Jimmy mullin would rather not know the exact number of hours he and his Fargo Force teammates will spend on a bus this winter. Because they represent one of the farthest outposts in the United States Hockey League, the Force will spend more time traveling the Upper Midwest than playing games.
“I’m just glad I’m not the guy driving the bus,” said Mullin, a Cincinnati native who has committed to play college hockey at Miami of Ohio. “I’d rather be one of the guys just hanging out in the back.”
Thanks to the latest in technology and creature comforts, the miles can seem to pass by much faster than in the past. But, the bus remains a place for teams to bond and develop lifelong friendships.
“We all get along really well and we’re a pretty tight-knit group, so if we weren’t hanging out on the bus, we’d be hanging out somewhere else together,” Mullin said. “Those long bus trips really help, especially at the beginning of the season when you really don’t know your teammates as people.”
The Force travel in a bus equipped with bunk beds, satellite television and Internet access for their trips ranging in length from 244 miles (Sioux Falls) to 1,042 miles (Youngstown). The younger players don’t have an excuse for not doing their homework, and rarely should any member of the traveling party get bored.
“To be honest, I really enjoy it,” Fargo coach Jason Herter said. “It’s great for the kids to spend a lot of time together like they do when they’re forced to be on the bus for long periods of time. It brings them together, and it kind of solves a lot of problems that might arise in your dressing room if the players weren’t together for as much time.”
The Youngstown Phantoms, the eastern-most team in the league, had no other choice but to bond in the first month of the season. They put more than 7,000 miles on their tricked-out bus in the month of October and visited each of the USHL’s six western-most teams in the first six weeks. They are more than 500 miles away from 11 of the 15 other teams in the league.
The Phantoms’ bus includes deluxe individual sleeping quarters for each member of the team, so the players slept through most of those monster road trips. They have room to stretch out and play video games during the day, but most of the travelling takes place overnight.
“It’s nice to be able to drive through the night and not have to worry about interrupting their sleep patterns, especially when you consider how much time we spend on the road during the season,” Youngstown coach Curtis Carr said.
“It’s a really nice home away from home. In our staff quarters, we have a big TV, couch, table and a microwave, so it’s almost like you’re sitting in your living room.”
And, like sitting in your living room, there are house rules when it comes to the bus.
The captains and veterans usually claim the back seats on the bus, as well as the best bunks on the bus, while the coaching staff and other team personnel sit up front.
“It’s certainly an extension of the locker room,” said Ohio State Head Coach Mark Osiecki, who got to know the scenery in the Midwest as the head coach of the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers.
“Each guy has his routine on where he’s going to be sitting. Some of it goes by seniority, some of it goes by what activities are taking place. Some guys are going to be playing cards, some guys may be doing homework depending on if they’re going to school. Some guys will sleep more than others. It’s pretty funny how the whole thing evolves.
“For the most part, the seat you have the first trip of the season is the seat you keep. It’s all dictated by the returning players and veterans. It kind of goes by captains dictating who sits where and perhaps the pecking order on the team.”
As much as coaches like to refer to away games as business trips, there is of time to have fun and keep things loose.
On their way home from a 5-4 defeat at Indiana on New Year’s Eve, the Phantoms made sure to ring in 2011 with gusto.
“I’m not sure how they got there, but there were noisemakers in every one of our bunks when we got on the bus and we were able to do a countdown at midnight,” said Scott Mayfield, a defenseman from St. Louis ranked No. 15 in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s mid-term rankings and committed to the University of Denver.
“We all started going nuts and blowing them at midnight. I know our trainer didn’t care for that too much, because he was trying to get some sleep, but it was all in good fun.
“Stuff like that’s good for the team. At the beginning of the year, when we were making all of those trips out west, we really came together as a team. It can be pretty rough, traveling that much. But you’re all in it together, so you have to make the best of it.”
Especially when the trip doesn’t go as planned.
The Sioux Falls Stampede learned that lesson on Nov. 27, when their bus broke down about an hour away from Kearney, Neb. They spent nearly two hours on the side of the road, waiting for a relief bus to take them to their USHL game at Tri-City.
“We were all just sitting around, making jokes and watching TV, and all of the sudden we start to hear this beeping noise. We knew it couldn’t be good when the bus pulled over,” said Zack Kamrass, a defenseman from Norcross, Ga.
“We were right in the middle of no-man’s land. There was farmland all to the left of us and farmland all to the right of us. It was pretty wild.”
So, Kamrass and fellow defenseman Clark Cristofoli decided to have a little fun with the moment. They borrowed a camcorder from broadcaster Jim Olander and turned the misadventure into a YouTube video.
“We thought making jokes out of it would lighten the mood and make the time go by a little faster,” Kamrass said.
“You can’t get too upset about it, because it’s pretty much out of your control. But it’s going through something like that that makes your time in Junior hockey so memorable.”