While traveling on the LA Kings charter at night after a game, I ran out of battery juice because of a faulty connection at my seat and preferred to continue working on the plane rather than spend an extra hour at the charter terminal on arrival at 2 a.m. We spent enough time on planes that I learned about an inconspicuous outlet affixed to the bottom of emergency exit doors at the rear galley on most commercial airliners, so I tiptoed through the dark aisle towards the back of the plane while trying not to make eye contact with passengers only two hours removed from competing in an NHL game.
This was an unorthodox way to charge up, but I was more wary of the looks I might get from the players for invading their designated space rather than any resistance from our wonderful flight attendants.
FAA rules are only partially enforced on team charters. No one stowed electronics during takeoff or landing, nor did the pilots give instructions to do so. I raced to publish post-game stories during the plane’s takeoff roll using a WiFi card and found that it usually worked through about 5,000 feet. Trainers walked up and down the plane quickly after it was airborne to issue ice bags and share casualty reports with the coaches. An assistant coach once tried to convince a pilot not to stop to refuel while returning home from a trip because it would cut into the following day’s schedule. And, on this charter, I hoped to refill the battery using the emergency exit while completing my stories from a rear jump seat.
The hierarchy of NHL charter seating arrangements
I was proud of this plan. Think of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes and his sinister, plotting smile. But I still had to make it past the players with haste, a process slowed by lavatory traffic adjacent to where Matt Greene sat quietly. “You can’t be here, Rosey,” he said.
That’s all it took. Time to check my privilege. Rather than digging in with a brief rebuttal – I’m actually headed to the rear of the plane! Behind you guys! – I knew to listen to Greene, who was polite while reaffirming his recommendation. Anyone working for an NHL team who isn’t a player, coach or eminently tied to the on-ice success knows to treat those who are tied to it like they are CEOs. So, back to my seat.
The following season, we were upgraded to a 757 and the media was relocated to the back, marking the only span in hockey I can remember sitting farther back than the players.
Tenured players occupy the back seats, and if you’re not part of hockey operations staff, the only reason you should be in the back of the plane or bus is to use the lavatory. (And, if a visit to the lavatory on the Silvertips bus resulted in a certain ending, you were subjected to a $50 fine, payable in kangaroo court.)
These travel principals are universal. Among the players, experience determines seating location, and those who’ve accrued miles have earned the choice seats in planes, buses, Ubers, trains, ferries, airboats. An inordinate amount of time is spent in transit.
“When you get to the hotel elevator, usually the older guys are allowed to go on first,” Christian Ehrhoff told me. “I remember in the past a young guy wasn’t aware of that, and guys made him aware pretty quickly, and then you move on. That’s just the way it works in sports or in hockey.” It didn’t matter Ehrhoff hadn’t logged a game when he arrived in Los Angeles – his 741-game tenure afforded him platinum status. Among the perks: one of a limited number of parking spots at the team’s practice facility, a preferential seat on the plane, and a row near the back of the bus. “Usually that’s what happens – guys are aware of how many games somebody has played, and that’s the respect you get,” he said.
Rarely in any league are these ground rules stretched, though while I worked for the Silvertips, there was one confident usurper. Kyle Beach, a Chicago first round pick in 2008 whose precociousness and dynamite talent drew heavy attention and regular controversy at the time, joined the team in Kelowna as a 15-year-old call-up, walked to the back of the bus, and yelled up front, “load the bus, rookies!” It is easy for those who recall Kyle fondly – as I certainly do – to imagine the floppy-haired teenager’s cheek-to-cheek grin. This was probably something he’d planned days in advance.
Riding the bus in the WHL circuit
But that was a rogue episode in a league where a massive amount of time is spent on the bus. College teams, European teams, American junior teams, and major junior teams in the OHL and QMJHL did not log the same hours we did. In the O, there were 11 teams within a two-hour drive of Toronto. In the Dub, teams were constellated as far south as Brandon, Manitoba, as far north as Prince George, British Columbia – a smelt factory town whose latitude lies just below Alaska’s southernmost point – and, since 2019, as far east as Winnipeg.
But air travel is prohibited until the WHL championship (at which point the two teams charter a plane together) out of the necessity of competitive balance. There are some truly small markets in the Dub, like Swift Current, Prince Albert, and, previously, Cranbrook, B.C., whose clubs wouldn’t be able to compete fairly if the deeper-pocketed Calgary Hitmen or Portland Winterhawks decided they’d prefer to fly to the league’s outer reaches rather than take the bus.
And so we spent weeks upon weeks criss-crossing the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, climbing the Snoqualmie Pass, putting chains on, removing the chains, and descending into Eastern Washington. After the game, the driver, often on a recommendation from someone up front – “Hey, Tom, why don’t you give’r a little toot, eh?” – would honk twice when departing the rink after a win, and we’d turn the bus around and again hurl towards the North Cascades, chaining up, de-chaining, and pulling back into the parking lot at Broadway and Hewitt in the wee hours.
WHL teams log serious miles
Everett and Seattle are in desirable locations, league-wide. One league historian and archivist, Alan Caldwell, calculated each team’s annual mileage, and in the years in which we traveled to the Central Division rather than the East Division, we spent the fewest miles on the bus of any WHL team. Kent, Washington, home of the Thunderbirds, was 45 minutes away on the weekends, which was when we usually played them.
Reaching Vancouver and Chilliwack took two hours and border traffic. (Chilliwack has since relocated to Victoria, adding a ferry crossing into team logistics.) Tri-City was three and a half hours away, Spokane between four and five. A few times a year, usually on nights or mornings returning from the Eastern Conference, or Prince George, or when the snow was particularly heavy, we’d spend the entire night on the bus. Bodies are splayed on the aisles, across seats, forming human bridges in the row across and supine pyramids with legs angled towards the ceiling amidst two-seat quarters. There are many wonderful memories of the brotherhood forged by enduring such tight spaces, but 6-foot-4 Campbell Elynuik shifting in his seat and accidentally (I hope) kicking me in the face in the middle of the night on the Crowsnest Highway was not one of them.
The longest drive we endured was from Prince Albert to Everett, a 24-hour marathon that spanned three time zones, a spectral, pre-dawn breakfast in Banff we sleepwalked through, and a lot of episodes of Trailer Park Boys. We left after the game in central Saskatchewan and arrived in Everett at 9:00 p.m. the next night. The five-hour haul from Kamloops down to sea level was the home stretch.
Other teams have it considerably worse. Prince George is five hours from Kamloops, the closest team, by way of the two-lane, wildlife-adjacent Cariboo Highway. Brandon’s closest neighbor is Regina, four and a half hours away. We drove through blizzards, icy highways, the Rocky Mountains, remote border outposts and ski towns, and were afforded for hours at a time incredible views of North Cascade, Rocky and Selkirk massifs.
There are lovely towns in Quebec, and beautiful lake regions encircling Toronto, one of North America’s great cities, but the Dub is the only major junior league whose earthen tapestry was so enchantingly distracting and a core characteristic of the collective experience. (As long as you were in the Western Conference.)
Bad movies or bust
When not looking out the window, the movies we watched were abjectly terrible. I’m not sure if we watched one good movie in four years other than Slap Shot. There was more refinement in the AHL. When we’d traveled with the Manchester Monarchs for the 2015 Calder Cup, we watched Whiplash en route to Utica. This was a historic event: never before had such a good movie been appreciated by so many on a hockey bus. But when traveling with the youngs, we watched mostly trash. One movie, Never Back Down, was about rival high school kickboxers. When I tried to put on The Fifth Element, it was shut off before the end of the first scene and I lost all movie privileges for the rest of my Silvertips tenure. I would have been wise to think this out. Even this week, unsolicited, I was reminded of The Fifth Element Incident.
Certain out-of-the-way teams had sleeper coaches, and at this time, which was 2007 through 2011, one or two teams had WiFi connections. By 2011 we occasionally did, and it worked on par with 1994 dial-up. The time was spent sleeping, watching movies, binging TV shows and working as best one could without the Internet. It was different from the NHL, in which chartered planes were essentially just more rooms to do work in – narrow rooms that vibrated and yawed and had intermittent WiFi.
There were the nights we slept overnight on the bus, and those long, black journeys on a chilly coach go by slowly if you’re unable to drift off at your seat or on the floor. (After enough trips, I found DJ Shadow’s soothing Endtroducing was like drinking a glass of warm milk.)
It’s not a surprise that the flu absolutely wrecks WHL teams in the first half of the season and leads to an exhausting lifestyle for the 16 and 17-year-olds, who still attended school the next morning. By the second half of the season, we’d all built up such super-strong immune systems that we rarely needed more than a shot of Buckley’s to get past the sniffles or bus flu. (I am not an immunologist, nor am I sure if studies confirm this; feel free to ignore.) (Also, “Bus Flu” is not recognized by the American College of Physicians.)
These are all players who paid their dues – those who endured irregular sleep and meshing schoolwork with intense exertion and injury amidst the demanding, cacophonous directives that, like the 72-game schedule, also provided the most accurate portrayal of the professional circuit beyond. This is a badge of honor worn by those who came from the Dub. No one can tell me that the young men on major junior teams, almost all of whom are away from home for the first time and are required to be at school in the morning – regardless of when the bus pulled into Everett the previous night – aren’t mature. They just enjoy terrible movies.
(Part II coming soon…)
Jon Rosen, who lived at the corner of 45th and Burke in Wallingford, was the voice of the Everett Silvertips from 2007-11 before joining the LA Kings and FOX Sports West as a Rinkside Reporter and the LA Kings Insider. Covering the team’s 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cups digitally and on television, his reporting and play-by-play has also been seen on the NHL Network, NBC Sports and the Big Ten Network. This is an edited excerpt from his upcoming anthology of stories depicting his two decades in broadcasting and sports media.