Craisins -- never leave home without them.
That was one of many lessons taken away from my day with the Greensboro Generals of the East Coast Hockey League.
What started out as an opportunity to spend more time with Geno Parrish (newly promoted to assistant captain in the absence of All-Star Kurt Drummond) quickly turned into an in-depth look at a day in the life of an ECHL team.
The day started with a brisk 10 AM practice at the Greensboro Ice House. Unlike the groupie-mobbed practices of the Carolina Hurricanes at the RecZone in Raleigh, the Generals practice in relative obscurity. A designated booster club member, an intern (who remembers hockey from the 1950s) and me were about the only people not connected with the team at the practice. Once practice is over, the players disperse to various places to grab lunch and chill. Bus should arrive at 1:45 pm.
The bus arrives about 45 minutes later than it should. Patrick Houlihan (a.k.a. Hoops) has a discussion with the bus driver - imagine Mr. T. without the gold, the mohawk or the bad acting - about when the bus is supposed to arrive. Amazingly, all of the equipment is loaded on time.
That's when booster club member Ray Fuller shows up and informs Toronto Maple Leafs' property Jamie Hodson that he has his Craisins.
Oh yes, the Craisins.
The Ukranian players, Vlad Serov and Roman Marakhovski feel the need to investigate this genetically altered-looking snack that apparently isn't too popular over there. After much convincing, they try them and determine that they are tasty. Score one for the power of dried cranberries.
While this mini-drama is going on, another one begins. The tires on the bus just don't look right. No one can figure out exactly why, but they just seem low. After consultation, the problem is deemed to be one of simply cold tires. At least that is what we all hope…
Head coach Rick Adduono arrives. He is about 5-foot-10 and looks the part by wearing the official Generals windsuit, his full head of dark hair with just the right amount of executive gray creeping in. Getting everything settled in with that many people is challenging. Coach began by trying to find the movies he had left for the guys. After searching, he locates the trip's entertainment. When questioned about the location of the box he had labeled "Greensboro Generals Movies," he was informed that the cleaning crew had removed the box. Crisis averted, things began to settle in.
If you don't know your way around a bus, we were riding a Sleeper 12. This is great because it has two separate sleeping compartments and 12 guys can stretch out and relax before the game. Of course, let's do the math - 12 beds, 19 players, one trainer, one assistant coach, one Broadcaster, an equipment manager, an assistant equipment manager and an lcshockey.com reporter.
I quickly learned the pecking order of the ECHL: Veterans get beds, rookies get the floor, one player, in this case Chris Bell, get stuck up front listening to the coaches, team people and the media guys talk for the entire trip. This didn't seem to bother him - more on that later. Of course, lcshockey.com guys get a choice between the end of the bench with Chris Bells' legs in their backs for the three-hour trip or the cooler. I chose the bench. Trainer D.J Amadio got the cooler.
Rookie goalie and former Brandon Wheat King Jamie Hodson came up front looking for something and Coach asked him if he had an air mattress.
"If you're on a bus, you should have one of these," he said. He went up front, turned on what has to be the world's smallest hair dryer and inflates it. Pecking order redefined: Vets on beds, Rookies on floor, starting goaltender on air mattress.
Lcshockey.com reporter still on the bench.
For those of you who wondered what life was like with the players, it isn't exactly Slap Shot (OK, maybe the French-Canadian goalie, Daniel Bearthiaume did bring back some memories). Bearthiaume is a journeyman goaltender who played in "the show" back in the 1980s and early 1990s. He wears a very stylish bandana under his helmet. The French are known for fashion, you know.
The trip to Richmond is mostly about sleeping. Some guys read, but for the most part they all take a nap. Even the colorful "Bertie," as he is known to his teammates, takes time to relax.
The rest of the trip was spent talking hockey with Adduono, assistant coach Dean Shmyr and broadcaster and director of media relations, Arley Johnson. To give you a taste of what life is like for those guys, picture a booth at your favorite late-night eating establishment. Cut it in half. Then put a 6-foot former defenseman and the broadcaster in the smaller half. Got the picture? Good. You have now defined torture for three hours.
Arriving at the Richmond Coliseum was probably much the same as it was in the 1970s for the Richmond Robins. Everyone piled off the bus and grabbed their equipment from the cargo area. The players began to file into the main locker room while some of the guys, most notably Jamie Hodson, went to the training room. The training room was also the coaches' dressing room.
If you have never been to the Richmond Coliseum, everything about the building is gray (except for the brown seats). There doesn't appear to be a redeeming thing about it. The access to the building is underground, there is always water dripping. The Coliseum has the cheery ambiance of Kurtz's "Estate" in Apocolypse Now.
Hoopsy, as the Generals' Equipment Manager is known, immediately went to work unloading sticks. This is fascinating: a strip of tape (hockey players love tape) is strung along the wall and then the players numbers are put in numeric order, the sticks are then put out in order. Unlike the NHL players who have different sticks for each period, most guys have one or two sticks. Parrish quipped, "I am still waiting for my sticks to arrive from Canada."
If you have the wrong color blade in the NHL, call your manufacturer. If you have the wrong color blade in the ECHL, call Hoopsy. He brings the spray paint over and, after a few quick hits, there you have it: a black blade. Of course, what do you do with a black blade? Tape it white.
If you have the wrong color socks in the NHL, call your agent and he brings you a new pair. Of course, having the wrong color socks in the ECHL causes different problems. Not that he's ever done this, but assistant coach Schmyr said that using black spray paint on white athletic socks creates a nice "dress gray." Who needs Martha Stewart?
The first 55 minutes of the game were fairly uneventful. When many of our NHL fans think of ECHL hockey, they look at Slap Shot and the awful Slap Shot II. The reality is something quite different. Where expansion has diluted the talent in the NHL, the talent level at the ECHL has become much better thanks to experienced coaches, stronger affiliations with AHL and NHL teams. Guys like Bertie can make a decent living and still be involved with the game of hockey.
Even NHL Hall-of-Famer, Rod Langway stopped by to see the affair. For those of you, who don't remember, lcshockey.com chronicled Rod's time as a key member of a team that led Richmond to the ECHL Championship back in the 1994-1995 Season.
Just when it looked like the best of what the ECHL has to offer, the game turned on its ear with 5 minutes remaining. From the broadcasters' booth it was difficult to see why, but the game turned into a "Gong Show" - a penalty-filled affair that often results in injuries and stupid penalties. Think, well… Slap Shot. OK, Slap Shot with less fighting and more stickwork. Think Philadelphia Flyers of the early 1970s.
During the last five minutes there were two slashing majors, one slew-foot, two fights and three game misconducts. There were so many penalties that it was very difficult to figure out who did what to whom. At any moment, WWE star and fine actor (he was great on Saturday Night Live), the Rock, could have made an appearance and still been upstaged.
Pete Gardiner was the first to go down to a vicious slash to the back of the legs. What made this worse was that his parents were listening in via the Internet. Fortunately, he was only out for the next game. The video showed a swing worthy of Barry Bonds. Gardiner was lucky to be walking. How does the song go, "Mama's don't let your babies grow up to be Hockey Players…"
The stick-swinging incidents ended with Generals captain Jay Murphy suffering a broken index finger. Lars Pettersen used a baseball swing to slash Murphy, then Dan Vandermeer slashed Murphy a few more times for good measure. This resulted in Murphy's finger being in his words "twisted around." Murphy flapped his mangled digit in the referee's face to no avail. Two minutes for Pettersen, six weeks for Murphy.
Murphy showed great toughness by getting a shot toward the net with a severely broken finger, but he'd need even more dexterity for what awaited him. NHL players get X-rays, MRIs and a personal nurse. Amadio, the Generals trainer renowned for his Oriental-influenced massage, acupressure techniques, and his excellent spiky blond hair, had to twist Murphy's detached bone back into place and wrap it with a splint. Murphy's reward for scoring two goals and putting together an overall strong game: a bus ride back in immense pain and a noon date with a doctor to re-adjust his finger about a quarter of an inch.
Two fights punctuated the Gong Show, including one by Serov, the diminutive Russian winger. After trading slashes with a Renegades defenceman, the Craisin-loving Serov dropped the gloves and started to go. The best part of the fight was watching all three officials falling all over themselves to try and stop Serov from throwing punches. That wasn't the only time these guys fell all over themselves. Where is MacMahon, of the Jesse Ventura WWF days, when you need him.
The game ended with Renegades coach Gord Dineen and Generals boss Adduono shouting at each other. Great theater, but not exactly how you want a game to end.
When asked about the situation later, Adduono said, "Gord is a class guy… This is not his type of game." Everything else was said to former NHL official Gord Broseker, who happened to be in attendance, during a hallway conversation outside of the officials' dressing room. Broseker spoke with both coaches after the game, and there were several suspensions to Richmond and Greensboro players. The teams played the following night with rosters smaller than most mite teams.
The locker room was somber after the game. Every one of the guys seemed upset about what occurred. The Generals' players piled back on the bus for, you guessed it, more sleep. The Richmond Coliseum doesn't do a good job of separating the team locker rooms, so the players have to deal with each other on the way out. Sometimes this can result in interesting situations.
Once everyone got on the bus, it was time for the video replay. Many of the players sat at the front of the bus and watched the last five minutes in utter disbelief. The oohs and aaahs while watching slash after slash made the bus sound more like a circus than a slumber party. Eventually, everyone settled down and got some rest.
Benchmate, Chris Bell, didn't seem to mind the distractions of the ride up. He put together an impressive night, assisting on a goal and scoring one. He got a sleeper compartment on the way back. Hodson, who one the game still got the air mattress. I got the cooler. Serov got the Craisins and the bench.
The bus arrived back at Greensboro with a total of one swollen ankle, one broken finger, a pair of bruised fists, my ripped pants (from the cooler) and a bunch of tired players. Practice time was announced by the coach for the next day: 11a.m. Why so early? They have to prepare to play, who else, Richmond at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Don't forget the Craisins.