Life on the road with the Janesville Jets
One by one, young men pile out of a line of vehicles at the Janesville Ice Arena on a Tuesday afternoon in March.
One broad shoulder bears a bag of hockey gear, the other some sort of backpack. A pillow under one arm, a two-gallon milk jug full of water in hand. All of it bound for a Van Galder coach bus with cargo holds opened wide and waiting.
Navy blue windbreakers hide the athletic bodies of mostly teenage hockey players whose sights are set on playing for Division I college programs. Matching pants and khakis also hide the bruises and strains incurred over a grueling eight-month season.
“For some of the rookies, you'd think that it's getting a little bit long, because they're not used to a 60-game season,” Adam Roeder explains. “For us vets that have been in the league a few years, it's normal now.
“It does take a toll on your body. This week we're going to be traveling 1,300 miles or so. Four games in five days is a lot, but the bus trips are nice and easy, because you get to be with your teammates.”
Welcome to life on the road in the North American Hockey League, where the Janesville Jets entered the day with a 38-11-0-4 record. The Midwest Division title and a top seed in the playoffs clinched, there's little left to play for except the desire to end a three-game losing streak while building momentum for the postseason.
But here they are, with a 15-8-0-2 road record, boarding a bus for a 13-hour, down-and-back trip to Springfield, Illinois, for the first of four road games in five days during the second-to-last week of the regular season.
The feels on the bus
The bus is loaded and ready for an on-time 12:30 p.m. departure. Coaches occupy the front two seats, with rookie players behind them feeding back to seats filled with veteran players likely annoyed that two random members of the media are taking up space—which comes at a premium no matter how nice the bus.
And this one is pretty nice, with captain's chairs up front for head coach Joe Dibble and assistant Kyle Forte, as well as a couple tables suitable for a game of cards or a stack of pizzas with a bathroom at the rear.
But the bus can't leave quite yet, because the satellite televisions aren't functioning.
“There's always something,” Dibble says.
This year, however, most of the issues have been as minor as the TVs, which are quickly up and running, and so is the bus down I-90. Last season the bus got stuck a couple times due to icy conditions, but players and coaches recall no real horror stories this year.
As the trip begins, defenseman Colin Felix pulls papers from his backpack. Most players' bags feature some variety of snacks to fuel up for the night's game, perhaps a tablet or device to keep them occupied or a deck of cards. For Felix and three others who attend classes at Janesville Craig High, they also often contain some homework, and today Felix holds his own quick science cram session on the steps of mitosis.
It's not long, however, before Felix is part of a card game at the front of the bus. He and fellow rookie Jakov Novak join Jets staffers in a game of Shnarps. If you've never heard of it, it's likely because you've never been on a hockey bus trip. In fact, a web search for the rummy-like game where players bid for tricks and attempt to whittle their score from 16 down to zero returns a top hit that states, first and foremost, that it is “popular on minor-pro hockey bus rides.”
“On a lot of road trips, cards are one of the main things to pass time because you get to joke around and get to know the other guys,” said assistant captain Lordanthony Grissom, a three-year veteran who on this day plays in a separate game toward the back of the bus. “We also play presidents, maybe some euchre now and then, but you can only play that with four people. We try to play games where a lot more guys can play.”
Playing at the front of the bus has its disadvantages. As Novak is on his way to a Shnarps victory, Dibble casually reminds him that if he beats up on the coaches, Novak could wind up in street clothes watching his teammates play against Springfield.
“Hey, it's just a game,” Novak responds.
“So is tonight,” Dibble laughs.
“We try to make the atmosphere as light on that bus as possible, because of how long we're on it,” Dibble says later. “I want the guys to be able to joke around with us.”
Meantime, about half the 22-man roster is sprawled out catching some rest in any nook, cranny or position possible—and some that most would deem impossible.
For instance, Madison native Cole Paskus has his back resting firmly on the seat of his chair, his legs up at a 90-degree angle against the seat in front of him.
“Sometimes he even brings a hammock,” Dibble said.
Whatever it takes to get through the long rides.
Piles of miles
The miles add up quickly.
By rough Google Maps addition, the Jets trekked about 9,000 miles to and from road games by bus this season. They also had a pair of longer trips to Alaska—each time playing a series each at Fairbanks and Kenai River.
“Every year you build a family with the team,” said Kip Hoffmann, a third-year Jets forward. “That makes it easier getting on buses or going to Alaska. It's all about the guys on that bus.”
The Jets went back and forth to Springfield four different times, logging about 226 miles each way. They went to Onalaska five different times, including once to play one game while on the way to Brookings, South Dakota. That provided a nice pit stop on the way, but the Jets had to make the 519-mile haul—their longest this year—all in one shot.
In past years, Janesville was in a division with the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks. Trips there often dragged on for about 12 hours.
The trips do allow players to see other parts of the country they've otherwise never seen.
And they get a glimpse at opponents' facilities, as well. On this particular Tuesday night in Springfield—which has an arena with bleachers on both sides and averages nearly 800 fans a night—the actual attendance is almost certainly far below the announced number of 387.
The Nelson Center is typically much more full and louder, Jets twin brothers Ben and David Schmidling say. Games between the Jets and Jr. Blues are considered big rivalry contests because of the teams' close proximity and because Dibble used to coach in Springfield.
The Jets are road warriors. Only four teams had more victories this season away from home entering this weekend.
Eat and greet
It's tough to say which is the bigger spectacle: the team unloading for its pregame meal or the race to get back to the bus on a full stomach.
The go-to stop on the way to Springfield is a small Noodles & Company on the campus of Illinois State in Normal. The players form an assembly line and holler out their orders one-by-one, find a seat with teammates and await a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs or buttered noodles with chicken.
In less than 20 minutes, they're done and clearing their own bowls to restaurant staffers, bidding a thank you and heading for the door.
That's when the fun begins.
A game of tag starts with the first few players out the door, and it funnels back through the stragglers. The last one to make it back and touch the bus must stand at the front and sing a song, a potential fate that sends players scattering through parking lots as if they've been swarmed by bees.
“Sometimes we'll see entire restaurants full of people get up and watch us, trying to figure out what's going on,” Dibble said.
Predictably perhaps, goalies Jake Barczewski and Derek Schaedig wind up singing more than anyone else.
“Cullen Munson and Peter Bates are really good at it because they're just really fast,” said rookie Joey Abate, a University of Wisconsin commit. “You want to pick on the uncoordinated guys like Derek and 'Barsy.' They're great goalies, but off the ice they're like a fish out of water.”
The team typically hits up Noodles or Potbelly for meals on the road. About a dozen pizzas were waiting outside the locker room after the game in Springfield.
But sometimes the road meals get a little redundant, or opponents' sponsorship partners aren't favorites of the players during weekend, overnight trips. So they snag a meal from somewhere else and toss it in their bags on the bus.
Once this season, in Alaska, Grissom was so desperate for a different, decent meal that he chowed a handful of jalapenos.
“Coach said if (Alec) Semandel and I did it that he'd buy us lunch,” Grissom said. “I don't think I could do it again. I don't like hot food. But I got a nice steak pasta out of it. It was worth it in the end.”
The Jets have their pregame schedule down to the minute.
After unloading gear at the area about two and a half hours before the puck drops, it's time to tape up sticks and stretch.
Team warmups—led by captains and held outside when weather cooperates—begin 75 minutes prior to game time.
Goalies can be the exception. Barczewski and Schaedig—like most goalies at any level—are a little different. They spend much of their pregame time off on their own, often juggling tennis balls and mentally preparing for the night's game.
“I have it down to the second,” Barczewski said. “You get your warmups on and then go get away from the guys and find some space alone. Some guys call it visualizing. I get my mind focused. Then I throw some balls around for hand-eye coordination.
“I do the same exact routine with the balls every time. If I don't get a juggling sequence right the first time, I'll keep trying it until I get it.”
The biggest pregame ritual for most of the Jets is the same as many hockey teams at all levels. They play Sewer Ball, a game that resembles hacky sack only it's played with an underinflated soccer ball. The player who is at fault for the ball hitting the ground is eliminated from the circle of players, and the game ends after it's whittled down to a one-on-one showdown.
Bates and Paskus seem to be the team's best “Sewer” players.
“I feel like they played soccer for 10 years before this,” Abate said.
There's a little more downtime after off-ice warmups. Then the team gets a pregame skate to get ready, and the puck drops—typically at 7 p.m. local time.
At the wheel
From Shnarps to Sewer to bus tag, many of the Jets' road traditions fall exactly in line with junior hockey teams across the country.
For something more out of the ordinary, one needs to look no further than the very front of the bus.
Van Galder's Cody Schroeder has been the team's bus driver for about three years. Not only that, but he's also worked himself into the self-appointed title of equipment manager.
“I just couldn't stand the thought of getting paid to just sit around,” said Schroeder, who only misses trips if he's off serving his commitment as a reserve in the Marines.
Dibble said just about every team in the NAHL has an equipment manager on staff. In past years, Jets assistant coaches were forced to leave the bench to tend to mid-game issues.
“The team two years ago really embraced him, and it's just carried over,” Dibble said of Schroeder. “All of my assistants have hated sharpening skates. Last year, Cody wanted to start sharpening skates.
“I bet we're one of four or five teams without an equipment manager, so he jumped into that role. If the guys need something fixed or need a screw or break a skate, he's on it. He's a huge help.”
Schroeder is definitely a part of the team at this point.
“Cody is probably one of my best friends outside the hockey team,” Barczewski said. “We have a lot of respect for him. He's helped us all year. And he's helped my confidence. Before every period he even gives me a little pep talk.
“I think that kind of helps us through road trips, too. Having him, the morale of the guys is probably 10 times better.”
At this point, bus rides to road games are fairly routine.
Coming home? That can be a different story.
Asked what the ride home would be like if his team lost, Dibble responded, “There wouldn't be a word said on here (the bus) right now. No TVs. Darkness.”
As it was, the Jets had little trouble dispatching the Jr. Blues 4-1 to end the three-game losing streak and set up a more-relaxed late-night drive back to Janesville.
Before hitting the interstate, the players are rewarded for their victory with a stop at a gas station. They return to the bus with ice cream treats, chips, milks and pretzels, among other choices.
The Jets have not hit the jackpot this time, because the gas station is not a Kwik Trip. Had it been, the stop might have lingered to nearly a half-hour as the players stocked up on F'real shakes, malts and smoothies.
“My favorite is strawberry-banana,” Grissom said. “After a win, I'm always hoping there's a gas station that has it. It's definitely one of the treats to get after a win.”
TVs are set to an NBA game—at least until Dibble puts an end to it. (Other bans by the head coach include cartoons and any movie featuring Will Ferrell.)
The remote finds an NHL game for a while. Then, eventually, game show network.
“Roeder loves Family Feud,” Grissom explains.
Dibble has his eyes elsewhere. He's already watching film on his cellphone, prepping for the Jets' next game in less than 48 hours. At one point he pauses, stands from his seat and shows a clip to Felix.
Elsewhere, the card games commence once again, but as the clock ticks past midnight most of the bus is asleep.
The Jets not only won that Tuesday night but also two of their three road games last weekend, as well.
Not bad for a team that, to the naked eye, had little to play for. The players say they find plenty of reasons to stay motivated.
“It's huge to be on a roll going into the playoffs,” Roeder said. “It'll make things a lot easier.”
“There's still that ultimate goal of getting a Division I commitment,” Grissom said. “Not everyone has one, and there's still going to be scouts in the stands. So it's not like you can just take a day off because you're in first place. We've got to play for one another.”
Beyond that, even, the bond between the Jets is clearly genuine.
Any quarrels seem to be left behind about as quickly as they crop up. Spending seven months together—whether at home or during one of the 20,000 odd miles away—has cemented relationships that extend well beyond the blue lines and benches.
“Road trips are huge, because you're with each other every day—sleeping together, talking, eating,” Abate said. “When you're on the bus, it builds the bond tremendously.”
“You start learning things about other people, their lows and highs through life,” Grissom said. “At the end of the year, especially with the Jets, you really become brothers.”
Dibble wants nothing more than to deliver a Roberston Cup to Janesville.
But his first and most important mission every year is to create a dynamic, close-knit locker room that will be capable of leading a team to that NAHL title.
“When you have that trust with each other, you're allowed to have high expectations of one another,” Dibble said. “These guys will stand up in each other's weddings one day. They'll be a godfather to their kids.
“This little town of Janesville is a pretty special part of a much bigger picture of what these guys are doing here.”
The bus rolls back into the city's ice arena parking lot at 1:48 a.m.
In 36 hours, the Jets will reconvene and hit the road all over again.