Off the Wahl: Road trip has its rewards

Behind the scenes of the Trail Smoke Eaters with Chris Wahl.

The Smoke Eaters visit the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island this weekend on a three-game, 1,850-kilometre road trip. The number of bus hours required for such a jaunt would test anyone’s patience, but the Smokies, like any other junior hockey team, have their routine down pat.

Early Thursday morning, the club will set out from Trail on a 13-hour, 800-km. voyage to Powell River that includes two ferries and plenty of nap time.

Most players bring a pillow and a blanket as carry-on luggage (Scott Davidson, for one, totes an inflatable mattress to lay flat in the aisle), and the majority of the team is asleep shortly after the bus pulls out from Cominco Arena.

Rookies occasionally get to choose a movie (the selection of which is generally met by cat-calling from the veterans reclining at the back), and the hours tick away.

Ferry travel usually brings out an opportunity for non-British Columbians to get pranked. Some teams will ask their American players to show passports to a perplexed ticket salesperson while guffaws ring out from the back of the bus.

Others will convince their players to brave howling winds and lashing rain to get a glimpse of an orca, or sea monster.

In some cases, away games provide an opportunity for players to meet family and friends who might not ordinarily make it to Trail during the season.

I’d expect there to be several Smokies fans at Sunday’s game in Nanaimo, and not just because the Harbour City happens to be blueliner Curtis Toneff’s hometown. It’s not uncommon to see a band of players conversing with family in the hotel lobby on game-day morning, or outside the arena after games.

Inside the hotel, players are usually teamed up three to a room. And given the average age of the 22 young men on the roster is around 18 years old, it’s actually quite surprising to see how little noise emanates from hotel hallways once the team gets settled.  Room checks and curfew rules might have something to do with that, though.

Every now and then, the Smokies will run into other teams during their travels. The Bauer Showcase in September is the most obvious example of this, but even now, ten months on I still feel for the employees of the Tim Hortons across the street from our hotel in Nanaimo last year, who all of a sudden one Saturday afternoon were inundated by a sea of Smoke Eaters and Merritt Centennials looking for lunch, a coffee or a snack.

Bus travel might not seem glamourous, and the hours put in by the team’s drivers Elmer Williams and Alan Fairweather can be long, dreary, and in the wintertime downright nerve-wracking. But that said, the travel is an integral part of junior hockey (and something the players will say, boredom aside, is one of the best parts of playing in the BCHL).

It’s a pretty unique way to see what our province has to offer too, at least when it’s light out.