For most people in this day and age of $3 gallons of gas, driving 35,000 miles would take three, and possibly, four years, and nearly 600 hours of time behind the wheel. Well, for the Iowa Stars, traveling that distance and that many hours takes place in one hockey season.As the classic movie Bull Durham illustrated, one of the charms of minor league sports is that virtually all of the travel is done via bus, and the Iowa Stars are no exception to that rule.
"Some of the trips are really tough," said Iowa winger Marius Holtet. "We had some weekends this year where we played three nights in three different cities, so we were taking the bus all over the place. Those games just wear down the body since you are so exhausted and it's difficult to sleep. You just have to make the best of it."
Iowa's full-time bus driver, Bill Simpson of Windstar Lines, still marvels at the 10-day trip the Stars went on earlier in the season.
"The longest and most grueling trip we had this year went from Des Moines to Omaha to Winnipeg, then to Fort Frances, Ontario, which is (Head Coach) Dave Allison's hometown," said Simpson. "From there, we went to Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Chicago. I took them to the airport in Chicago, where they flew down to Texas for a few games, and I drove the bus back to Iowa. That was a good 3,000-4,000 miles and lots of hours on the road."
However, despite the absurdly long trips and extremely late nights, you shouldn't feel too bad for the boys -- take my word for it!
Iowa travels throughout the American Hockey League in one of the nicest motor coaches on the road, and enjoys many perks on those bus rides that some people don't have in their homes. The Stars travel in a 2001 Van Hool motor coach, hand-crafted in the Netherlands, that features 33 plush leather seats, 23 fold-down beds, two televisions, two DVD players, a satellite dish, four air conditioners, pressurized water, a refrigerator and a microwave.
"A brand new Van Hool just outfitted with seats costs about a half a million dollars," said Simpson. "Everything in the interior of this motor coach is custom-made by hand, so this runs somewhere north of $750,000. It really is quite a vehicle."
"We are fortunate enough to have a really nice bus," said Iowa winger Chris Conner. "It's one of the nicest buses I've ever seen, and we have the hockey package on DirecTV, so we can watch games on the satellite as we're cruising along. Some of those rides do get to be really long, but those fold-down beds are pretty comfortable and you just try to get some sleep."
Allison and Iowa Assistant Coach Paul Jerrard are able to watch video of a particular night's game on the 54-inch TV in the front of the bus, while the players can watch NHL games or movies on the 42-inch plasma TV in the back. The team has dinner catered onto the bus after games, and a trailer is hitched to the back of the bus to carry all the team's sticks, trunks, equipment bags and stationary bikes. "We really do have a nice sleeper bus and it definitely could be worse," said Loui Eriksson. "Yes, I've gotten spoiled with the charter flights and first-class travel that we have in Dallas, but the fact that our bus has so many good features to it makes those rides a little bit easier."
And the players all agree that the long bus rides together help foster a closer team concept that carries from the road to the ice.
"I'm used to long travel and even though we are on the road for a lot of hours, it's good to spend time with one another," said defenseman Mark Fistric, who played in the expansive Western Hockey League that stretches north from Washington and Oregon into British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. "It helps us come together more and brings us closer, which can only help in the ice."
"We have fun with each other, playing cards, watching movies and just talking," said Holtet. "We get really close back there because there is nowhere to go for so many hours. That's a good thing about this team, everyone respects each other and sticks together."
Simpson is quite proud of what took place with his bus after a team-bonding event between the Iowa and Dallas Stars earlier this season. "The Iowa group had a bowling night and a dinner with the Dallas Stars when both teams were in Chicago," said Simpson. "The NHL guys were all really impressed by our bus, and after the bowling portion of the night, some of them jumped on this bus and told the Iowa guys to go to theirs. They really liked the set-up we have, but I'm not sure they want to be on those 10-hour drives."
The Iowa Stars players probably would rather skip the 10-hour drives too, but there are obvious positives to the travel arrangements, and the youngsters get to enjoy quite a ride.