By Len Bardsley
Nathan Forster was living a pretty good life for a 24-year-old, moving from beach to beach in Australia, searching for the perfect wave.
You would think it would take a lot to convince Forster to leave the surf and sand to play hockey for a team with a travel schedule that would make any jet-setter cringe.
OK, maybe it took a little more selling for Forster than it did for teammate Aaron Plumb, who left a comfortable job, a wife and young daughter at home to hit the road for the first six weeks of the season for the Victoria Salmon Kings.
It is all worth it, however, for players from the Victoria area for a chance to play ECHL hockey in their hometown.
Forster was a seventh-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals in 1998 and was playing in the American Hockey League for the Portland Pirates when he was injured and told to take at least a year off from hockey.
“I decided to go traveling,” said Forster. “I didn’t think I would be able to play again, but it worked out well and I was able to play.”
Forster knew an ECHL team was making its way to Victoria, but he was a world removed from that scene.
“I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know much about it,” said Forster. “There was not a lot of coverage of hockey in Australia. Greg Batters (Salmon Kings assistant coach) tracked me down and asked if I wanted to come home and play. I told him I had not done anything in two years, but it didn’t seem to bother him.”
The idea of being able to play hockey at a high level while being at home made the decision to return easy for Forster.
“I am not just playing hockey,” said Forster. “I am going to school. Being able to play at home is a whole different perspective. Here it is nice to have friends outside of hockey.”
Like Forster, Plumb was away from hockey, but unlike his teammate it was never far from his mind. Plumb was working in the parks and recreation department in Duncan, about 45 minutes away from Victoria, so he was well aware of the Salmon Kings moving into the area.
“That was the worst summer of my life,” said Plumb of the anticipation of the Salmon Kings season. “I would read about all my buddies coming to town to play. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was thinking, `Should I call the coach?’ ”
Plumb didn’t have to make the call; he went to a Salmon Kings preseason game in Duncan and talked to Salmon Kings forward Ryan Finnerty, who mentioned the team was looking for defenseman.
Plumb said he was interested, he was contacted the following day and two days later he was at practice. Within a week he got on a plane for the first of many Salmon Kings road games.
“I had a pretty cushy job working in Duncan,” said Plumb. “I had a great boss who said he would have gone in a heartbeat. He loves hockey, so he said if you can go and still help them out, do it. I love the game and being close to home is a bonus.”
The problem was the Salmon Kings were anything but close to home to open the season.
The team started the season with 14 straight road games, due to problems with their new arena, the Save-on-Foods Memorial Center.
“I knew they started on the road, but I didn’t know the extreme,” said Plumb, who has a wife (Susan) and a 2-year-old daughter (Kennedy). “We were home three, maybe four days in November. It was pretty tough. My wife never got to plan for it. We didn’t see it coming. I am practicing with the team one day and leaving the next, it was kind of a whirlwind.”
The Salmon Kings are playing their home games this season at Bear Mountain Arena, which seats about 2,700, compared to over 7,000 the new arena will seat. The Salmon Kings are sharing Bear Mountain Arena with the Victoria Salsa, a junior team that plays in the British Columbia Hockey League, which made for the unusual schedule.
The Salmon Kings finally had their home opener on Dec. 5 against Bakersfield, and they don’t hit the road again until Jan. 7, when they travel to Alaska.
“It took so long for it to come,” said Salmon Kings goalie Jason Stone of the home opener. “Everyone was flying, the place was packed and it was rocking.”
Like Plumb, Stone is from Duncan. He was thrilled to hear Victoria was getting an ECHL team and contacted head coach Bryan Maxwell right away, only to find out he already had signed two goalies. Stone persisted when his second choice, returning to the Muskegon Fury of the United Hockey League, fell through.
“I asked to come to camp and I ended up beating out the two goalies he had signed,” said Stone. “It has worked out pretty well.”
The players certainly appreciate being home for the holidays.
“I have never been able to make it home for Christmas,” said Plumb, who also played in the West Coast Hockey League and the Central League. “When I played in Tacoma (WHL) we had to fly on Christmas Day at 11 a.m. I played in Wichita (CHL), we had to leave on the bus Christmas night. This is unbelievable to be home on Christmas and be able to play the game. My family can be home for Christmas with their granddaughter.”
Plumb and his teammates are not fans of the 90-minute ferry ride to Vancouver to catch a flight, or the eight-hour trip to Seattle depending on the destination, but the rewards, which include over a month at home, are great.
“It is worth it,” said Plumb. “It is hard while you are doing it, but it is certainly worth it.”
The Salmon Kings still have a tough schedule ahead of them, including a 12-game road trip.
It is a trip Forster actually is looking forward too. It seems like the Salmon Kings are a prefect fit for anyone who loves Victoria and loves to travel.
“That was one of the reasons I thought it would fun to come back,” said Forster.