When Brett Connolly arrives in Calgary Saturday to attend Team Canada’s World Junior Championships Selection Camp, he’ll be approximately 750 miles closer to his hometown of Campbell River, British Columbia than he has all week while traveling down the United States’ Eastern seaboard.
In a way, though, it’s as if the Lightning forward had never left his native country at all.
Connolly has spent the last four days in what he remembers as being his “home away from home” while traveling with the team on its current four-game road trip.
Not Long Island, however, or Manhattan, or even Philadelphia, but rather, on the team bus.
With the Lightning having battled what will be the last of three consecutive Atlantic Division opponents tonight, the close proximity between host sites Long Island, New York City and Philadelphia afforded the club the opportunity to travel in a different manner in which it is used to, typically that of a private team charter flight.
While the travel itinerary presented a bit of a curveball, there was no mistaking that the four-wheeled adventure would no doubt conjure up some pretty special memories from a few of the guys’ junior hockey days.
“A lot of good times, that’s for sure,” Connolly said. “You see where you are now and how things are in the NHL, and you look back and realize that those were some humble beginnings.” For Connolly and other Prince George alumni including Dana Tyrell and Eric Brewer, the average bus trip from city to city took around eight hours back then.
Fast forward to this past week when the Lightning flew out of Ottawa to Long Island and then bussed the rest of the way while making stops in Manhattan and Philadelphia, and the average duration spent on the road significantly reduced from a third of the day to around 45 minutes.
“The only major difference is the travel time,” said Bolts defenseman Bruno Gervais. “Obviously when you travel by bus in the NHL the trips are a lot shorter, but other than that, there isn’t too much that is different.”
What proved to be a new experience for most of the members of the Lightning was nothing short of the old routine for Gervais.
Last season, as a member of the New York Islanders, Gervais would frequently travel by bus to sites such as New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh and the Prudential Center in New Jersey as a result of the NHL’s schedule format in which teams play those within their own division six times per season.
Those trips, however, due to their short duration, hardly provided as much entertainment as those that Gervais grew up with while climbing through the junior ranks before ascending to the NHL.
Such as the time when his club’s head athletic trainer whipped out his six-stringed guitar and starting jamming out with the guys to the tune of the Dave Matthews Band and Green Day.
“We would all sit in the back with our barbecue [sunflower] seeds and he would be playing that thing the whole trip,” Gervais recalled. “You have to remember we would be on a bus for eight hours, and back then, there were no iPods, movie players, iPads or anything. It was just him, us and that guitar. I did have a video camera to amuse me though, so sometimes between that and the guitar we would have a pretty good way of waking guys up in the morning.”
The bus in junior hockey and even at the AHL level is the present-day Lightning’s equivalent to the Ritz Carlton, with just a few exceptions.
Guys eat, sleep, and for the most part, live on the bus much like an NHL team would do, but in a fancy hotel.
Rather than soft beds, there are cushioned chairs that recline. There isn’t a 42-inch flat screen television either, but then again, there is that guitar. And finally, lacking ambiance and any sort of sophistication, there is the stench of old pizza and approximately 25 sweaty adolescents.
After all, though, it’s not that bad.
In case of an emergency, one would be much obliged to have well-fueled, young, strong men bail them out of any unfavorable situation, even if it’s their own.
About a year ago this time, in the final days of December, Connolly was traveling with Team Canada’s World Junior Championship squad through the night, and mind you, the snow, on the way to Lindy Ruff’s house for dinner when all of a sudden the team’s bus came to a halt. The tires, mired in several feet of slushy ice, simply could not take the team any further.
“We got out, and we knew exactly what we had to do,” Connolly said.
What they did was connect towing chains to the front of the bus, and in one unified display of pure brute strength, pushed the mammoth vehicle down the side of the road to safety where it could operate in its normal capacity again.
Connolly didn’t say whether or not the team made it to Ruff’s house in time for dinner, but it certainly did make for an amusing sight for pedestrian bypassers who provided a few hoots and hollers in honor of 25 strapping young men and a job well done.
“I don’t know if they were all good times, but they definitely were memorable,” Connolly added.
And for Connolly, Gervais and the rest of the Lightning this past week, ones that aren’t in need of revisiting.