There were introductions on the bus, veterans pointing out their customary spots, and new leaders staking claim on their territory. A cheesy sing-a-long here and there, along with a classic home-cooked spaghetti and meatball dinner to get through the three-hour trip to Sexsmith.
For a group of 18 to 21-year-old hockey players, this is where the first battles of junior hockey are born, among new friends and a season’s worth of new teammates.
It’s an age-old tradition in junior hockey—the long bus rides come customary with the cold, small town rinks, benches that aren’t quite big enough, and ice that’s about as rough as city roads after a long winter.
Two weekends ago, it was a nine-hour ride to Vermilion, where many of the Fort St. John Huskies formed new friendships and made their first attempt at bonding as a team.
Goalie Jonathan Bateman, who joined the Huskies from the Calgary Northstars AAA program, said the long trip was the first step in bringing the locker room together. Especially considering the team has eight players who have never dawned a Fort St. John jersey before.
“We never give up. We’re a hard-working group; we’re a tight knit group. I think moving forward that’ll lead to a lot of success,” Bateman said, on his assessment of the group early on in the year.
“Long bus rides and in Vermilion we got close as a group really fast and I think that is going to help in the long run.”
From Calgary to Prince Rupert, and all across Canada, including Saskatoon, the Huskies have warm bodies from plenty of different cities across Western Canada and the Lower Mainland, making it crucial for them to come together as a group quickly.
That’s where 19-year-old Drew Fudger comes in, who spent last season on the outskirts of the B.C. hockey world playing midget tier 4 hockey in Prince Rupert. Fudger said there’s an easy answer to getting his new teammates on the same page.
“Communication,” he said as the big key to coming together. “On the ice, off the ice, practice. It’s just huge. It’s a huge part of the game, you can’t go out there without talking.”
That fact was prevalent from the opening puck drop in the Huskies’ 2-1 loss to the Sexsmith Vipers to start the North West Junior Hockey League season, as there were errant passes, blind behind -the-back passes missing the mark, and linemates still learning names.
Defenseman Tyson Leard was a new name to learn, as he just joined the Huskies all the way from Saskatoon before the trip Saturday.
He was briefly introduced by his dad’s name Chris on the bus, but made sure his teammates knew his by the end of the night Saturday, making a gorgeous one-touch pass to Fudger on the Huskies only goal.
While the Huskies have more than 340 games played in the NWJHL between nine roster players, they don’t have a single 21-year-old in their lineup, a rarity in the league and something the team hasn’t done in recent memory.
Youth will set them apart this season and speed will bring them together is the collective hope and with road trips over the course of October, bus trips could be the glue that binds the pups at the seams.