No team in the American Hockey League rides a bus more often or more miles than the Norfolk Admirals, whose closest opposing city is roughly five hours away. So news last week that the Albany River Rats' team bus had overturned on a Massachusetts highway and caused serious injuries struck home with the Admirals, who often make 12- to 15-hour trips to and from New England.
That accident will no doubt be in the mind of many if not all the Norfolk players, coaches and support staff when they board their own bus Friday, about an hour after their home game against the Providence Bruins. A three-game road trip begins in Hershey the next night and the Admirals have 13 games away from Scope left to play this season.
Admirals GM Mike Butters said his thoughts go out to the River Rats, especially because he's been on board for lesser bus accidents and because he knew roughly 15 players involved with the worst one in the sport's history. The junior hockey Swift Current Broncos of the WHL had four players die in a December, 1985, crash that included current NHL star Joe Sakic.
“Even without fatalities, the impact for those guys' parents has to be awful,” Butters said of the players involved in Albany's crash. “Sometimes, coming home from Binghamton in the snow and with all the drifts on the highway, I'm glad there's a drape between the guys and the driver so they don't have to see it and worry.”
Butters said the Montana junior hockey team of which he's part owner and general manager, the Helena Bighorns, owns a bus for trips and has run into the back of a car without its lights on and into deer in past years.
“In one instance, we slid sideways down the freeway, so there's been some heart-stoppers in my career,” said Butters, who also rode thousands of miles as a junior and pro player. “You can get on a safe bus with a safe driver, but you can never predict what Mother Nature's going to do.”
Or what part of it's going to meander across the pavement. Admirals wing Brandon Segal recalled a time his Calgary junior team's bus was returning from Prince George, British Columbia and struck a moose with such force that the front door was all but ripped off. After watching the moose's carcass in the road for several minutes to make sure it was dead, about six players were needed to drag it off the pavement so other vehicles wouldn't be in danger. The ride home was a bit chilly without the door being able to close.
“Everyone grabbed a hoof and it wasn't a pleasant job, I can tell you that,” said Segal, who was joined in the hauling effort by former Calgary and Norfolk teammate Mike Egener, a former Lightning draft pick. “When we hit it, we started swerving everywhere and I thought we'd hit a car and were going to die.”
Norfolk captain Zenon Konopka's bus accident stories aren't as dramatic but his Ottawa 67s junior team narrowly avoided catastrophe in them. The first saw the team's bus driver lose consciousness at the wheel and the coach leap in to steer the vehicle into a shallow ditch. The second came three weeks later after the driver was back on the job after medical clearance but passed out once again. This time, the team's owner wrestled the bus under control as it rode a curving road on the edge of a ravine.
“I refuse to get on a car, bus or plane and worry about it,” Konopka said. “If it's meant to be, it's meant to be.”
Butters said the Admirals' current bus driver, Solomon Jones, is considered a part of the team and is well-liked by the players and staff. The general manager makes sure to thank Jones every time the Admirals reach their destination, and he means it from the bottom of his heart.
“There hasn't been a time since that big accident in 1985 that I got off a bus and didn't thank the driver for getting us there safely,” Butters said. “We owe them a debt of gratitude even though it’s their job.”
Admirals coach Darren Rumble also touched on that point, recalling how earlier this month, as the team's bus left Hershey on a winding road with blind curves, he joked with Jones about not driving faster for a cheap thrill.
“He was very serious about it,” Rumble recalled. “He said he had too many lives in his hands. It's good to know he feels that way.”
Rumble said he thinks about the possibilities for an accident every time he gets on a team bus or plane. He's experienced flying directly through lightning strikes on return flights to Tampa and was once on a “coke machine with wings” that skidded off a Canadian Maritimes runway and did a 360-degree spin before coming to rest.
“It's just a game that we're involved in, even though we take it very seriously,” Rumble said. “Everyone's health and safety are the most important things and on behalf of our organization and our fans, we hope the River Rats are doing as well as can be expected.”