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Norfolk bonding on the road

by Michael Farnham || AHL On The Beat Archive

Calling an AHL player a road warrior is like calling a lion a cat. You’re right in a sense, but you are not really giving the subject the full amount of credit that it deserves.

An AHL player’s time on ice is nothing compared to his time on pavement, rolling from city to city for the next game. A myriad of adjustments must be made for rookies who have not experienced it. Veterans who you think would not be phased by it have to re-acclimate. Players who have flown in chartered NHL jets in seasons past must go back to the comforts of a sleeper bus. Even team announcers get the road trip experience.

For the Norfolk Admirals, their situation is fairly unique in that their closest road trip is six hours away from Hampton Roads. The Admirals often experience long road stretches as well -– such as the current stretch where the team plays 11 of 12 games away from Norfolk Scope Arena in a month’s span.

Norfolk rookie Tyler Johnson has crossed the continental U.S. to play for the Admirals. After playing four junior seasons in his hometown of Spokane, Wash., Johnson arrived in Norfolk last month, leaving his family and friends back in the Upper Northwest.

Missing the support and feedback from his relatives and friends is one of the big challenges that Johnson looks to take on in his first pro season.

“When I was living in my hometown, they went to every game,” said Johnson. “It is definitely different not having my family there.”

As a professional, Johnson must be able to push through all sorts of situations. A cross-country move brings that famed buffer zone of independence young adults love, but Johnson admits that it is nice to have family around.

“It’s nice to get away a little bit, but at the same you really miss them and the company.”

When Johnson arrived in Norfolk, his first mission was to find a place to live. “It’s funny, about a week before the season started I had no idea what I was going to do, I had no idea if I was going to live with someone, or who I was going to live with,” said Johnson.

Given the short window of time to find a residence and the unfamiliarity with the city, the best place for Johnson to turn to was his teammates.

“As soon as the season started we got a letter that said to go find a place,” said the 21-year-old Johnson. “Cory Conacher and I talked and we decided we should be roommates. We started looking around online and some of the older guys that have been here before were helping out picking places for us.”

One of the players who advised Johnson was Norfolk team captain Mike Angelidis, who believes the team that sticks together off the ice thrives on it.

“This year I tried to find a place where we could all be together and it worked out,” said Angelidis. “We all live in the same area so it’s perfect. It’s a lot easier for the younger guys because they have older guys to look to and hang out with.”

Angelidis, who is in his second season with the Admirals, has also had to make adjustments. Having started his AHL career in Albany, N.Y., where a typical road trip was a two-hour bus ride, Norfolk brought longer trips and a new bus.

“In Albany, my bus trips were two hours and we were taking Greyhounds. Down in Norfolk, we’re taking sleeper buses. I don’t know if it gets easier, but as you get older you learn to just deal with it,” said Angelidis.

The long bus rides are full of conversations, pranks, card games and sleep. The players who are full of energy usually flock to the back of the bus and the readers and sleepers can be found closer to the front where the coaching staff is.

Broadcaster Pete Michaud, who has been with the Admirals since 1989, has seen plenty of good trips and bad trips. He has a set of criteria that determine if a road city is good or bad.

“Is it in walking distance from the rink?” says Michaud. “If you’re going to be there for more than one night, are there places to eat nearby?”

Sometimes the destination isn’t the worst part of the trip, it’s the journey.

The worst trip Michaud has seen in his tenure is one where the team bus got stuck on a highway in a blizzard.

“The bus driver should have gotten us off the interstate knowing how bad the weather was," said Michaud. "He should have pulled off, found a hotel and shut it down for the night. Instead he kept trying to drive and we got stuck, literally stuck, in the middle of the road.”

The travel is just one aspect of the AHL player’s life. The other aspect is the possibility of being called up to the NHL. The sudden phone call means get your gear, get on a plane, and get ready to hit the ice.

The ice part – with different coaches, different teammates and, at times, no practice – might be the most difficult.

Admirals center James Wright started the 2009-10 season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he played half a season before returning to juniors. In 2010-11, he started playing in Norfolk. In those two seasons, Wright had to grasp new surroundings rapidly.

There is not much notice when the NHL team calls. The phone call comes in and the player is packed and on the next flight out. Then the issue of joining a team mid-season with a bunch of players you haven’t played with arises.

“I got called up last year and didn’t practice once," said Wright. "It was just game action. I had never played with some of the guys before. You just have to learn on the go.”

Time spent in the pinnacle of the sport offered Wright the chance to notice differences between the leagues. Wright didn’t hesitate when asked which aspect of the NHL he would bring to the AHL given the chance: “The plane.”

Not only does the NHL team get to their destination quicker, but it allows them to explore other cities.

“We got more free time in Tampa because the road trips weren’t as long. We had more time to walk around cities,” said Wright.

One AHL city that the Admirals enjoy exploring is Charlotte, N.C. The Checkers are one the Admirals’ fiercest rivals on the ice, but that doesn’t keep the players from highlighting that trip on their calendar.

“They’ve got a beautiful city,” said Wright of the Carolinian metropolis. “We stay in a nice area. They’ve got good fans and it’s an intense rivalry.”

While Wright enjoys the Charlotte trip because of the destination, he enjoys all the road trips because of the team bonding. According to Wright, that bond comes easier in the AHL than the NHL.

“There are a lot more young guys in the AHL. In Tampa there were maybe three or four guys that were around my age. It’s kind of tough to hang out in the NHL because many those guys have their families. You’ve got to respect that,” Wright said.

On the ice, Wright found few differences in the workday of a professional hockey player between the leagues.

“They’re pretty similar. Guys have video breakdown, then meetings, then practice,” said Wright.

The order of the hockey workday is always shaken up when it is time to hit the road. The team tries to replicate its home routine as best it can on the road and some places are easier to do that than others.

Nothing seems to get in the way of the AHL player’s love for the game, not sleeper buses, not being stranded in blizzards, and not, as James Wright put it, “slightly less per diem.”

There is a brotherhood and exuberance displayed by these professionals, reminiscent of the kind shown by youth hockey players. Finding a time where the team isn’t together is difficult. It’s that fraternity between players that makes the grueling travel schedule more manageable and even enjoyable.

The days are not easily discernable from one another in the AHL hockey player’s life, but when looking back at a 2 a.m. poker game on a bus leaving New York, or a video game tournament in Mike Angelidis’ apartment, it’s easy to see why even though the life is a grind; it is not a miserable one.

Says Tyler Johnson: “There is no better bonding better than that.”