By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – In the quiet black of midnight, a few cars and trucks pull up to a deserted Germain Arena.
Bleary-eyed players stumble out, lugging hockey bags full of equipment and skates onto a large bus.
“C’mon boys,” a tall, blond French Canadian yells, and everyone looks and gets in line.
It’s time for another Florida Everblades road trip.
The Blades left late at night on Wednesday this week for their penultimate road trip of the season, a two-game jaunt to South Carolina, then back to Florida early next week, then back on the road at Gwinnett, Ga., and South Carolina.
Life on the road is as much a part of ECHL hockey as unusual team names and AHL call-ups. For every game in front of thousands of Blades fans at Germain Arena, there is a bus trip to an unfamiliar city, a night of sleeping on the road and a day of searching for nearby restaurants within walking distance.
“On the road in the minors makes you tough,” coach Gerry Fleming — that tall, blond French Canadian — says. “When (the players) do arrive in the NHL, they realize the sacrifices were all worth it. NHL road trips are totally different.”
NHL teams have private jets, they eat at five-star restaurants and stay in luxury hotels.
The Blades get $32 per diem, ride the bus, and while they stay in good hotels, it’s never the Ritz.
A typical game day on the road for the Blades starts at 9 a.m. The team tries to stay at hotels with continental breakfasts, to save per diem money. They load the bus at 10, get on the ice at 11:15 and skate until around noon. At 12:30, the bus takes them back to the hotel. They’ll have lunch at 1 p.m., usually nap from around 2-4:30, and then head back to the arena for stretching, meetings and game preparation from 5-7 p.m.
Then, of course, the game usually from 7:30 p.m. until about 10:30 p.m.
“I’ve been here for what, four years now. … I know how road trips go,” said Blades veteran Ernie Hartlieb after describing the team’s carefully planned schedule.
Fleming and assistant coach Jason Nobili put it all together. While NHL and most AHL teams hire someone to coordinate travel, Nobili and Fleming do it all on their own. They usually have to tell the hotels at least three times — we’re arriving at 3 in the morning on Saturday.
If all goes according to plan, which it usually does, the room keys are laid out when the team gets in. If not, like one time in Charlotte when the hotel didn’t have space until the next afternoon, Fleming and Nobili make frantic calls from the bus to find availability at other places.
Often, in multi-city trips, the Blades will play a night game and immediately board the bus for another city, arriving around 2 or 3 a.m. They can’t check in to the hotel until they bring all of their equipment to the rink.
“That is the toughest part,” Fleming said. “Going to the rink and unloading all your gear and making sure it’s all hung up right after you’ve been sleeping for two or three hours.”
Fleming should know. He spent seven years playing in the AHL.
“The only thing that’s changed is the bus,” he said.
Among South Division teams, the Blades probably have the biggest budget for travel, given their success and cash flow. But they also travel the most often, as Nobili pointed out.
Every road trip is a lengthy one for the Blades, who unlike South Carolina, Charlotte and Columbia, don’t have a team just a few hours down the road.
And outside of diagramming power-play formations and analyzing game tape, Fleming and Nobili spend a great deal of time trying to make road trips as comfortable for the team as possible.
“The best thing is when you can walk to the rink from the hotel, and there are convenient restaurants and amenities within walking distance, too,” Nobili said. “Otherwise, if guys want to go anywhere they have to take a cab.”
“We try to do everything we can to make sure everything is taken care of and they can just focus on playing hockey.”
While there haven’t been any major road trip mishaps this season — like five years ago when the bus got into an accident at 4 a.m. on the way back from Greenville, S.C. — this year’s Blades haven’t really found their road niche on the ice yet. Their home record of 22-5-3 ranks third in the ECHL, but the Blades are 13-15-5 on the road.
During one particularly bad stretch, Hartlieb remembers Fleming coming to the players’ hotel rooms at night and doing “room checks.”
“I remember each and every time that’s happened since I’ve been here because I hate them,” Hartlieb said. “Here I am, 29 years old, and I’m getting my room checked by my coach, like a 12-year-old kid.”
Things have gotten better since then. Fleming said he thinks the younger players are adjusting to road life and the team is “making strides.”
Watching the Blades travel together, the road seems to be the thing that brings the team together more than anything else.
Fleming and Nobili are the surrogate fathers, gathering their 20 or so “boys” together, organizing everything — including making sure players who are called up to northern AHL teams have enough warm clothing.
“There’s a tremendous amount of responsibility as a coach,” Fleming said.
And the players seem to respect that.
“Our team acts on how Gerry’s acting,” Hartlieb said. “If he’s happy and chipper, guys are happy and chipper. If he’s down, then guys are down and quiet, too.”
Rookie Brandon Roach, who’s used to rough travel after playing juniors in Maine and frequently making 16-hour trips on a charter bus, put it like this.
“Yeah, our team is a family on the road.”
They’d probably trade it all in for chartered NHL jets and five-star treatment, but for now, the life on the road seems to define each year’s Blades.
How does it define this year’s bunch?
Guess we’ll have to wait and see in the playoffs.
Total miles traveled this regular season by the Blades: 26,206
Miles traveled so far through Saturday: 24,688
Florida to Pensacola – 9 hrs.
Florida to Mississippi – 11 hrs.
Florida to Texas – 2 1/2 by plane + 1 1/2 by bus from Houston to Beaumont
Florida to Gwinnett – 9 hrs.
Florida to Augusta – 9 1/2 hrs.
Florida to Columbia – 10 hrs.
Florida to South Carolina – 9 hrs.
Florida to Charlotte – 11 hrs.
Also this year:
Texas to Seattle by air, 4 hrs.; Seattle to Anchorage, 3 hrs.
Other distances traveled on bus (number of times done):
Mississippi to Pensacola – 1 1/2 hrs. (4)
Columbia to Augusta – 1 hr. (2)
Charlotte to South Carolina – 2 1/2 hrs. (2)
Gwinnett to Columbia – 3 hrs. (1)
Augusta to Charlotte – 2 1/2 hrs. (3)
Columbia to South Carolina – 1 1/2 hrs. (1)
Gwinnett to South Carolina – 5 hrs. (1)