Coming up on four years on the job, I was looking for a new story idea and a new way to follow the Battlefords North Stars.
After looking at the schedule it hit – why not Flin Flon?
Coach Kevin Hasselberg allowed me to join the team on the two-day road trip Feb. 10 and 11. I had the opportunity to see some of the behind the scenes happenings of a road trip with the Battlefords North Stars on one of the longest road trips the team travels during the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season.
The plan was for the bus to be packed at 7:30 a.m. and we would be on the road after that. Before I to hopped on the bus, I borrowed my brother’s laptop for the trip and that itself turned out to be quite the production. I went to Wilkie the night before leaving for Flin Flon to pick up his laptop. No problem right? Wrong.
When I went to leave my parents’ house I noticed I had picked up a nail in my tire. Great I was suppose to be back in Battleford in 45 minutes to cover a Midget AAA Stars game, so my dad and I got suited up and change the tire, putting the small space saver tire on.
I’m glad we were able to pull my vehicle into the driveway and had a flashlight, because it would have been a royal pain in the posterior if I had to do that one my own on the highway.
I texted one of the North Stars and asked for a teammate’s number, knowing he worked at a tire shop. I asked him when the shop was open, but it didn’t look like I could get there and be at the rink in time to catch the bus so it was time for plan B. I was able to convince a friend to take my tire to get fixed Saturday, so I didn’t have to worry about that while in Flin Flon.
When I was texting two of the players, the night before it came up that I was going to Flin Flon with them and they both asked why.
My answer to both was simply why not? It was something different.
Friday, I pulled up to get loaded on the bus and watched as the rookies were frantically loading the bus and double checking to make sure everything that was one their list of things to pack was on the bus somewhere. The veterans on the team strolled in and curled up at the back of the bus and prepared themselves for four or five hours of sleep.
The trip to Flin Flon wasn’t that bad, better than I expected actually. A stop halfway to stretch the legs, a movie on the laptop, my iPod, games on my phone for the portion of the trip we had service and talking hockey with Dale Jackson and the sports radio guy Mike Feeney made the trip go quite quickly. The same can’t be said for the trip home, but I will get to that.
When we arrived at the hotel in Flin Flon everyone was checked into their rooms and Mike and I pulled out our laptops and got to ‘work.’ He prepared for the radio broadcast and I sent out a quick blog post and checked my Facebook and Twitter accounts.
I received several warnings from people who have experienced Flin Flon and things to watch for and expect on the weekend, but I didn’t wander too far from the hotel or the rink so I missed out on what I am sure is the other side of Flin Flon. I did want to see a moose leg tossed on the ice, but that didn’t happen and no one I talked to claimed they were the toughest person in Flin Flon, which was a good thing.
The community has a classic look. A TV crew could show up there this week and remake the movie Slapshot and no one would know it wasn’t Charlestown without making any changes.
When anyone asked how the trip went, I said it was interesting and that the town is stuck in the ’70s – the buildings and the people meshed together perfectly.
The Manitoba born players, all joked about the fresh Manitoba air that we should be smelling in Flin Flon, but all I could smell the entire weekend was the diesel burning from the bus and the smoke coming from the factory smoke stack.
After a pre-game meal in the afternoon the players went back to their rooms while Mike and I attempted to clean out what food was left from the buffet meal. Maybe not such a good idea. Just because it is there doesn’t mean you have to eat that much.
Later, the team met at the bus and we were off to the rink – the Whitney Forum, which I was looking forward to seeing for the first time. I had heard stories of the place and never really knew what to expect. It was a nice old rink with a lot of history and what looked like a lot of Flin Flon Bombers pride.
They had strobe lights on the score clock, loud music and loud goal horn and just an atmosphere that made you think it was playoff hockey although both nights had smaller crowds of less than 700 people.
On the one end of the rink hung a huge picture of the queen. That may be the first time I saw a picture of the queen or at least noticed it at a hockey rink, but I found out later a picture of the queen was quite common in older hockey rinks.
While the players ran and stretched before warmups I did a lap around the rink and checked out the wall of fame, banners, pictures and plaques. I noticed many familiar names including guys who now play senior hockey around here, to a cousin, dozens of NHLers who have passed through Flin Flon and some former North Stars.
As for the game itself on the Friday night, the North Stars were the better team and it showed, as they won 5-2. I did colour commentary for Mike on the radio and am really starting to enjoy that part of the media – just as long as I can make it sound like I know what you are talking about occasionally. I tried to stay focus while he attempted to clean his pants after one of the North Stars’, who wasn’t dressed, dripped Nutella on him during the intermission. It is a good thing it was radio and not TV I suppose.
After the game it was back to the hotel for another team meal and the players were off to their rooms. It was now time for me to check out the infamous Unwinder lounge. After a few beverages and games of pool, where Mike and I hustled some locals in doubles, by complete fluke, it was off to bed for the night.
Saturday, everyone was up by 9 a.m. for breakfast and off to the rink where the players would have talk about the previous night’s game with coach Hasselberg. He spent hours reviewing the game film from the night before and discussed the expectations for the evening’s game.
After hanging out at the rink and watching some peewee tournament action it was back to the hotel. Since not everyone could get a late checkout time, the two rooms with team staff and Mike and I had to pack up early and find another way to stay occupied for a couple hours. After a stop at Walmart and Canadian Tire we were back at the hotel, which was about 100 yards away from our shopping destinations.
We eventually made it back inside the hotel and watched Hockey Day in Canada while the players were in their rooms until mealtime again.
After eating chicken and pasta it was more nap time for the players. Or that is at least what I am saying they were doing the whole time, not really knowing when they actually do nap. I know that is a big part of many players’ game-day ritual. Maybe I should have tried that when I was in my prime, and I could still be doing it instead of writing about it.
After loading up and heading back to the rink it was the same routine for the players, but this time Flin Flon was much more prepared and ready, winning the game 2-0.
The broadcast with Mike was fun again Saturday. This time we given a bit of a challenge by Matt Ryan, who was back at the studio. He gave us both a secret word we had to try and insert into the broadcast. Mike being the radio veteran worked kumquat, which apparently is an exotic fruit, smoothly into the broadcast in the first period. It took me until the second period, but I was able to use the word ‘squeegee.’
After the loss, the bus was loaded and chicken was already there to be passed around. The players changed from their suit and ties into something more comfortable for a long bus ride home, a trick I now know about, but overlooked while packing for the trip.
After a movie on the bus it was pretty much lights out and most people tried to sleep on the way home. Well, I tried to sleep. Most people likely did sleep. I say try because I have much less experience sleeping on a bus and I am convinced that it is something that the more practise you get the better you will be. With my left leg asleep and a kink in my neck I survived the trip home, as we pulled up to the rink just after 4:30 a.m.
At the rink some vehicles needed boosts, so I didt my part and headed home to bed, finally.
On the short drive home, I asked myself, ‘why not Flin Flon?’ and the reason would be because of the bus ride home. I think I know why it is one of the most famous and talked about trips simply for that reason.
Overall it was a great experience and something I would consider doing again if the opportunity came up. It is hats off to the North Stars’ players and coaches for allowing me to tag along on the road trip. I have a greater appreciation for the job that coach Hasselberg does, the team bonding that happens off the ice and the trials and tribulations of junior hockey in Saskatchewan.
I not saying it is a good thing the North Stars lost the second game, but after Friday’s game some players were hinting that maybe I was a good luck charm. Fortunately they have had good luck in most rinks this season and I wasn’t looking forward to years of roads trip to Flin Flon just so one of the players can score a goal.