ROAD TIPPIN: Locked Doors, Farewell to Rexall, Mem Cup Central

I remember getting out of the car for work, the morning of January 25. Beginning a 100-foot walk to the loading dock entrance with Kevin Constantine, within ten seconds we were joined by Tia Dutton (the friendly face from the Silvertips ticket side of the front office).

Tia asked how everything is going.

Kevin responded, “oh good, we’re just about done with all of our bus trips.”

That’s where it hits me: we really are into crunch time, aren’t we?

The last “lengthy” trip of the Silvertips regular season brought the boys in green through a six-day journey through the grounds of a historic curtain call, the site of this year’s Memorial Cup, and familiar stomping grounds for one Tips assistant coach (hint: last name rhymes with “Donnie.”).

Day 1 – Everett to Kamloops, B.C.
January 19, 2016
Distance: 260 miles

Typically, this turns into six-hour drive, accounting for the need to stop at the border. There are no hiccups, and the “iron lung” (you’ll hear this nickname for the team bus) has rolled into the familiar “name left unknown for the purposes of protecting the innocent” hotel.

It also includes a brief dinner stop in Kamloops, where a pretty tasty (and enormously sized chicken parmesan is served). Needless to say, gym time awaits tomorrow.

16_0123_KamloopsBoothDay 2 – Game day in Kamloops
January 20, 2016

7:00am: the early bird gets the worm. I thought I was the first one to the gym. Negative.

Mitch Love beat me there.

I further understand how he “gets after it.” It’s an insatiable drive.

Sometimes the Silvertips will conduct a morning skate. Sometimes they won’t. It’s all based on circumstance. And since they’re in one location a full day, while on the road, the morning provides opportunity to get acclimated to the Sandman Centre environment. Same for this guy. The press box is high atop center ice, literally almost draped above the penalty boxes. A throwback press box location (they call them “gondolas” in Canada) is a view worth a million dollars for broadcasting.

Keep in mind, you better know where you’re going. I accidentally locked myself in a staircase trying to get downstairs. Thankfully, Wayne Duncan had a cell phone handy: he bailed me out.

Tips win 2-1 that night when Matt Fonteyne’s missed backhander, off the post, ricochets in off a Kamloops defenseman. You work for your breaks, we conclude.

Postgame meal: everyone shuttles off to a late-night establishment for roast beef, salad, pasta and a nightcap non-alcoholic beverage. Bed time.

16_0123_ClearwaterDay 3 – Kamloops, B.C. to Edmonton, AB
January 21, 2016
Distance: 505 miles

I’ve had this date circled on the calendar for awhile. For a bulk of my career in the ECHL, working in concert with prospects means direct dialogue with their parent club. For seven years, mine was the Edmonton Oilers. It doesn’t take too long to foster relationships. So by the end of the night, relationships are re-kindled over dinner in downtown (Corso 32 fed us the tastiest Italian food I’ve had in nearly a decade). Since this is the home stomping grounds for a few Tips (Carter Hart, Brandon Ralph, etc), a few of the guys have shuttled off to eat dinner with family too.

Let’s rewind to the journey to Wayne Gretzky Drive.

Along the way, through the treacherous mountains and snow capped roads, lies a small outpost town of Clearwater, B.C. (see above). Famous for it’s vast outdoor opportunities, the town boasting a population of 2,331 lies in the North Thompson River valley and employs many in the forest industry.

It’s also the original home of the quintessential outdoorsman, Silvertips assistant coach Brennan Sonne.

If you know him, you know how skilled he is in the area of game hunting and fishing. Clearwater is his family’s playground, also home to a school where his father served in administration. As we passed through, you could instantly perceive the energy that Brennan exuded by giving a brief “highway tour.”

One more stop for lunch is followed by the inevitable arrival into a snow-soaked Edmonton, the home of five Oiler Stanley Cup championships. There’s an obvious feeling of anticipation that hits the bus: it’s not just a homecoming for many. It’s not just a visit to an NHL venue.

It’s the last time we’ll all be in Rexall Place, which will shutter its doors after this season for the new, bright, shiny and state-of-the-art Rogers Place (below, in the flesh).

16_0123_RogersPlaceIt’s my first (and last) visit to Rexall. So upon stepping into the place, I resign to feelings of awe by taking a panoramic view of the place and realizing “this is where Gretzky did work.” For many WHL broadcasters, by now, it may be another visit. For me, the first year WHL guy, it’ll be a visit I’ll never forget. I won’t lie. It was amazing. So be it.

16_0123_RexallDay 4 – Game Day in Edmonton
January 22, 2016

Oil Country is a hockey town, therefore instantly recognizes tomorrow’s future stars of the big leagues. Carter Hart signs autographs. Bil La Forge, Silvertips director of player personnel, has his Mount Carmel Hockey Academy visit Rexall Place. Kids take their seats while in awe of the Silvertips, admiring the fact they could be a few years away from throwing on a WHL jersey (and if hard work pays off, an NHL jersey after that).

How much are the Silvertips like rock stars to these kids? The youth of Mount Carmel were lined up along the chain link fence to wave goodbye to the Tips bus on the way out. It was like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were stepping outside.

Again, I’m not going to play “too cool for school.” I value history, and putting it into context of the story each night on the air. It’s my third visit to an NHL press box (under play-by-play conditions) in my career. San Jose and Calgary are the previous two. So I stop and take a deep breath, examining all that’s gone through this building since the late 70’s.

16_0123_RexallSelfieGretzky. Kurri. Fuhr. Coffey. Five Stanley Cups.

Tonight, I call it my office space. It’s a reason why I love this line of work.

Downtown Edmonton, a 15-minute drive away from Rexall Place (and a big reason why the Oilers are building the new venue in the heart of the city), hosts the Silvertips team hotel. Two blocks away at another hotel lies another visiting NHL team.

The Nashville Predators have just arrived (they’ll play the Oilers the next night). So, when the opportunity presents itself to meet with an esteemed colleague, friend and mentor, you take advantage. Pete Weber, the voice of the Predators since the franchise’s inception, listened to my tapes in college. He provided feedback. He helped me land the first job. I’m forever indebted and grateful.

It was a treat catching up for an hour for lunch.

16_0123_PeteWeberThe Silvertips, in rare fashion, were beaten at their own game, 1-0 by the Oil Kings. Peyton Lee outdueled Carter Hart with his sixth career shutout and first in an Edmonton uniform.

It wasn’t the outcome the Tips envisioned, and fortunately a short commute to Red Deer lied ahead for late night travel.

January 23, 2016
Distance traveled: 95 miles

Two hours on the bus, and into the hotel early in the morning. That’s only a little over a round trip between Everett and Kent. Not too shabby.

Since we’re at the tail end of three games in four days, there’s no morning skate. James Stucky didn’t even head to Enmax Centrium to set up until 2:30 pm (I value preparation, so no problem hitching a ride with the guru of gear to get everything set up with no panicked hustle).

Red Deer is the site of this year’s Memorial Cup tournament. They were prepared for this kind of excitement, where the entire collection of crème-rising major junior hockey and national television coverage descends on their town for several days.

16_0123_RedDeerBoothThe Centrium is a solid building. At maximum, it can hold a little over 7,000 fans – so it’s no larger than your run-of-the-mill minor league venue. It has a major league approach to its in-game entertainment, and in-arena upgrades have prepared this stage for the big show.

Led by GM/head coach Brent Sutter, the Rebels loaded their roster through numerous trades (Adam Helewka, Jake DeBrusk, and Luke Philp come to mind). As host, they’ll get an automatic bid into the Memorial Cup. They don’t want to disappoint.

And with the Tips holding an early 1-0 lead, unfortunately the next two-plus periods fell away from their intended plans. Arguably a team that had hit the bottom of the tank, Red Deer posted four unanswered goals to cruise to a 4-1 win.

Several Tips had family in attendance (Ron Sutter and the rest of his clan were the most obvious – with Brent and Riley Sutter eliminating battle lines for the sake of family). After commiserating and goodbyes, it’s bus time.

DAY 5: Red Deer, AB to Everett
January 24, 2016  

Aside from a stop for breakfast along the way (which, reminds you that pancakes and eggs benedict will fill you up for two meals), here’s the only thing that’s on your mind …Picture1

Brett Kemp: “It’s a First Class Organization”

On Monday, the Silvertips officially locked up ’15 second round pick and 2000-born forward Brett Kemp to a WHL SPA deal, continuing to stock the cupboard with pieces designed to build a solid foundation for the future.

What you need to know about Kemp: he’s had a history of putting up big numbers. Take for instance: 79 points in 31 games at the Bantam level last year. This season, he ranks 5th in scoring at the SMHL level with Yorkton: 41 points in 36 games are the current output.

He’s earned the remarks of Bil La Forge as a guy who can play a 200-foot game and is “offensively gifted.”

For Kemp, step 1: draft. Step 2: sign. Now for step 3: make the Silvertips squad out of training camp. He’s already had one kick at that can, scoring four points in this year’s training camp games and participating in the rookie game.

Below are Kemp’s recorded comments from signing day:

AUDIO: Brett Kemp radio conversation