Monday, November 28, 2016

On the Road Again With the Lockport Express

There were no Lockport Express games this past weekend, but we did have Hockey Day in Lockport. Still, that’s not enough hockey for this guy. I love hockey so much that I accompanied the Express on their recent road trip to play against the Syracuse Stampede. Despite the name, the Stampede home games are played at Morrisville.

This is the third time that I’ve gone on the road with the team. The first year, I went with them to Syracuse when the home rink was in Baldwinsville. That was exciting for the snowstorm that sent us off from Lockport. We took a caravan of cars that time. Last year, I went with the team to Jersey Shore to see them take on the Wildcats.

 I’m sure you’ve all seen the sports movies where the team climbs aboard the team bus and heads off to parts barely known. Probably the best known one, in my mind anyway, is from “Bull Durham.” Yes, I know that it’s a baseball movie and not a hockey movie, but it is the same concept. There’s something about riding on the team bus that is just a bit nostalgic.

When I was in high school, I was on the wrestling team, and we bussed to away matches. However, the farthest we ever went was a tournament in Spencerport. These kids on the Express take regular roadies that take them across the state, and even into other states. They have games in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

The bus is kind of like a living, breathing organism of its own. There is a definite hierarchy in the seating arrangements decided upon by the team. The veteran players get the best seats, far away from the coaches and the driver. Meanwhile, the newbies are stuck directly behind the driver. In the course of the trip, some migration takes place as conversations and card game arise. Still, on and off the bus, the players kept their own unofficial seating charts for the whole weekend.

This trip to Syracuse was a lot different from the first trip I took with them back in February 2015. The first time, the Express bus was a bit under the weather, so we had to carpool halfway across the state. At the same time, it was snowing so hard that we could barely see. In fact, by the time we got to Pembroke, one of the players wanted to pack it in and go home. Five miles down the Thruway, it was clear skies and sunshine. Thankfully, he stuck it out.

This time, when we left on Friday at noon, it was in the sixties in Lockport. The weather was wonderful. Along the way, I learned, or rather unlearned some things by listening to a couple of the players. One of the guys asked if the Alabama Swamps were the Finger Lakes. After a good laugh, one of the other players showed him a map of New York State on his phone and pointed out where the lakes were in reference to where we were. To be fair, the original kid was Canadian, and I’m sure New York geography is not a focus in those classrooms.

The place where we stayed was in Fayetteville. This small village was the childhood home of President Grover Cleveland from 1841 until 1850. Additionally, L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wizard of Oz,” lived nearby. Coach Frank Vecchio’s room was the “Wizard of Oz” suite. I joked with him asking if it came with a little doggie, too? The Craftsman Inn was a very nice place to stay. It was like an enhanced bed & breakfast -- very charming.

The ride from the hotel to the rink was about 40 minutes. We got a lot of time on the bus over the course of three days. Again, for Friday and Saturday, the weather was wonderful. Saturday morning I walked across the street to Target. It was 70 degrees out and the store had Christmas music playing. Unfortunately, that great weather did not last. Sunday was a different story altogether.

Meeting us at the rink Saturday night was former Lockport Express goalie, Sal Stalteri. After completing his junior career as a member of the Express, he decided to attend Morrisville to pursue a degree in sports management. He also serves as a backing goaltender for the hockey team.

After the Express-Stampede game Saturday, we were able to catch most of the second period between Morrisville and Fredonia. It is an entirely different game at that level. Those boys are huge and fast. We stood at ice level in the corner, and we saw a lot of hard hits in that corner. Speed and positioning were on full display. We also were able to see Lockport’s Rick Eberhart play. Rick is the son of Lockport Ice Lions varsity coach, Rick Eberhart.

Much like with the Roc City Royals, the Syracuse Stampede seem like they could be natural rivals to the Express. The games are always well played and there is a great deal of respect between the teams. Head coach, Mike Beavis is a class act, who has always been more than happy to speak with us about anything. He runs a well-disciplined team that does not take very many penalties. Syracuse games are a lot of fun to watch.

It wasn’t quite as much fun this weekend, as Lockport lost all three games. However, the team seems to be turning the corner. There were several times the Express looked like the superior team, especially during the second period on Sunday. A couple of breakaway goals rattled the Syracuse goalie, and the Express had sustained pressure throughout the period. They are definitely on the brink of breaking the streak, and breaking it big.

Probably one of the biggest positives of accompanying the team on a road trip is the chance to get to know the players a little better. It gives new understanding to how they think on the ice, and gives us, as broadcasters, better insight to the game during play by play and color commentary. It also gives the players a better idea of what we do other than sit at a table with Minnie Mouse headphones.

I would like to thank Frank Vecchio and Steve Bueme for the invitation to Syracuse. I had a lot of fun. I’d also like to thank Aaron Shahin for his incredible hockey expertise during the games. And to all the players on the trip to Syracuse, thanks for permitting me to see beyond the facemasks.