Part I of Jon Rosen’s “Missing the bus” can be found here.
And someone who didn’t have terrible taste? Craig Hartsburg.
In the final game before the 2010 holiday break, we left Chilliwack with two points – and also left half the team behind us at a hotel to catch flights out of Abbotsford to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba the following morning. Most B.C. kids were picked up by family after the game, which basically left the U.S.-born Silvertips and team staff to ride the bus back to Everett that night.
Having spent decades coaching in the OHL and NHL, Hartsburg had the reputation as a coach deeply driven by the pursuit to win and was clear in his communication with his players. He could also be a tough coach. I’ve seen and experienced examples of it. One player didn’t set his alarm and showed up hours late to the first day of training camp in Craig’s first year. Don’t do that. Lessons were learned, and that player’s first day of training camp was actually Day 2.
I was a target once or twice – don’t leave your passport in your luggage under the bus – and I’m glad I was, because this is hockey, and in hockey, there is yelling, and such episodes enabled me to more effectively brush off anger or tone directed my way in the NHL. And when reviewing photos one morning after a loss and trying to decide which ones to post on Facebook, our athletic trainer and I were amused that all the photos of Hartsburg showed him in visibly menacing levels of disapproval – assumedly towards his players and the WHL referees, whose verdicts he wasn’t overly fond of.
On this night, after our half-empty bus left Chilliwack, we finally had something good to watch. Zack Dailey, our captain, said nothing and walked to the front of the bus, stood on an armrest, and slipped in a Chappelle’s Show DVD from the first season. And Hartsy laughed as hard as anybody has ever laughed at a movie or TV show. Usually, the coaches would be cutting and dissecting video and constructing a game plan, but on the eve of this Christmas break, he laughed his ass off at the Clayton Bigsby episode. The whole bus was into it, all of us, together.
Deep respect for the players
Embedded in Craig’s character there exists a profound respect and advocacy for his players, who were hardly paid for what was essentially a 40-hour-a-week job. Instead, for every year they played major junior, players received a year of college scholarship credit – which could be voided upon a player’s second year of pro hockey – and a stipend that didn’t go much farther than paying for toiletries and gas. (And, if you know hockey players, those stipends didn’t always go to toiletries and gas.)
There’s still one moment that resonates a decade later. We were eating in an Everett restaurant late in the 2010-11 season when the topic of junior hockey players forming a union came up. That push wasn’t overly popular at the time, but Hartsburg offered a full-throated endorsement for improving compensation and amenity for those who fought and bled for their hockey clubs.
He could be hard on the players because of his competitiveness and a supreme pursuit of victory that capably prepared them for AHL and NHL coaches to come. But he deeply respected and loved these kids and was pretty good at talking some shit to them, too. Our GM Doug Soetaert, an Edmonton native, took the team to longtime hockey haunt-slash-Chinese restaurant, the Blue Willow, while passing through Oil Country two months before watching Chappelle’s Show. Hartsburg, wondering if Radko Gudas had experienced such savory Chinese food in Kladno, Czech Republic, yelled his recommendation across the room. “You try the chicken balls yet, Gudy? Better try ‘em!” They went back and forth. With a good group of 20-year-old veterans in Dailey, Shane Harper and Chris Langkow, there was an effective conduit between a team looking to re-establish its culture and a three-time All-Star who’d captained the North Stars for seven years and coached the Blackhawks, Ducks and Senators.
I loved these kids and how hard they worked as much as Craig did.
I still do, and enjoyed connecting with them in LA, Vancouver, and Edmonton when traveling with the Kings. Again, maturity is so inherent in the kids who played a major junior hockey game, got an hour or two of bus sleep, a few hours of bed sleep, and were at their first period classes at Everett High the next morning.
“I don’t want to say it’s a ‘hard’ lifestyle, but it’s a lifestyle you learn a lot of principles and values of what’s important and how hard you have to work to have success, how disciplined you have to be, how you’ve got to manage your time as a young kid,” he told me this week. “All the lessons learned when playing in a good program are lessons they’ll have for the rest of their lives. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you learn and become mature on those nights on the bus, those weekends playing three games in three nights.”
These players do misbehave. I was puzzled – and then amused – when waking up the morning after we’d been eliminated from the playoffs in 2008 to a voicemail that had been sent at two that morning. It was a bunch of our guys, in an advanced stage of their season-ender bender, one-by-one yelling “AY!” into the phone. This corresponded with a panoply of incriminating photos that, later that day, would be posted on Facebook by a player, right-clicked by an interloper, and shared on an online fan message board.
This was immature, but many of us weren’t doing anything too different at 18. College hockey players were doing the same thing. Facebook had only recently exploded in popularity, and the potential dangers of social media weren’t yet ingrained. It was actually fairly similar to an internal email among Kings players over a decade ago that made it to management, announcing, as the narrator explained, that the North End Bar and Grill in Hermosa Beach had installed WiFi, “so you can get a hold of me anytime via email.”
But these kids, despite the unsavory-leaning preconceptions of hockey players with too much time on their hands – these notions can also be accurate – were largely well-behaved kids who kept in line, lived relatively balanced lifestyles and forged wonderful bonds with their host families, many of whom were present when the player was drafted and later made his NHL debut. There was a good number of them who, if they weren’t at the rink, were playing Call of Duty late into the night. But there was also a very committed group who approached me at the beginning of each year to tell me they wanted to be visible in the community – they insisted on attending all school, hospital and library visits. It became difficult to schedule an array of Silvertips for these assemblies, because Jonathan Harty and Byron Froese wanted to do them all.
Our school-visit sequence was refined and ultimately perfected. It is remarkably easy to get hundreds of five-through-10-year-olds to laugh. But these visits also had good messages: “It’s OK to make mistakes. Hockey players make a ton of mistakes each game in front of thousands of people.” “If you keep practicing something for long enough, you become really, really good at it.” “These players are part of a team, just like you and your classmates, and even if they’re angry with another player, they put it aside to do what’s best for the group.” “Look at Radko Gudas – he’s so committed to what he loves that he moved here from the Czech Republic to play hockey. Radko, how many players on the team did you know before you moved here?” “Zero.”
A young Australian woman named Sasky Stewart joined us as an intern in 2009-10 after having served in management capacities for the Australian Ice Hockey League. She’d eventually work for the NHL, the CWHL, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and while in Everett joined us for these assemblies. “How many of you think hockey is only for boys?” I’d ask the students. About two-thirds of the hands would go up. “WRONG! YOU ARE ALL WRONG! ALL OF YOU!” I’d yell at them. “Sasky, why don’t you talk about playing hockey in Australia, and how you’ve worked as hard as you can to become better at what you do?”
And all of this was wonderful. The camaraderie amongst those with the Silvertips and T-Birds remains entrenched to this day. We celebrate when Seattle equipment manager Jason Berger, aside whom I’d suffered through Dodgers-Phillies of the NLCS within the bowels of the EEC, won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay last summer. We celebrate when Jay Varady, an Everett assistant and associate head coach under Kevin Constantine, John Becanic and Craig Hartsburg, was promoted to become head coach of the Tucson Roadrunners – and then an assistant on Rick Tocchet’s staff in Arizona.
There is great pride to see Chris Hartsburg, also an Everett assistant, carve his own path in the OHL as Erie’s Head Coach, or Mitch Love become Saskatoon’s Head Coach and an assistant on the Canadian national junior team. With the Kings, working with Seattle, Tri-City and Spokane WHL Coach of the Year Don Nachbaur was among my favorite perks – and we won two Cups! It was suggested once or twice that I start to cut the cord with all the WHL and Everett references, but so many came flowing back when Snack joined John Stevens’ staff in 2017.
Even if they’d cut their own cords, the WHL guys in the NHL were easily incited into talking about the WHL. They loved learning more about Seattle and Everett, too, and for those on Eastern Conference teams who made the trip every other year, that U.S. Division jaunt was their favorite. There can be a slight culture shock when players are traded from Canadian to American teams and learn that hockey isn’t a part of the national identity. But it was a transition so many enjoyed. Brooks Laich, traded from Moose Jaw to Seattle, instantly embraced his status in the Thunderbirds-Winterhawks rivalry, the WHL’s best.
“They were the first seed and we were the last seed to make the playoffs (in 2002), and we actually knocked them out in seven games and had some good rivalries that continued on from there,” Laich told me in 2017. “At that time, myself versus Paul Gaustad was a big rivalry within that Seattle and Portland rivalry, and that continued on when we went pro. So, it was the birthplace of many things for me.”
NHL players are easily reminded
Austin Wagner – a player on Los Angeles’ roster the Kraken is scouting in advance of the Expansion Draft – spoke regularly about how unique it was to visit Western Washington. As a member of the Regina Pats 2017 Eastern Conference Championship team, he experienced firsthand the intensity wrought by Seattle hockey fans, a tradition dating beyond the rowdy, inhospitable crowds at Mercer Arena. The same was said about Everett. On any weekend night there could be a combined 15,000 fans making the effort to drive up to Snohomish County or down to Kent. “It gives you a little glimpse of the NHL team, how electric that arena will be,” said 2017 T-Birds champion Ethan Bear. Walking into NHL dressing rooms, I always made sure to get to talk to ex-Silvertips and Thunderbirds. Jujhar Khaira. Carter Hart. Riley Sutter. Austin Strand. Brendan Dillon. Thomas Hickey.
Former T-Bird Nate Thompson, an Alaskan who in his junior days stood at the Key Arena blue line for a national anthem performed by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, attended the 2018 “home shows” at Qwest Field with his wife, Sydney, shortly after they were wed. “I’d put it right up there,” Thompson said of where Seattle would rank among NHL cities. “Seattle’s a great city. I think it’s very similar to Vancouver, and I know a lot of guys like playing in Vancouver, so I think it’ll be a lot of fun.”
It was providence that the longtime Pearl Jam fan played in Lower Queen Anne.
“Vitalogy was a good album,” Thompson told me in 2018. “I still think if you go back to their originals with Ten, it doesn’t get much better than that, especially with Garden and those songs. Whenever [Eddie] plays those songs, it always gives me goosebumps whenever I listen to them. Just Breathe, that’s another one. The thing about Pearl Jam, they can really ramp it up, and then Eddie can really slow it down and make it a nice, slow, relaxing song.”
Silvertips and Thunderbirds fans care deeply about the success of their team. This was a polar change from Minor League Baseball, in which a heavier percentage of fans are at the game for the pastoral experience and leave without knowing who won. Our post-game call-in shows at times attracted fans who waited in line to share their opinions like the armed passengers in Airplane! lined up in the aisle during the get a hold of yourself scene. There was often pure emotion in their voices. In Everett there exists a symbiotic town-gown relationship in which the team’s massive early success and deep playoff runs tangibly improved the downtown area’s business climate. The experience of playing in Everett provided as realistic of a preview for the professional game as any other major junior market.
Four years of early playoff exits
The only regret, and it’s not really a regret, is that the team never made it out of the first round in my four years. The Silvertips, who’d built an early empire on tightly structured hockey and stout goaltending, had gone as far as to plan a wildly popular postseason parade in 2004 despite losing the WHL Championship that dream inaugural season – and thousands of fans lined Hewitt Avenue to celebrate with them. They entered the WHL as an expansion team but won seven playoff series in their first four years. It’s easy to think of a handful of 16-year-olds in Snohomish County right now whose first and middle names are Zach and Hamill.
Hartsburg’s first team had an excellent leadership core, and he’d gotten the most out of top players and role players alike with a suffocating team-wide forecheck. They missed the top spot in the Western Conference on the final day of the season, falling into the third seed after being unable to record one singular point in the final game of the season. That mattered. Their first round opponent, the Kelowna Rockets, had built a powerful culture and entered the series as the WHL’s defending champions, and though they’d shed Jamie Benn from their Memorial Cup team, still retained an excellent leadership core. They’d dropped to the sixth seed because of a debilitating injury row during the middle of the season. Gudas was hurt early in the series, and though he could hardly lift his arm away from his side, gutted through a match-up that went the distance. In the seventh game, the Silvertips outshot the Rockets 41-22 but yielded two duck fart goals on deflections and lost, 2-1, ending an outstanding season. I built a relationship in the NHL with ex-Rocket Tyson Barrie by bitching about this game.
Zack Dailey, our 20-year-old two-time captain, was deeply affected by the abrupt and unexpected end to his major junior career, as anyone with 330 WHL games would be. He removed the visor from his helmet and left his gloves at the rink but didn’t remove any other piece of equipment. Leaving the arena quickly, he slipped on skate guards and hitched a ride with Shane Harper to a year-ender nobody wanted to have, still wearing his jersey, pants, shin guards and socks.
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 two decades in broadcasting and sports media. Special thanks to Chris Walker.