By Evan Woodbery
COLUMBIA, S.C. – The puck has just dropped on this Thursday night in February when Inferno wing Paul Cabana is drilled into the rickety boards around the ice at the Carolina Coliseum.
The rival player has managed to jam his knee underneath Cabana’s thigh, causing a painful charley horse.
Hobbled, Cabana drifts over to his bench to catch his breath.
“Our trainer put some ice on it, and I couldn’t bend my knee,” Cabana said.
Even so, a few minutes later, before most fans even notice that he is back on the ice, Cabana has scored the Inferno’s first goal of what will be a long weekend.
This is only Thursday. Before the weekend is over, the Inferno will have played three games in three nights.
Born on the ponds and rinks of Canada and increasingly transplanted to the American sunbelt, hockey is a grueling, energy-sapping sport.
At most levels, back-to-back games are rare. But the Inferno, part of the sprawling ECHL, frequently play three games in three days, road trips included. The team will endure that brutal weekend schedule 12 times this season.
“To relate it to a football game, football is played once a week and they get to recuperate,” Inferno coach Scott White said. “If they had two-and-a-half football games a week, that’s how physically taxing hockey is.”
After Thursday’s game, Cabana and his teammates huddle in the training room, nursing bumps, bruises or worse.
Some try to bike away the accumulated lactic acid in their legs. Some try to ice away a check into the boards, or a sudden, ankle-snapping stop on the flaky ice. Others will try to catch their breaths after 60 minutes of sprinting and skating.
Players grow used to the grind. That’s life in the minor leagues. Besides, on Thursday, there’s little time to complain. The weekend is just beginning.
‘THE WAY IT IS’
The ECHL is a scrabbled-together conglomeration of 31 franchises. The league map stretches from Trenton, N.J., to Anchorage, Alaska, and then down the coast to San Diego and back across the southern United States to Fort Myers, Fla.
The teams are operated with varying degrees of stability, in arenas of varying quality.
Whether in Boise, Idaho, or Biloxi, Miss., however, the lifestyle is rarely glamorous.
“I just tell my friends and family how nice the weather is all the time and how easy we have it here,” Inferno defenseman and Minnesota native Derek Eastman said with a grin. “You don’t tell them all the tough times you go through.”
Player salaries are usually several hundred dollars a week. Jobs are seasonal. Canadians, who make up the majority of players on the Inferno and in the ECHL, often return home to second jobs during the offseason.
White knows the minor-league lifestyle. A Canadian, White came to the United States to play college hockey at Michigan Tech and then played for eight minor-league teams in five years.
“I’ve been able to relay some of my stories and just relate to some of the experiences of the players,” White said.
White knows what it’s like to play three games in three days or four games in five days.
He knows what it’s like to bus several hours to a game, play for three hours and then bus back.
“I know the fatigue factors when it comes to a lot of stretches of games,” he said. “That’s how it is in the minor leagues. That’s just the way it is.”
Game day starts early for the Inferno.
It’s Friday, and Thursday’s 4-2 victory against nearby Greenville still might be felt in the tender ankles or bruised ribs or sore backs, but otherwise it’s in the rear-view mirror.
Tonight is the second game in a three-game stretch and the Inferno are playing the dangerous Florida Everblades.
Players start arriving at the Carolina Coliseum at about 9 a.m. They hang out in the locker room, visit with the trainer and skate around on the ice for a little bit.
A carb-packed pasta lunch that would make Dr. Atkins cringe usually follows at around noon.
Many players, such as Eastman, head home for a nap after lunch.
“I get up at about 3:30 and start preparing for the game,” he said. “I get to the Coliseum at around 5 and hang out with the guys and get ready for the game. It pretty much stays the same every game day.”
Players goof around for a little while, maybe play some hacky-sack. Eventually White gathers the team for pregame strategy and it’s time to get serious.
The puck is dropped at 7:30 p.m.
Friday’s game goes well for the Inferno. The team scores only twice (the winning goal by Cabana comes in the second period), but White is especially pleased with the defense in the 2-1 win. Defense can be the first thing to go in back-to-back games, when legs start to feel heavy.
If players didn’t feel drained after the first game, the second one does the trick. And the third game is only a few hours, and a 90-minute bus trip, away.
ECHL director of hockey operations Rod Pasma has a giant board on the wall in his office. The board is almost as tall as he is, and it’s filled with 31 team magnets within a large grid. The ECHL schedule isn’t created on a computer; it’s done the old-fashioned way on Pasma’s board.
If there’s a tractor pull, a P-Diddy concert or some other conflict at a team’s home arena, Pasma blacks out the dates on his big board. Then he and other league staff members try to fashion a workable, playable, economically feasible 72-game schedule for all 31 teams.“It’s a very difficult balance,” Pasma said.
Teams such as the Inferno want cash-generating, big-draw weekend dates. They want reasonable travel. They don’t want to conflict with high school football or church or a big NASCAR race.
Sometimes compromises are made. And sometimes players end up with a three-in-three weekend.
“There are two strong arguments,” Pasma said. “One is the economic side. I have to play on dates that have the most benefit for the team. On the other side, it’s very difficult for players to play three games in two-and-a-half days because of the wear and tear on the body. How does it affect the product for our fans on that third day?”
Pasma’s a no bow-tied bean counter. He’s a former hockey player, in the ECHL in fact, so he sympathizes with players.
“It’s very difficult from a players’ standpoint to mentally prepare for a game, let alone the physical aspect of that third game where you just have nothing left in the tank,” he said.
White said his playing experience helps him strike a balance between pushing his players and getting them ample rest during the course of a seven-month season.
“This time of year, the big thing is to make sure they have a good conditioning base,” he said. “You have to have a good mix. When we condition, we go hard. But we combine it with rest.”
A WIN AND SOME REST
There hasn’t been much rest between Friday night’s victory and Saturday afternoon’s bus trip to Augusta. The Inferno have a 7:35 p.m. puck drop against the Augusta Lynx, a frequent regional rival.
The three-in-three schedules are a little more tolerable because the Inferno’s travel schedule isn’t as rough as some of the other ECHL teams. Many road games are against nearby rivals such as Augusta, Greenville or Florence. There are occasional road swings to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, but the Inferno won’t be in Anchorage or Las Vegas anytime soon.
“We’ve got a pretty darn good travel schedule,” Inferno defenseman Sean Owens said. “When you’re traveling on the road, it’s tough to get off the bus and play.”
On most nights, like this Saturday night in Augusta, the Inferno take the chartered bus back home. There’s no need for a hotel.
“I think sleeping in your bed is very important after a road game, and we do that a lot,” White said. “But, then again, there are times I wished we’d be on the road a little bit more to be together as a team. I think that’s important, too.”
The Augusta trip is a quick one, and it’s a good thing, because players’ joints ache, their knees are squishy and their legs heavy.
“A lot of it is mental,” Owens said. “If you’re tired, you’ve just got to play a little bit more conservative and try not to do that extra play or whatever you might try on that first game of the weekend.”
The Inferno jump to a 3-1 lead against Augusta. But in the third period, penalties give the Lynx a two-man advantage. The weary Inferno players must kill a five-on-three power play to save the game.
Improbably, they do it. White is thrilled at the penalty kill and the 3-0 weekend record.
“It’s all about who wants it more at that particular time,” he said afterwards.
On Saturday, the Inferno players wanted to win. On Sunday, they wanted to rest. The three games had taken their toll.
“We’re just beat,” Eastman said. “Everyone is just so tired and worn out. You just want to come home and go to bed. On Sunday, everybody just sits on the couch all day and hangs out and does nothing but recoup a little bit.”
For all the exhaustion, the three-game weekend was a rousing success. The Inferno’s perfect mark kept the team in first place in the Southern Division.
The Inferno have three three-game weekends remaining this season. Three more weekends to survive. Three more weekends in which character, as White puts it, will be tested.