Illustration by Eli Neugeboren.
Illustration by Eli Neugeboren.
Sluggish, inexorable motion. Stasis. Deep sleep, total insomnia, fitful interludes of blunted, hazy, semi-consciousness and stretches of twitch-cut stress dream. A long bus ride is life's purest distillation of human consciousness of time. Technology helps—Walkman and Game Boy, the portable DVD player—but there are inevitable hours when no technical solution will serve or satisfy, and you're left again with yourself, a window, and wide-open spaces.
As Al Burian, the greatest poet of the bus ride, noted in Burn Collector 2, "You don't really sleep on the bus; mainly you just contort exhaustedly, trying vainly to unlock the secret yoga position that will facilitate comfort in the cramped seats."
Somewhere between semi-consensual meditation and feeling like a canary dying in an oxygen-deprived mine, long bus rides change minds.
Long bus rides are an inescapable staple of minor-league hockey. Think of the iconic Slap Shot scenes of the boys, gambling, drinking, snoring, bullshitting and taking the piss. The 15-hour drive from Charleston to Hyannisport that the GM had to endure to contribute, "let's really try to win this one" is a weekly occurrence for the 15-to-20-year-olds playing hockey in the Western Hockey League.
The WHL is the highest level of amateur hockey in Western Canada and the Northwestern United States. The league's 22 teams are made up mainly of 16-to-19-year-olds—each team can carry a maximum of three 20-year-olds—most of them still in school. As in all minor leagues, the teams are made up almost exclusively of people who will rise no higher in the sport. The luckier ones may end up in college, with some help from a hockey scholarship.
The league's reputation is a cliche: "rough and tumble." A WHL guy in the NHL means a tough player, not a skill player, a "good team guy," somebody who's "not afraid to drop the gloves." Unsurpassed repository of conventional wisdom Wikipedia glosses these players as "big defensemen and hard-nosed forwards," which is actually about right. Moose-ish Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn, at 6-5 and 226, is a good example; Scotty Nichol, a depth forward who goes 5-9 and 180, has amassed 800 penalty minutes for six NHL teams by doing things like getting into fistfights with men like "Jumbo" Joe Thornton (6-4, 235), is a better one.
One suspects the endless piled-up hours on the bus go some way toward honing these young men's teammating skills. Certainly if you don't ingratiate yourself to your teammates, the drive to Prince Albert will be a long, painful slog, or a slog seemingly longer and inestimably more painful than it already inevitably is. Even the league's MVP trophy, the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy, pays tribute to the centrality of of the bus: it's named after four players for the Swift Current Broncos who died when their, yes, bus slipped off an icy highway and rolled.
WHL games are homey, homely affairs—crowds have a middle-aged feel, which can be odd when the on-ice performance moves toward the pugilistic and the bloodlusty invective pours forth from respectable suburban throats. There's skating skill and scoring prowess to be seen, but it's fair to say that the two ventricles of the league’s heart are physical play and a willingness to stick up for your teammates and, by association, yourself.
Per longstanding tradition, the young players live with host families called "billets" when they're not on the ice, on the bus, or in class. More isolation, even surrounded by more humanity.
Most every NHL team has some room on the team plane for a "large, hard-hitting defenseman" or a "gritty power forward," so you hear a reasonable amount about the WHL around draft time every year. Not a huge amount, though: power players and big D-men at 19 or 20 don't necessarily project that well into the big leagues. The Rangers were roundly mocked for spending the tenth pick on WHL tough guy Dylan McIlrath back in 2010. There was something to that. The successful WHL-straight-to-the-NHL move feels, and generally is, pretty rare.
I first heard of Saskatoon Blades defenseman Duncan Siemens when the Colorado Avalanche drafted him last summer. I followed him on Twitter because why not: while most of your Twitter athletes' feeds aren't great, and while most of your teen whatevers' feeds aren't great—I mean, I'm a fan. I follow teams, I follow guys when they're on my teams, and...
Over time, I liked Siemens' tweets more and more. A taciturn guy, his tweets never push the 140-character limit. Most don't even stretch onto a second line. He rarely talks to anybody else. They're just terse dispatches—darts of commentary from the yawning unconscious of Saskatchewan, or a voice from the back of the bus.
"We live and die by the highway," Burian writes in Burn Collector 2, "and in between we sit in cramped seats waiting to get somewhere, forgetting where we're going."
It's a safe bet that Siemens, staring out the window as Canada slips by, is spending more than a little of his time thinking about making it to the NHL. His former partner on the blueline, Stefan Elliott, is already traveling with the Avs, flying on jet planes. Some nights he burns the Sharks with his speed, and some nights he looks lost in his own zone. But he's playing every night: 29 straight at the moment. Which, really: 29 straight in the bigs for a guy who was just right next to you the other month, a guy who was right there on the bus, and out there on the ice with you, all last year.
He's scored four goals already, has Stefan. The Saskatoon Blades are fighting to make the playoffs. If you’re Siemens, you’ve got six goals of your own, five fights and how many hours on the bus? How many hours on buses to come?
Every year 30 or 40 WHL kids get drafted into the NHL. In Siemens’ year, he was one of forty-three. The second one chosen; the first one, first overall to boot, was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who's an Oiler already, and achieving to the tune of nearly a point a game; he was Rookie of the Month each of the season's first two months. He's the only WHL man from that draft class already in the NHL. The 11th pick, the second WHL player chosen, is staring out the window and thinking about the team that drafted him.
The Colorado Avalanche are in a half-decent position to make the playoffs. A kid named Tyson Barrie is ahead of Siemens organizationally and he's playing pretty well. The Avalanche are carrying eight defensemen, and no more than seven ever play.
Still, still: 11th pick in the draft, though. They've got plans for you. They have to. High first-round picks, don't ride the bus forever. All true: there are eight guys already in uniform, at least one name with an edge in the organization. It's tough to see a way onto the roster. But, then, it's always tough to see what's ahead when you're on a bus.
Best to keep your head down, keep your mouth shut. Keep hitting. Keep playing. Keep quiet. Ride the bus, and get off where it lets you off.