01/15/2010 12:02 AM -
Most Eastern Conference teams play almost exclusively in their own backyards. Adirondack, Albany, Binghamton, Hartford, Lowell, Manchester, Portland and Springfield don’t travel to a single city west of Hamilton, Ontario.
By contrast, Western Conference teams like the Grand Rapids Griffins find themselves crisscrossing the continent to visit arenas from Toronto to Texas to British Columbia.
The Griffins’ 2009-10 schedule includes several extended road trips, none more challenging than the Dec.13-20 slate that saw the team complete eight games in 12 days, including a stretch of five games in five different cities.
After playing back-to-back games at Van Andel Arena on Dec. 11-12, the Griffins took an overnight bus to Toronto for a 5 o’clock Sunday game against the Marlies.
The Griffins returned to Grand Rapids for the better part of a day before boarding a bus Monday night for Peoria, where a Tuesday night game was scheduled. Immediately following the game, the team got back on a bus for Chicago, where an American Airlines flight to Texas awaited them on Wednesday.
There was little rest for the weary, though, as the Griffins played Friday night in San Antonio and Saturday night in Austin before completing the stretch with a 5 o’clock Sunday game in Houston.
It’s no wonder that the road is a bit of an adjustment for rookies from the college or junior hockey ranks. It’s enough to test the mettle of even NHL veterans.
“It’s a long year, especially at this level, with the buses and all of the travel,” said Griffins forward Patrick Rissmiller. “It’s not always an easy road, but everybody goes through it.”
Not surprisingly, hockey players are good at rolling with the punches. The Griffins Boosters Club supplies various treats – oranges, apples, bananas, cashews – to keep the players from growing hungry, and long bus rides are made tolerable with movies, iPods and card games.
Which is not to say that players don’t battle boredom. During a recent delay at O’Hare International Airport, Griffins forward Mike Walsh had some fun trolling for travelers by pulling the old dollar-on-dental-floss trick.
One person who is rarely ever bored is Griffins equipment manager Brad Thompson, the man responsible for making sure all of the team’s gear – jerseys, pants, gloves, pads, sticks and skates – always gets from Point A to Point B.
“My biggest concern is making sure everything gets to the city and nothing gets lost, so flying is the worst,” Thompson said. “That’s the most stressful part of my whole job.”
Players are responsible for their own carry-on luggage, but Thompson oversees dozens of equipment bags that must be checked at every airport, usually at a hefty fee.
“We usually check 47 to 50 bags and they charge $40 a bag and sometimes $80 when it’s over their weight limit, so it’s a lot of money, especially when you’re never sure everything will get to its destination,” Thompson said.
Just in case, Thompson always brings an extra set of equipment, except for skates, since players wear all different sizes. Inevitably, things get lost in the shuffle.
“Last year, Aaron Gagnon’s bag was lost in LaGuardia Airport for five days after the airline mislabeled the bag coming out of San Antonio,” he said. “Even then, it was only after I called them about fifty-thousand times that they called me back and said they had finally found the bag.”
Thompson will sometimes try to avoid the hassle by enlisting the help of his contacts throughout the AHL. In Chicago, he handed off gear to the Wolves’ equipment manager, who was able to transport the bags to the appropriate airline.
“It’s still so much stress, it’s hardly worth it,” he said. “When you get to (the next city), you hope everything’s there, but it’s still a crapshoot.”
Players try to lessen the chance that their things will get lost by minimizing what they take.
On the Griffins’ recent trip to Texas, the players braved bitter cold temperatures in Peoria, wearing only their suits on the walk from the hotel to the rink. “You’ve got to bite the bullet,” said Griffins captain Jamie Tardif.
“When we all travel together, we don’t want to have to wait for guys and their luggage, so everybody just brings a carry-on. It just makes life easier for everyone.”
Bob Kaser, Griffins vice president of community relations and broadcasting, remembers Kansas City Blades player Dody Wood as the ultimate traveler. “He’d pack an extra dress shirt in a shaving kit and that’s all he would take,” Kaser said.
That philosophy – if you don’t need it, why take it – is one of the reasons that players are only allowed to take a limited number of sticks per trip.
“We give them six sticks for a week-long road trip, which isn’t a whole lot,” Thompson said. “By the end of the week, it’ll be ‘Hold on and hope nothing breaks,’ but that’s the way it goes.”
Assistant equipment manager Jake Visser did not travel with the team on its recent Texas trip, which meant long hours for Thompson, who gets a helping hand from Griffins medical therapist Rob Snitzer.
“This being my 13th year, I’ve learned to adapt to finding sleep whenever I can,” Thompson said. “It might be on the bus or back at the hotel, but if you can find time to sleep, you sleep.”
Long days are the norm on the road.
Thompson may start sharpening skates at 8 a.m., then sets up the dressing room before the players arrive. After the morning skate, he’ll make sure all of the equipment dries before game time.
“I’ll work the game – sharpening skates, making quick equipment repairs, getting fresh gloves or new sticks – and then we’ll leave the rink around 11 o’clock at night,” Thompson said.
“We might get into the next town at 2 in the morning, where we’ll unpack all the gear at the arena to let it dry overnight. Sometimes that means we don’t get out of there until 4 o’clock, only to come back the next morning at 8.”
On the road, players will often pitch in. At the expansive Toyota Center in Houston, the players carried their own equipment bags into the arena, which earned Thompson’s thanks. “It normally would have taken me and Snitzer almost an hour and a half, but it took all of 10 minutes with their help,” he said.
It gave Thompson a little extra shuteye. For the most part, he figures the sandman will have to wait for the off-season.
“In the summer, I sleep practically all day, just to recharge my batteries for training camp, the regular season and playoffs,” Thompson said. “It’s a long haul.”
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