ROAD TIPPIN’! Manitoba / Saskatchewan or Bust.

 


COMPLETED! Scroll down for new stuff, unless you’re here for the first time.

On Tuesday, February 7, 2017, the Everett Silvertips embarked on their bi-annual odyssey otherwise known as the East Division swing. It covers over 2,400 miles, 13 days, six cities/games, and an insane amount of coffee/snacks/movies/manufactured humor which await stops in Brandon, Moose Jaw, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, and Swift Current. These are the tales.

DAY 1: Everett, WA to Lethbridge, AB
TIME: 11.5 hours (677 miles)

I work in broadcasting but am a husband and father first. So kissing my wife, Amy, and 2-year old son, Lukas, goodbye at 7:45 a.m. was hard to do since I won’t see them in the flesh for nearly two weeks, but am eternally grateful these days for FaceTime (which was accomplished today). Legendary Los Angeles Kings TV voice Bob Miller once joked, since he’s been married to wife Judy since the 70’s (the time when you could only communicate with a hotel phone or pay phone), they’ve “been married for over 45 years but together for about 28.”

A 56-passenger coach bus loads at roughly 8:15am at the corner of Hewitt and Broadway, and we’re outta here by 9:00am. Depending on your role, you’re either working or lounging. Thank heavens for bus WiFi, so opening the laptop and chiseling away at the day’s coal (read: e-mails, projects, off-air assignments) can be done. Players have dialed up 4 movies by 6:00pm.

I had to record the entire Silvertips Hockey Show yesterday, and have that transmitted to our radio magicians at Fox Sports 1380 by early this morning. So, what you heard was recorded talking editing wizardry (thanks again, Tyler Maxwell and Tyler Dietrich!).

There’s nothing really earth-shattering to reveal for now, except for the fact that Boston Pizza (stop for dinner) serves enough pepperoni / meat lovers / great white / supreme wheels for one hour to either feed a hockey team or the population of Bothell.

DAY 1 ROAD TRIP MVP: James Stucky (EQUIPMENT MANAGER). He books the travel, he writes/prints/distributes the itineraries, he picked the meal stops. It’s not an easy job. The pizza hit the spot.


DAY 2: Lethbridge, AB to Brandon, MB
TIME: 9.5 hours (615 miles)

The alarm goes off at 6:45am. Both Rob Tagle (I room with the trainer) and I bounce out of our beds, fully intended to get a good workout in. There will be no time for this for the rest of the day (we’re not due to pull into Brandon until roughly 11:30pm CT).

The bus leaves at 9am after breakfast. The gym has nothing but a treadmill and elliptical, so the sole option on my end is the P90x3 DVD’s in the hotel room, while Rob runs his brains out for the equivalent of four miles within a half an hour.

Road time, which includes nothing but white upon white upon white upon white snow for the ensuing four hours. Then comes the part where we pull into Swift Current, Saskatchewan, where this gets good.

Welcome to Credit Union iPlex, capacity 2,879.

It also has up-close-and-personal sightlines, opposite side team benches, and a four-side high-definition videoboard that hangs as low as the ceiling light in your living room.

Purist hockey barn, I dig the charm.

Practice over.

Then, onto the part where we all put down our books, card games, iPhones, earbuds, etc. and disembark the bus into minus-8 Fahrenheit temperatures, with the cold slashing at your face while your shoes descend into a mound of snow.

There’s a reason for this. It’s time to pay respects.

If you need a refresher, Dec. 30, 1986 is remembered as one of the most tragic days in hockey history, when the team bus for the Swift Current Broncos crashed while en route to a game at Regina, leaving four players killed and others injured. That year’s team included future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, and 10-year NHL forward Sheldon Kennedy. The WHL would eventually christen its Most Valuable Player Award as the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy.

Flash forward 30 years later, exactly on the date (Dec. 30, 2016), a memorial was unveiled to honor the four Broncos who lost their lives. It was an honor to visit the site 40 days afterward.

Onto Manitoba, with a dinner stop along the way.

DAY 2 ROAD TRIP MVP: Mitch Love (assistant coach). For the mere suggestion to the team there would be a stop at the Four Broncos Memorial, this is a grand slam.

DAY 3: Brandon, MB
TIME: None, we’re here.  

No more bus travel. One full day, one whole spot. The Silvertips take the ice at 11:00 a.m., giving yours truly with some time to set up the whole booth: up a flight of stairs, then up a second flight of stairs, then across a catwalk, then down a flight of stairs, then through the fire breathing dragons, then to the booth.

It’s a great set-up. Sightlines that give you action about 100 feet off the ice, and nearly above the playing surface, are the best sightlines.

Practice over. There are seven Silvertips originally from Manitoba, so obviously they’re pumped for this trip.

You may have caught that one bit about curling: it’s not for the weak of knees. Even more impressive, everyone showed up in business attire and managed to pull off the day without a tear in the suit pants. You understand the background and skill in those who looked comfortable sweeping.

All of this went down in Souris, Manitoba – the hometown of Garry Davidson and former Los Angeles Kings/St. Louis Blues head coach Andy Murray. A bus tour ensued. During the middle of said tour, the invitation was delivered to cross Canada’s largest suspension bridge – stretching 600 feet (that’s a lot of time for you to consider if you’re going to die while on a swaying bridge) – called the Swinging Bridge. The bridge was twice wiped out – most recently six years ago – due to severe weather.

Keep your phone in your pocket.

Made it alive. Onto game day, for what we all came for.

DAY 3 ROAD TRIP MVP: Anyone who jumped in for curling, and hadn’t done it before. Nothing wrong with trying something new, no matter how north or south pole your game is.

THE WEEKEND (Days 4-6): Brandon, MB to Regina, SK
TIME: 4 hours 

Things get whirl-crazy on a game day (that happened Friday and Saturday) plus a few projects called the attention on Sunday, so we’re lumping all the good stuff here.

FRIDAY
The Westman Place is connected to a hotel and several eating/watering hole establishments that make up Keystone Centre, which is good because for this California bred guy it feels like it’s -108°F.

The Tips drop a close one to Team Nolan Patrick (the kid is legit with a full skill package, and there’s zero wonder why he’ll be top choice in the NHL Entry Draft), 2-1. I loved the rhythm and speed the game developed. Tips MB scout Doug Sinclair (who seems like he knows everyone in the building) is an incredible fill-in analyst. And Perry Bergson / Branden Crowe make good company / hosts.

We’re outta there right after the game and several good byes. Because there are seven members of the Tips hailing from MB, about 1/4 of Westman Place seem to be filled even an hour after the final horn.

Good to see the fam jam 😋

A post shared by Lucas Skrumeda (@lucasskrumeda) on

Four hours of a drive ahead to Regina, SK.

SATURDAY
We’re staying in Regina despite playing in Moose Jaw on this night (it’s only a 45 minute commute, which makes a logical roadie outpost).

Tips win 2-0 in their bi-annual appearance at Mosaic Place. The last guy to score for the Warriors, against the Silvertips, happened in the 7th year of the Obama Administration (Brett Howden in the 2nd period on Jan. 9, 2015 – Tips have blanked them for 156:53. Moose Jaw has never scored in two games on Carter Hart).

Mosaic Place is now one of my favorite road venues in the WHL, period. While intimate: it’s clean, pristine, eye-catching, and thoroughly planned with logistics. The “Crushed Can”, it’s not.

Now that we have the game matters covered, how about the postgame food? Ah yes, that bubbly, greasy, tasty, delectable piece of postgame food …

Behold.

Belly is full, brain is satisfied with working all that out of the pores on Sunday.

SUNDAY
Off day in Regina. Patrick Bajkov (like many players) have asked, “so what do you do on days like these?”

Fair question: it’s the weekend, and family is more than a thousand miles away. I miss them. So, we FaceTime twice. I put some production work behind the scenes with a few digital media projects. Clothes, quarantined from the Brandon (remember the mumps breakout news?) swing and a workout, have been returned from the hotel laundry.

Tim Horton’s is a block away for lunch. I am happy.

Dinner is at Earl’s. I am happy.

All of that closes out a day of rest, much needed through a swing like this.

MONDAY
Pretty straightforward day: breakfast, practice, lunch, hotel room for work, dinner. 

It’s my first visit to Brandt Centre, home of the Regina Pats. Formerly the Agridome and opening in 1977, it drips with history. There’s no elevator, so the climb upstairs to the press gondola is a leg day workout in itself.

But stop, take a deep breath, and soak it in. You’ve got a fine atmosphere, Regina.

Comments from Brad Richards (former Pat back in his old stomping grounds), Connor Dewar (who’s slamming these interviews) and Lucas Skrumeda are coming later. Not to mention, we bumped into good ol’ former Tip Dawson Leedahl prior to Monday morning. That was fun. He’s still fun.

UPDATED ROAD TRIP MVP’S
DAY 4: 
At the risk of tooting my own horn (it’s good to bundle up), here’s James Stucky:

Thanks Stucks. Check’s in the mail.

DAY 5: Assistant coach Mitch Love, for a slam bang postgame interview and delivering a D-corps that helped Carter Hart whitewash 42-goal guy Jayden Halbgewachs and Tampa prospect Brett Howden.

DAY 6: Silvertips MB scout Doug Sinclair. “Sinkie,” as we know him, has exceptional communication skills and is always good for 26 stories each time we see him. He delivered top notch entertainment at/after dinner. And he’s good for mobile phone cartoons, that anyone of all ages can enjoy.

DAY 7: Assistant coach Brennan Sonne, who organizes the alumni corps – many of these guys come into play each East Division swing (based on their hometowns of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, etc.). It was like old times for Sonne and the coaching staff to have a rendezvous with Cody Thoring, but it was my first time meeting the gentleman. Brennan arranged the moment, and it’ll last forever.

TUESDAY
For the magnitude of two WHL beasts butting heads at Brandt Centre, the day’s vibe gave a direct indication the Silvertips were ready, prepared, and driven. As I interviewed Dawson Leedahl, peeking his head around the Regina side of the curtain at morning skate, suddenly my company was joined by Lucas Skrumeda and company intended to have a playful moment with the former Tips captain (hey, they’re brothers off the ice, but the battle lines are drawn on the ice). Flash forward: by the time it was 4-1 at the end of the second period, Brandt Centre sounded quieter than your local public library. Final: 4-2, big win, end of story.

DAY 8 MVP: Silvertips trainer Rob Tagle, who got one of their leading goal scorers back on the ice in the blink of a stitched eye. After Zwerger drew blood at 1:17 on Connor Hobbs’ high stick, Tagle contained the bleeding with Zwerger’s face, patched him up with two stitches and helped him return to the ice in a little over two minutes to go on the Silvertips double minor power play. That’s not a drill, and that’s skill.

WEDNESDAY
Saskatoon is the home base for the Silvertips, where they get into the hotel at a little before 1am. Bags are hauled to SaskTel Centre: Rob and I give a helping hand. James Stucky playfully tells us to scram, and he sets up the room in solitude for who knows how long … while Rob and I head back to the hotel to crash and burn.

Carson Stadnyk’s in the house to join only a few Silvertips on the ice that morning, participating in a two-on-two battle resulting in a pulsating 7-5 win over the players, whilst I tend to work in the press box. Stadnyk’s now playing for U. of Saskatchewan after grinding his way into the top 10 list, all-time games played in Tips history and ending his WHL career last year as an overager.

Great seeing “Stads,” a poised, calm and cool cat.

As for the 2-1 Tips shootout win, concluded with a jump back into first place and the call from the gondola of the House that Brodsky built/Gordie Howe became immortal, I had to stop and collect thoughts on another tremendous building with character. SaskTel Place was designed a few years after Saskatoon pursued the St. Louis Blues (it almost happened) in the 80’s. Times have changed and while amenities may be out of date, the place seats nearly 16,000, the press facilities hang in a well manufactured hovering office space with incredible sight lines, and provides near tangible charm with the names of Clark / Skrudland / Ashton hanging from the rafters. It’s a swell place to take in a game. It could host an AHL team, based on capacity.

DAY 9 MVP: Silvertips head coach Kevin Constantine. From my instinct and communication during our pregame conversation, he got this team prepared and turned the page from the Regina thriller the previous night.

THURSDAY
Off day. Let them bones rest, get some work done, go the mall (my little guy’s getting a present when we’re back home), then take in the scenery.

Yeah, there’s some liquid gold in that cup.

DAY 10 MVP:  Kohl Bauml. Yes, he was here too, though not skating with Stadnyk the previous day (that sound familiar?). He’s his teammate again at U. of Saskatchewan, and we caught up in the hotel lobby after a quick rendezvous after Wednesday night’s win. I never had a chance to call one of Bauml’s games, but spending an hour with the guy leaves you soaked with his communication skills, maturity and character. He oozes it.

DAY 11: Tips win 3-1 over Prince Albert, after an hour commute to the confines of Art Hauser Centre. It’s easily the smallest building I’ve called a game in, but the venue seating 3,567 drips history like the other buildings we’ve visited. Mike Modano and Dave Manson have their numbers in the rafters.

In addition, the press box overhangs the penalty box. Twenty five feet above. You can hear the players breathe.

DAY 12: Overnight drive to Swift Current (only about 3 hours). Tips win 3-2 in OT. And we survive the good ol’ ladder climb (thanks, Shawn Mullin for the help with the 40-pound case downward after the game, and for trading interviews beforehand).

DAY 13: Stop in Lethbridge to sleep from 3-9am. Stop for breakfast (two pancakes, eggs over easy, bacon, sausage and coffee). Stop for the border. Stop for the driver change at a local filling station. Don’t stop the rest of the way.

UPDATE: I stopped blogging for a few days. We all got off the bus and went home. No practice Monday. I was face-planted in bed. The rest of the team? They’re doing whatever they can away from the confines of XFINITY Arena to decompress. Tuesday called for a return to work and, essentially, feet to the schedule fire (emcee two appearances, a radio show, and co-host Tip-A-Tip at the Silver Lake location). I’ve now finally had time to return to this blog space and give one quenching approach to completing the odyssey, as shown below:

Back from the road. Reunited and it feels so good. 👪

A post shared by Mike Benton 🎙 (@bentononthemic) on

Award winning broadcaster Mike Benton is in his second season as radio play-by-play voice of the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, and 12th in the game. Tweet at him here.

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.

16_0123_RedDeerDAY 5 – EDMONTON TO RED DEER
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  
DISTANCE TRAVELED: 729 miles

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

Road Tippin’ (Nov. 15-22)

Cutting to the chase: life is short and a schedule is tight when handling six games in nine days, wrapped around the family holidays.

So, the game of catch-up has finally been conquered in this blog spot. Here’s the recap:

We’ll start with this: in Cranbrook, B.C., did you know you can walk into a hotel bathroom, find a TV and still watch the Canucks game?

MONDAY: Spokane to Cranbrook.  Practice in Coeur d’Alene, ID.
DISTANCE TRAVELED: 483 miles (starting Sunday in Everett, to Cranbrook)

DID YOU KNOW? Coeur d’Alene, ID is the home to Frontier Arena, a venue built originally with a thin frame in 1999, its roof crushed by snow and rain, and rebuilt in 2009 under fundraising which called for $800,000. That’s a huge chunk of change.

It now hosts an annual summer hockey event with some guys you may have heard of (who make their summer residence in the town): Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Adam Deadmarsh. Tyler Johnson’s youth hockey jersey (he played there before obviously moving onto bigger and better things) hangs in the venue. The summer tournament drives youth hockey fundraising, providing mite hockey opportunities only costing $50/child – equipment included. Yep, life is now good.

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From there, what remains is a five hour drive to Cranbrook, B.C., home of the Kootenay Ice and the brothers-Niedermayer (yeah, those guys).

More photos up on the Silvertips mobile app (if you’ve got a smartphone, get it via the snazzy iTunes App Store and the Android Market).

TUESDAY: Cranbrook. Game day.

Cranbrook

Within the tiny 4,000+ seat venue that is Western Financial Place, the Silvertips kept it low-scoring, simple, and methodical. Nothing too much out of the ordinary as far as the “slice of life” factor becoming unique, though the experience of walking into a piece of hockey heritage and see a pair of Niedermayer jerseys was a fascinating stop.

Of note, Carter Hart is still unreal, and Dario Winkler picked a fine time to break a six-game goal-scoring drought. GWG and an assist for his first multi-point game.

Postgame: you ever had Schnitzel? There’s a first time for everything (and it involves this postgame meal on the bus). What a way to expand the taste buds (just eat light during the day, to save room).

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WEDNESDAY: Lethbridge. Today, 25 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a tad moist outside.
DISTANCE TRAVELED: 304 miles

Quick stop and we’re outta here after the game tonight. Or, that was the plan.

The bus broke down. Or so we thought. At about 3am, just 30 minutes away from Lethbridge, we pulled over to the side of the highway in the throes of freezing rain and snow. We thought the bus had a flat tire. Instead, it was hard snow that accumulated inside the wheel.

Whew.

For the Silvertips, the return home gets sweeter (Riley Sutter’s home in the Calgary grounds is just 90 minutes away – Connor Dewar’s family has made the trip from Manitoba, a 12 hour drive, to visit on game day). No morning skate after maneuvering the icy highways and getting into the hotel at 3:00am.

It’s best to save the legs for game night.

With the only meeting of the season between the Tips and Canes around the corner, the battle of wills takes center stage. Defensively, there’s no one better than the Tips now (1.9 goals against). Offensively, there’s almost no one better than Lethbridge (2nd at 3.9 goals for, and only Kelowna’s better at four even per game). Pace versus structure: it’s a fascinating battle.

Remi Laurencelle was an acquisition from Lethbridge, so motivation won’t be too hard for one of the Silvertips overagers.

On the Hurricanes, looking to end a six-year playoff drought (and two years removed from a 50+  loss season), Brayden Burke is flat-out killing it with 31 points in 20 games. Andrew Nielsen has 22 points in 20 games on the blue line and is drawing the microscope, positively, now as a Toronto Maple Leafs draftee.

No dice on this night, and the Silvertips third period comeback falls short. Gotta work on those last-minute goals. They were also cracked for their first shorthanded goal all season. Mario Petit wasn’t too shabby in his first career start with 25 saves. One backdoor save he made in the first period, requiring athleticism, was a good indication that he settled in.

Lethbridge to Medicine Hat was a little bit more of a serene trip. No problem there.

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THURSDAY and FRIDAY: Medicine Hat, Alberta
DISTANCE TRAVELED: 98 miles

… Home of the Tigers. The world’s largest teepee. And a living broadcast legend.

Two days in town meant not just a light practice at the glistening new Canalta Centre (a swift departure from the familiarity and intimacy of Medicine Hat Arena – but an entertainment destination designed to deliver upgraded amenities). I’ve seen more tattered buildings in the American Hockey League. For one, I’m a big fan of the press box. There’s enough space for you to lay materials out appropriately, the “office space” is clean and wired appropriately, and the executive office chairs are a nice touch. The Bob Ridley Broadcast Centre delivers.

Speaking of Bob, it was my first experience having a conversation with the gentleman, and it was everything I hoped for. Bob delivers authenticity, joy, is extremely articulate and a grounded individual. It’s no wonder he’s got the press box named after him and is widely regarded as a “living legend,” when you combine those traits with his years of service.

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The night before the Silvertips took on the Tigers, the team, coaches and staff enjoyed a wonderful rendezvous and dinner with owner Bill Yuill, Chairman and CEO of the Monarch Corporation (their offices are in Medicine Hat).

What you can chalk up to a 2-1 loss: a second period that got away from the Silvertips. A mistake at the blueline led to Chad Butcher’s shorthanded goal. The Tips fell short in the special teams battle. That’ll lead to an undesirable result on the scoreboard.

On the side, family matters brought several related to Silvertips players. Notably, Riley Sutter had his own cheering section (Ron Sutter said later, “no one was louder than Riley’s mom”) for his first career WHL goal. Save Calgary, it couldn’t have come in a better place – his hometown province of Alberta. Quite fitting his Dad, Mom and Sister could take it in.

I said before the season that “I live to unfold a story each night,” and these are the storylines that drive my broadcast engine. They’re awesome.

Onto Calgary. Postgame meal: caesar salad, roasted potatoes, pork medallions.

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SATURDAY: Calgary
DISTANCE TRAVELED: 183 miles

The names of MacDonald, Fleury, Nieuwendyk, Iginla and “Johnny Hockey” permeate this longtime NHL home of the Flames.

Scotiabank Saddledome –  where we pulled in at 1:00 a.m. – is obviously not just another road trip stop. For players who grew up with the Flames, or have been exposed to this venue with rooting interests for another team facing the Flames, the stop means enjoying the same playground that names like Fleury, Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, Ovechkin, Iginla, etc. have used. The dressing rooms are meticulously manicured. The benches offer extra wide walking space, not to mention, a 28-inch flat screen video monitor buried in the floor of coaches platform. It’s an engineering marvel worthy of an NHL stamp.

It’s my first visit to the Saddledome (and second NHL building on a broadcast work night – during the last NHL lockout, I once called a game at San Jose in December for the Stockton Thunder), so naturally, the experience exceeds the expectations. The sightlines are majestic, yet steep. The “Peter Maher Press Box” hangs in the rafters of the Saddledome, offering spectacular bird’s eye views of the action which enable a broadcast call to inject more detail with breakouts. But the view is  extremely high, and not for the individual quivering at heights.

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Back to Sutter: it’s official ground zero for his “old stomping grounds.” I’ve rarely seen someone beam so brightly to play in the city he grew up in. Ron shared a spectacular story with us later that night, on how a five-year old Riley kept the Calgary Flames loose in the dressing room during the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, after he took a rip on the Saddledome ice.

Just three minutes into the call with Doug Sinclair, a familiar NHL executive and hall-of-famer take a seat five feet away in the adjacent booth. They can hear our call.

Brian Burke and Joe Nieuwendyk.

No pressure.

It’s a marvel at how the Silvertips have become so good – borderline automatic – at scoring the first goal. Saturday night brings no exception. Dawson Leedahl and Carson Stadnyk engineered a textbook rush up ice, finished with Laurencelle slamming Stadnyk’s ricochet at the left post for a 1-0 lead.

Things looked bright all the way until the halfway point of the third, after Matt Fonteyne hammered a power play goal off a one-timer at the right circle. But two goals that uncharacteristically fooled Hart – one from the side of the right circle by Jordy Stallard after a fanned point attempt and a short-side goal from Hitmen captain Colby Harmsworth following a defensive zone turnover. Ouch.

Radel Fazleev – Philadelphia Flyers property – scored the only goal in the shootout, and the bus ride home began a tad quieter than what many associated with the Silvertips envisioned two hours prior.

Road trips aren’t easy, and the Tips gaining three points indicated a small speed bump. No problem. The record at the end: 11-7-0-2 (4-5-0-1 on the road). It’s apparently a good lesson to be learned about playing in hostile territory.

I’ll think about that, over the Tim Hortons coffee that made its way back home.

NOW LISTENING: Let it Die (Foo Fighters) 

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More photos that are not included in this blog, but are pretty fun to look at, are available on the Tips Mobile App. Get it on the App Store (iPhone) or the Android Market.