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Life On The Bus Is A Way Of Life In Minors

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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The future of the Toronto Marlies is in Texas.

Nazem Kadri, Jerry D’Amigo, Marcel Mueller and the rest of the AHL team have begun the Road Trip By Which All Road Trips Are Measured.

If the three matriculate onto the major league roster, and a goal would help for D’Amigo and Mueller, they will never again face the kind of diesel fueled grind that comes with life in the AHL. The next two weeks will be as tough as it ever got.

The Marlies left November 1. They return to the Ricoh Coliseum Nov. 20.

They will bus between Dallas, San Antonio and Houston and that in itself isn’t shocking.

Then they go to Oklahoma City.

Next up the coast to Hartford.

Best not forget Adirondack, New York.

If you’re that far, you might skip over to Hershey, P.A.,  and then to Binghamton, NY,  a city soon to have a sign declaring itself the birthplace of young D’Amigo. Then, and only then, do they get to come home. Government and marriages have risen and fallen in less time than the length of this road trip. One of Britney Spears’ marriages lasted 55 hours. The Marlies couldn’t play and get out of Texas in that time.

The team plays eight of 11 nights and if this doesn’t impress you, consider the Leafs longest road trip is December 14 to December 20 or a puny six days. The Leafs play three games over that stretch and unlike the Marlies, the only bus Phil Kessel will see is the one between the hotel and the arena. The trip is a concession to the Royal Winter Fair which could be worked around were it not for the fact that horses slip on ice.

A road trip is a vacation from ordinary life, albeit a working vacation. It is both a penal colony and a finishing school. Staring out a bus window en route to the next town, you are no longer of this world. Your entire universe is the bus and its hierarchy: veterans in the back, senior men in the double-seat in the very back around the corner from the bathroom. Coach in the front right. On the bus, a first year player ranks lower than the trainer who is expected to tell the rookie to give up his seat on the grid.

Players sometimes sleep on the floor and luggage racks have been commandeered. When they pour into the bus after a game, the players are still teaming sweat and they often peel off their jackets and ties before their bodies finally cool down.

Movies are decided by the veterans. Card games are stratified as well. Players carry their own bags, the equipment guys do more than enough. When it comes time to get the room keys, the rookies stand aside in favour of the veterans. That might not seem like much but it is after 3 a.m. after 14 hours on a bus.

When people speak about bonding, they tend to imagine a warm, all-encompassing environment where everyone’s opinion is valued.

That is not a real road trip. That is a management retreat.

Road trips aren’t about harmony so much as about knowing your place. They remind players of a standing that exists apart from salary or the career they left behind in Europe or junior hockey.

Sharing hardship breeds unity. Acquiescing to experience brings respect and unless you have been on a team bus, it is impossible to understand that free-form universe grounded in repetition and boredom that has always been known as the road.

And that is why Nazem Kadri is on the bus instead of hanging around the fringes of the big club. That’s why D’Amigo is still with the Marlies and not playing junior in Kitchener and why Mueller isn’t sharpening his game with another year in Europe.

It’s supposed to be hard and while playing in hostile arenas on a few hours sleep is a worthy experience, it’s not really what the road is about. Hockey players have been doing that long before they reached the American League.

The best moment in a player’s career, the time players invariably miss most is that safe, one-of-kind place where the world crawls by your window and the rubber meets the road.

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