BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: The Mega Road Trip
Blog #08 – April 16, 2020
by John Peterson
One of the questions I received for the first edition of the K-Wings Mailbag made me chuckle.
“Do you have any road trips from hell that you can look back at, laugh and say, ‘ah, the good ole days’?”
Short answer: yes. There a plenty of those trips that come to mind, so much so that I’m considering writing a book someday.
Thankfully, I can’t say we’ve had any of those since I arrived in Kalamazoo (as I knock on wood).
There have been some grueling trips, sure. Everybody in the minors has trips that make you want to get home and sleep for three days. Ours was in late-November when we played Friday night in Cincinnati, Saturday night in Toledo, and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. in Brampton after arriving at 5:00 a.m. That was fun.
But this blog is dedicated to our longest trip of the season. Here is an inside look at that six-game whopper in six cities over a span of 11 days in late-January.
Before we go any further, I need to give a huge shout out to K-Wings Executive Assistant Keli Ekola. In addition to everything else she has going on, Keli handles our travel. This includes booking bus companies, hotel stays, team meals, and in this case, flights for 27 players and staff.
Keli is a rock star. I don’t envy that responsibility. Mainly because I’ve done it.
So let’s hit the road, shall we?
FIRST STOP – THE WINDY CITY
Our first destination was Chicago. We left Wings Event Center on Wednesday, Jan. 22 with a bus full of players, staff and equipment for a two-hour afternoon trip to a hotel near Midway Airport.
The guys chose “The Wolf of Wall Street” for the short ride to the Windy City. I still haven’t seen it from beginning to end, and it’s on my list of movies to watch. We were nowhere near finishing the marathon Leonardo Dicaprio flick when the bus pulled in to the hotel.
It was dinner time and most of the guys took Uber rides to grab some grub.
The next morning the team boarded the bus for a short trip to the airport to hop on a Southwest Airlines flight to the Sooner State, where we had two games that weekend against the Tulsa Oilers at the BOK Center.
SECOND STOP – OLD STOMPING GROUNDS
As the plane made its final decent, before the wheels even touched the ground, I was already hearing it from every direction.
I’d spent three seasons in Tulsa, before joining the K-Wings last summer and this was my first time returning to Oil Country since packing up the moving truck last July.
Ben Wilson, always the jokester, started in: “Is there going to be a cheering section waiting for you when you get off the plane, JP?”
Then Coach Bootland followed: “Yeah, are they going to roll out the red carpet, or what?”
The plane landed. They weren’t done yet.
Joel Martin chimed in: “So are they going to put up a tribute video during the game?”
I was toast. This weekend was off to a great start.
Justin Taylor continued: “Hey JP, how much money are you putting up on the board?” Money on the board is an old hockey tradition where players/coaches/staff put a dollar amount on the whiteboard before a game as motivation. If the team wins, you owe that amount towards the team’s fine fund.
Once we checked into the hotel. everyone scattered for the rest of the afternoon during the off-day in Tulsa. I used the day as an opportunity to grab a late lunch and a few beers with some of my old coworkers.
The next day was the first of back-to-back games against the Oilers, a team the K-Wings beat back in October in overtime at Wings Event Center. That was the night Taylor scored the overtime winner after he was honored pregame for setting the team’s games played record.
The team took part in a short 15-20 minute morning skate at 11:15 a.m. Depending on the city we’re in, the players have a team meal catered or prepared at the hotel for lunch, while the staff finds a place to eat nearby.
My favorite part of this specific trip is my wife flew in Friday for a couple of days. We met in Tulsa so it was fun to share the weekend with her. She landed right as morning skate was wrapping up, so I met her at our favorite Mexican food spot, Elote in downtown Tulsa.
Afterwards, I went back to the team hotel, finished putting together my game notes and line chart and we returned to the BOK Center.
I set up my equipment on the visiting side of the press table (also strange) and mingled with some familiar faces up there, including Oilers broadcaster Zack Reynolds, a good friend and my former color-commentator for three seasons.
It was game time. Kalamazoo’s season-long six-game road trip was underway.
Tulsa broke through to take a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, but Garret Ross tied the game in the second period. After a scoreless third, the teams headed to overtime for the second straight meeting. Jake Kielly stopped 40 shots that night, but ultimately Tulsa won 2-1 in a shootout. Saturday was a new day.
Saturday at morning skate, I recommended one of my favorite restaurants for a staff lunch. Now, I’ve never been to Philadelphia, but the Philly Cheesesteaks at this place are the best I’ve ever had. I used to go there on game days all the time, especially during a winning streak (I’m not superstitious at all).
They were not disappointed.
Back to business. Saturday’s game was another chance to get our first win of the trip.
The K-Wings took an early lead, but fell behind 3-2 early in the third period. Matti Iacopelli evened the score on a breakaway, forcing overtime, and scored on another breakaway in the extra frame to win it.
All three meetings between the two teams last season went past regulation. Kalamazoo won two of three.
The weekend in Tulsa ended on a great note. Sunday morning we were off to Kansas City to try to keep things rolling.
THIRD STOP – CHIEFS’ KINGDOM
Sunday morning, we boarded a bus for a four-hour trip to Independence, Missouri, just outside Kansas City. We stopped for lunch in Joplin, Missouri, a little less than halfway up the road.
Just as the bus pulled into Joplin to find a few lunch options, I overheard a few of the players in the back of the bus saying there were reports on Twitter that NBA legend Kobe Bryant died.
Immediately everyone started scrolling their phones to see if the rumors were true. No way. It couldn’t be true.
After an hour lunch break, everyone met back at the bus to continue on the rest of the way. At that point, more reports starting rolling in confirming the horrible news. I don’t know that there has ever been a tragedy that has transcended the entire sports landscape quite like that one. I’ll always remember where I was when I found out Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash.
We arrived at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena to drop off our gear and then checked in to our hotel about five minutes away. The rest of the day, most of us just relaxed at the hotel and stayed glued to the news coverage coming from L.A.
The team had an extra day before a Tuesday night face-off with the Mavericks, so after practice Monday, everyone did their own thing. Some of the guys went to the movies to catch the hit “1917”, while others hung around the hotel.
I have family that lives in the area, so I went with my dad into the city about 20 minutes away and ate at our favorite Kansas City barbeque joint. It’s one of my favorite things about playing the Mavericks, getting a chance to see family.
It was Super Bowl week and one thing I noticed during the short time we were there: everything was red. Buildings were lit up at night by red lights. Kansas City Chiefs flags were all over the place. There were huge decals on windows of businesses. Seemingly everyone walking the streets wore Patrick Mahomes or Travis Kelce jerseys.
My dad likes to sit up in the press box with me at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, so I saved him a spot Tuesday night with the help of Mavs media relations director Brian McGannon.
As we drove back to Independence to meet the team for the game, I had a good feeling about it. The K-Wings had just received Tanner Sorenson and David Pope from Utica, which would add some firepower to the lineup against the struggling Mavericks.
That turned out to be true, as Pope recorded his first pro hat trick and Sorenson scored a ridiculous baseball-swing goal out of mid-air in a convincing 6-1 win. Two days later, Kansas City made a coaching change.
We stayed the night in Independence. Rather than busing eight hours overnight to our next destination, Indianapolis, we used our off day Wednesday to fly from Kansas City to Indy ahead of a Thursday night showdown with the Fuel. This was a huge luxury for us halfway through a grueling trip.
FOURTH STOP – RE-FUEL
The flight to Indianapolis Wednesday afternoon was only about an hour long. We touched down, boarded another bus and went straight to Indiana Farmers Coliseum to leave our equipment until the next day. Quick and simple.
The Indiana State Fairgrounds are about 15-20 minutes from downtown. We made it to the hotel, dropped off our personal belongings and the staff met back downstairs in the lobby for dinner.
Somebody recommended sushi. I want to say it was Kyle Forte or Scott “Rooster” Allison. We all agreed and picked a new spot none of us had tried before. Indy is known for its many high-end steakhouses, but we chose a sushi restaurant about eight blocks from our hotel that only had one other party dining in the restaurant.
It turned out to be fantastic. The next time we went to Indy at the end of February, we went back to that sushi spot. It’s our go-to dinner destination the night before the game.
The rest of the trip flew by. Three games in three days in three different cities to wrap up the longest road swing of the season.
Thursday morning the team practiced and we all felt confident we’d pick up where we left off two days earlier in Kansas City. No more than 15 minutes after morning skate ended, Coach Bootland got a phone call. Utica was recalling Pope AND Sorenson for their game Friday night in Cleveland. They needed to catch a flight that evening and join the Comets, thus missing our game against the Fuel.
That’s how quickly the tables can turn. A tough break on the day of a huge division game against a team Kalamazoo was chasing in the standings.
Later that night, the K-Wings gave up the first goal before scoring twice less than a minute apart to go in front. The game was close all night and Indy regained the lead on a power play in the third, but Kalamazoo again scored twice in a row quickly and added one more for insurance in a 5-3 win over the Fuel.
That was three straight wins and a four-game point streak.
Time to pack up the bus. We were off to Toledo.
FIFTH STOP – FISHIN’ HOLE
We made it to the Huntington Center late into the night and everyone helped unload the equipment from the bus so we could hang the players’ gear in the locker room overnight to dry.
Friday we woke up and walked back to the arena a block away from the host hotel in downtown Toledo. Rather than practice, the team just gathered for a video session before lunch to rest up for that night’s game.
At that point in the trip, we were exhausted. We didn’t talk about it, but you could see it on everyone’s faces. I got back from lunch, jotted down a few notes for the game and took a nice long nap.
Toledo is one of the toughest places to play in minor league hockey. Most weekends they pack the Huntington Center with 8,000+ fans and that place gets loud. You have to weather the early storm against the Walleye to have a chance to steal a win in their barn.
This wasn’t the night, as the Fish jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead and went on to a 6-3 win, snapping the K-Wings winning streak.
Back on the bus. Saturday was the final night of the journey. One thing Nick said on the bus stood out to me. This was the longest road trip of his coaching career.
I didn’t believe it at first, but he was serious. In 12 years as head coach of the K-Wings, this 11-day jaunt was the most amount of time the team had been away without at least making a pit stop back in Kalamazoo.
One more stop: Cincinnati.
SIXTH STOP – QUEEN CITY
Another early morning arrival at Heritage Bank Center, before heading to our final hotel just across the river in Kentucky.
The team planned to gather back at the arena mid-morning for a film session, but would not be practicing again. If we thought Toledo was a tough place to play, for some reason Cincinnati had a better home record. Heritage Bank Center seats nearly twice as many fans as Huntington Center, but because of that, the upper bowl is usually closed off. The Cyclones rarely lost at home and only a handful of teams had even been able to pick up a point in their building.
The bus ride from the hotel to the arena is about five minutes long. If the weather is nice, the staff and even a few players prefer to walk across the bridge over the Ohio River into downtown Cincinnati.
That night, the Cyclones raced out and scored three first period goals just four minutes apart. It was the biggest deficit the K-Wings had faced after 20 minutes of play all season. Given the length of the trip and the fact it was the third game in as many nights in the third different city, the game easily could have gotten out of hand from there.
But this K-Wings team did not have the word “quit” in their vocabulary. All year, when faced with adversity, they battled all the way to the final buzzer.
A second period goal from Justin Kovacs gave the team life. Then Matti Iacopelli scored to make it 3-2 midway through the third period and Zach Diamantoni tied the game, completing the comeback to force overtime.
Cincinnati prevailed in the extra frame, but Kalamazoo scratched and clawed to get a point in the sixth and final game.
The team finished the long stretch with a 3-1-1-1 record and at least a point in five out of six games.
All that was left was a six-hour bus trip home to Kalamazoo. We turned off the lights and tried to get some shuteye.
When the bus pulled back into Wings Event Center, it’d be Super Bowl Sunday.
Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson twice weekly. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy!