, and on and on.

       With 12 bunks, 3 sleeping in the ranch and the entire front of the bus converted into a lounge with no bunks, that leaves only one solution for the remaining 3 or 4 players; the floor. Now before you get the wrong impression – these guys aren’t sleeping on the cold hard floor of a bus – they have foam mattresses too. Thought not the most luxurious place to spend the night or the day of a professional hockey game, they do the trick nicely for us and the guys have gotten used to it. One thing they haven’t gotten used to though, are the ever changing temperatures caused by foam mattresses and bodies jammed up against the air vents and intakes along the base of the interior.

“IT’S 100 DEGREES ON THIS &%$#@!#$ BUS BRO.”

     The solution is not usually as simple as flipping a switch to make it cooler either. The problem is usually either the lack of air flow, a blown fuse, leaking freon, a generator malfunction or all of the above. By the time the problem has been diagnosed there are usually several sweaty, miserable hockey players yelling at each other and bellyaching like three year olds in the back while all of the staff in the front laugh. It seems funny while I’m typing it, but there is certainly an uncomfortable level that we can all understand when you’re cooped up on a bus along with 23 other people, there is nowhere to go and the air conditioning goes out.

     This particular bus trip was missing a key component and cast member of the squad though with the absence of forward Brett Valliquette, who adds a certain ingredient of his own to all situations. Vally is usually in the center of any argument, discussion or story that takes place (whether he was involved initially or not) on this bus and it usually ends with him being banished to his bunk because he has annoyed everyone around him. It’s extremely hard to escape or find any shelter from the Viper in such a small, tight area at the front of the bus and Brett has a fairly short window of time to interact before I kick him out. I think my favorite Valliquette-ism would have to be the trip he tried to convince everyone that if you were judging his looks or level of attraction to the opposite sex on a scale of 1 – 10, that he was unarguably a 12.
“Boys. Figure it out. I’m a 12 bro.”
“Who told you that Vally, your mom?”

     I think that a certain number of miles and years on the road kind of develops a certain attitude when it comes to the situations that arise. Most players and a lot of my guys have seen their fair share of bus trips and could fill 100 blogs with the stories that they have heard or been a part of.

     One story that comes to mind from this season involves our equipment manager Mark “Psycho” Williamson and the early stages of a stomach virus that began spreading through the team. We had just won 3 games in a row, including back to back overtime wins in Biloxi, so I thought the guys deserved a little time to celebrate their hard work and success. We decided to spend a few hours at the Hard Rock Casino on the Gulf Coast before we hit the highway and the night turned out to be a great time had by all; until Psycho’s stomach started turning on him.

    We were about 30 minutes up the highway en route back to Knoxville and most of the staff including myself had traded out their seats in the front of the bus with players who weren't quite ready to call it a night for bunks. Psycho was wrapped up in his blanket and situated in the first bottom bunk on the right and had just settled in for some rest when his guts began barking.

      Picture this: you’re in a bunk about 7 ft long and a foot ½ high locked onto a moving vehicle full of hockey players who are enjoying the spoils of victory all around you and probably not the most helpful of bedside nurses at the time. The aisle that leads to the only toilet on the bus is a very narrow hallway and is currently littered with bodies, items and all sorts of everything else. The light in your bunk stopped working back in 1997, you can’t see, there is loud music blaring and the stomach virus that you’re picked up isn’t waiting one second longer.

     Have you ever taken a new garbage bag out from under the sink and spent 3-5 minutes trying to figure out which end is the top and which is the bottom? Once you determine which is which, it’s usually another few minutes of squeezing the two sides together to try and open it up. Well……. The boys gave Psycho a brand new garbage bag to spend the night in his bunk with and well - - - - it was a rough one.

                “It’s on me!”
                “What is that smell bro?”
                “Vally is puking.”
                “So is Plow.”
                “Dude, that reeks.”
                “I’m gonna throw up.”
                “Pull over.”
                “Is the air conditioning working?”

                We are approaching the welcoming city limits of Southaven, MS and some of the fellas’ are staggering sleepy eyed out of their caves after a long trip of slumber so I will wrap things up for today, thank you for reading and enjoy the rest of the day.

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