A Day in the Life of the Hershey Bears on the Road

Cup'pa JoeThe Hershey Bears boarded their team bus at Giant Center on Tuesday morning and departed for Lowell, Mass. In terms of time away from the Hershey community, this week’s slate of games in New England represents the team’s longest road trip of the season. They checked into their Lowell hotel early Tuesday evening. On Wednesday night the Bears, led by a Keith Aucoin hat trick, beat their hosts 5-2. Next up on the Bears’ road trip was a stop in Portland, Maine, for Friday night hockey against the Pirates.

Arriving in Portland not long after the Bears on Thursday, I wanted a detailed sense as to what their routine was like in between games and on game day during a road trip through New England. It might sound a little peculiar, but on Friday I tried somewhat to mirror my movements in Portland with the Bears, and thereby gain a sense of a day in the life of a minor pro hockey team on the road. I’m indebted to John Walton of the Bears for spending a generous amount of time with me, first on the phone, then in the team’s hotel, this week to piece together this timeline for you.

  • All Hershey Bears’ players are out of gear, showered, dressed and on their exiting bus within 30 minutes of finishing a road game. The bus then is revving and ready to roll on to the next town. Bears’ players can be so efficient in the postgame because on the road there is rarely any media obligation for visiting hockey teams. In fact, John Walton often is the sole media the team will encounter while on the road. But almost always the post-game bus is waiting for Walton the franchise communicator, who has to carry off about 20 minutes of post-game show on the radio, hurriedly pack up a significant amount of audio equipment, and scurry on as the last guy on the bus. The victorious Bears pulled out of Lowell on Wednesday night near 10:00.
  • They arrived at the Holiday Inn in Portland near 11:30 Wednesday night. That’s not so sleepy-head an hour for a game-weary hockey club, and many of the trips through New England come in under two hours by virtue of the prevalence of clubs throughout the region.
  • The Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland is quite literally a weak 5-iron away from the Holiday Inn, making it incredibly convenient for visiting hockey players to navigate morning skates and practices and meals and rest back at the hotel. Once a visiting team arrives Portland they won’t again board their bus until it’s time to depart for the next port of call. The Pirates skated first at Cumberland on Thursday morning, at 10:00. The Bears followed with a noon skate. They went for about 90 minutes. The team then was free of obligations, and many players sought the invigorating fresh air of mid-autumn New England and roamed about gorgeous downtown Portland seeking a hot meal on a frosty afternoon. The team had an 11:00 p.m. curfew Thursday night.
  • Friday morning delivered a gameday routine. Some players gathered in the Holiday Inn’s lone restaurant, the Port of Call, for some coffee between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. Around 9:00 a good many players walked over to the rink to tinker with their gear before their 11:15 scheduled skate. It was necessarily a light skate, and the entire team was back at the Port of Call for a team meal at 12:30. In an eating-and-drinking-Heaven city like Portland, the Holiday Inn Port of Call likely wouldn’t fall into anyone’s top 50 list of culinary destinations, but this is a game day, and the Bears’ routine is oriented entirely around readiness for 7:00. Also, dining at the Holiday Inn is a budget-friendly endeavor on a modest American League stipend.
  • After the meal, around 1:30, a small number of Bears go for walks about town, mostly on modest errands, but most head back up to their rooms for computer time and naps.
  • At around 4:00 Bears’ players begin to loosen up the legs with some walking near the arena. Head Coach Mark French wants his team to walk to the rink so long as the journey is under 10 blocks, which in Portland it most definitely is.
  • The Portland Pirates don’t often fill their home rink, but on this particular Friday night, with the reigning Calder Cup champions visiting, they do — more than 6,500 Mainers crammed in the old ice house. The Bears skate fast and furious and in virtual total control of the puck in the game’s opening 10 minutes, but they fail to score, and that I thought proved pivotal. Special teams then really undid them: numerous penalties taken, leading to two Pirates’ power tallies, and the visitors never made much of a game of it after the mid-way point of the second period. Final: Pirates 5, Bears zilch. Ouch.
  • Less than 5 minutes after the game’s conclusion, near 9:30, the few helping hands the Bears have on the road with them are hauling already packed gear bags into the cargo hold of the team bus. Basically, it’s the bus driver and an equipment guy. The first Bears’ players begin trickling out of the arena a few minutes later and are greeted by a smattering of Hershey supporters who’ve made the trip North. Despite the battering, all the Bears make time for the fans. Standing next to the bus I can see inside its windows and notice more than a half dozen miniature flat screen TVs alighted with the Comcast Sportsnet broadcast of the Caps-Panthers’ game from Sunrise. It was a rough, rough night for the affiliate, but as they lower their bruised and beaten bodies into the executive bus’ plush interior they’ll be able to follow the parent for the final half of a third period with the good guys on the better end of a 2-0 score. Not a perfect salve for a rotten Friday night, but I liked that high-tech connectedness between parent and an affiliate routing itself through minor hockey’s wilderness roads.
  • John Walton again is the last one out the door, his arms heavy with the encased gear of his art. “I bet you’re glad you came all the way up to Maine for that” he tells me with good natured empathy. We chat hurriedly but as friends; he has a bus to catch. I wish him safe travel. It’s on to Manchester.
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