The Road Trip.
It is something nearly every junior hockey team goes through at least once a season. The players load up onto the bus and embark on a trip that can be, in some cases, up to a thousand kilometres from home. Here in Saskatchewan, teams travel from places like Weyburn and Estevan up to northerly centres like Flin Flon and La Ronge.
In other provinces, the trek can take them even further. For major junior teams, the trips can last up to two weeks and cross international borders.
No matter the distance between the centres, the time spent onboard the bus, the meals in a number of different restaurants, the results on the ice – the one thing in common is how the trip leads to developing bonds that last well past the bounds of junior hockey.
For the Richardson Pioneer Weyburn Red Wings, the 2021-22 season, the first after the cancellation of a season due to COVID-19, while there are 28 road games on the season, there are only two real road trips on the schedule. The first was in November and saw the team go to Nipawin for a game, then La Ronge for two. The second road trip started in Melfort and went to Flin Flon in December.
The road trip to Melfort and La Ronge started off with a less than ideal situation, roster-wise, for the Red Wings. They were down five players due to suspension, and a number of other players were injured. As a result, they needed to bring in some affiliate players, including both goaltenders, and were still shorthanded for the trip.
The team made the best of the hand they were dealt, and it started with the Wings in Melfort skating to a 4-3 loss. While they didn’t come out on top on the scoreboard, the team more than made up for it with the play, losing in only the final seconds of the game.
From there, the team enjoyed a day off, giving them time to travel from Melfort to Flin Flon, where they would play the final two games of the trip against the Bombers. Arriving on Thursday, the team stayed at the Baker’s Narrows Lodge, located just east of Flin Flon itself.
While the players were there for the hockey, the chance to bond wasn’t overlooked. After all, these are young men who spend every day together taking part in a sport they love.
“Honestly, these are the best road trips; these are junior hockey road trips,” said team captain Braden Birnie after the team breakfast Saturday morning. “It’s not easy coming up here, but, I mean, the long bus trips with the guys, no (cell) service, it’s fun coming up.”
“This is my second time on a long road trip up north this year and it’s always lots of fun,” added forward Matthew Reidy.
For one Red Wing, it was a return to where he started the season. Defenseman Lucas Schaeffer started the season with the Flin Flon Bombers and was acquired by the Wings in a trade near the start of the season.
“It’s pretty interesting, considering I started the year up here, coming back up with a new team,” Schaeffer said. “Just getting to know all these new guys, it’s been a good time.”
The opportunities for team bonding aren’t lost on the coaching staff, either.
“They’re great,” said head coach Cody Mapes. “On a trip like this, you look at our group, the situation we’re in right now, a trip like this, it’s early enough in the year that it can be a really big rallying point.”
The first game in Flin Flon on Friday night is a great example of how it can be a rallying point.
With the Red Wings icing 15 skaters, instead of the usual 18, for the game against Flin Flon Friday night, it was easy for pundits to right the team off. After all, they were coming into one of the toughest arenas to play in when it comes to junior hockey – the Whitney Forum, affectionately known as the Zoo.
With a crowd that is hostile to any opposing team, it would be a tough game for the Red Wings against the hard checking, high scoring Bombers. However, the team was able to dig down deep and find ways to succeed.
It started with goaltender Boston Gelowitz, called up to join the team for the road trip from the Regina Capitals of the PJHL. He would turn aside 42 of the 44 shots he faced to lead the team to a 5-2 victory.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Gelowitz said after the game. “The boys were buzzing all night; they gave me a chance to win.”
He described the surreal feeling of the victory, especially since it was in Flin Flon, where the crowd was on him all night.
“It was crazy. I was loving it, and then that first goal it got so loud, it almost fired me up and took me to another level.”
After the game, the team returned to the cabins at Baker’s Narrows, buoyed by the emotion of the win.
So how do the players pass the time on the road?
Staying active is one thing they look to do. That is done through team walks, with the players heading out for a stroll after the team breakfast each morning. With a pool table in the main lodge, the players also engaged in some friendly competition. They also do stuff like taking part in viral video trends such as the Cup Game. It all helps with the bonding for the players. And that is translating into their successes on the ice during the road trip.
When it comes to the time on the bus, upwards of eight hours at a time, the Red Wings will do what it takes to pass the time, be it watching a movie, playing some cards, or catching up on sleep. With today’s social media intensive lifestyle, where everyone is constantly connected by cell phone, northern Saskatchewan leads to players having to find ways to occupy themselves, as there is no cell service in many areas.
For Birnie, taking the time to chat with his teammates is important, pointing out Reidy as well as Troy Hamilton tend to provide humour at the back of the bus where the veterans sit.
“I’ll poke my head between the two seats there and talk to Braden,” laughed Reidy. “Or I’ll just lay back, put some music in and close the eyes for a bit.”
The players aren’t the only ones who look for ways to pass the time on the bus.
“Back when I played, there was a lot of cards, a lot of games, and a lot of not being on your phone, but times have changed,” said assistant coach Nathan Deck. “For me, it’s a time to catch up on some much-needed rest.”
There is still one more game to be played on the road trip, with the team lacing them up one more time at the Whitney Forum Saturday to take on the Bombers yet again. For the Red Wings, they will be coming into the game riding the emotional high of the 5-2 win. It will be all about balancing those emotions, though, as the Bombers will look to salvage two of the four points available on the road trip.