Penguins

Wheeling Watch: Life on road in ECHL

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The Nailers' team bus pulls into the Wesbanco Arena parking lot. -- ZACK RAWSON / WHEELING NAILERS

Life in the ECHL is truly a grind.

While NHL teams typically travel from city to city via a private team charter flight, the minor-leagues aren't quite as glamorous. Down in the minors, it's all about life on the bus.

The Nailers' schedule this season features no plane travel at all this year. All bus. For trips of six hours or more, the the team travels by sleeper bus, the stylish 2001 Prevost XL II Entertainer. Earlier in the season, enforcer Brad Drobot did a quick video tour of the team bus for the Nailers' social media accounts:

In case you weren't counting, that's 18 beds. ECHL teams dress 18 players per game. That's not counting any extra players that may travel with the team, coaches, and other team staff. Obviously, that's more people than beds.

What's the solution? A high-stakes lottery drawing among the rookies.

"You take out your credit card and put it in a winter hat or a baseball cap," defenseman Aaron Titcomb explained to me. "One of of the veterans will pick them out. If you don't get picked, then it's tough luck."

For guys in their first professional seasons, like Titcomb, the experience can be a pretty big adjustment.

"I had actually never been on a sleeper bus," Titcomb said. "Seeing 18 bunks on a bus was pretty crazy for me. The first trip I actually wasn't lucky enough to get a bunk, I had to find the floor. That's definitely an adjustment (from college hockey). It messes with your sleep schedule a bit, but the coaching staff does a great job of making sure we get our six to eight hours when we can. Being with the guys, being with your teammates it makes it all a little bit more bearable."

The Nailers are a pretty young team this year, with 15 rookies currently on the roster. It doesn't matter if you're on an NHL contract or fresh out of the lower-level SPHL, your card is going in the hat.

"I've got lucky a couple of times, but twice I've had to sleep on the floor." said Dane Birks, the Penguins' 2013 sixth-round pick. "I didn't get that lucky spot. I've been on the floor a couple of times."

These aren't short trips, either. Earlier in the year, the Nailers had a trip that took them from Wheeling, to Florida, to South Carolina, to North Carolina, then back to Wheeling. Back-to-back-to-back games, 1,807 miles, 32 hours on a bus, in five days.

To go through that, especially when you aren't an NHL prospect, you truly have to be playing just for the love of the game. You can't question the drive of these guys, especially when some of them have better options elsewhere.

Japanese forward Yushiroh Hirano is in his first ECHL season, and has dreams of playing in the NHL and growing the game of hockey in Japan. He gave up living in his home country, where he would surely be more comfortable and make decent money playing professionally, to play in the ECHL and sleep on the floor on a 14-hour ride to Jacksonville. Anything it takes to chase the dream of playing in the NHL.

"Of course I was woken up by the teammates coming out of the beds on both sides, kicked and stepped on," he said of his time on the floor of the bus. "I can't get rest. It was just hell. ... Physical pain, heavy legs, sleepy."

Sometimes, the grind pays off, and guys do rise up through the system and make it to the NHL. The memories of their days riding on the bus in the ECHL don't fade, though.

"I remember my first road trip," former Nailer Casey DeSmith recalled to me. "It was the first road trip of my rookie year, and I was the third goalie. We traveled, pretty much everyone, for a three-game trip down to Norfolk. I think it was like 10 hours. I ended up -- which I didn't know I would -- on the floor. I was in my tracksuit, no blanket, no pillow, just freezing. The vents were blowing cold air on me the whole night. I woke up coughing and sick, I was just like, 'This is the worst.'"

Back when DeSmith was on the team, there weren't quite as many rookies. There was no lottery. He was on the floor every single trip. He is definitely appreciative each time he hops on a plane with the Penguins now, because he's been put through the wringer to travel to games before.

"It's amazing," DeSmith said of traveling now. "I look back on stories like that, I'm like, this is much better. This is a much more enjoyable way to get around, for sure. It can be tough sometimes down there."

Apparently, it isn't quite as tough in some other organizations. Garrett Wilson spent parts of two seasons in the ECHL with the Cincinnati Cyclones, and doesn't have any horror stories of his own. No lotteries needed there.

"In Cincinnati, it was a good organization," he recalled. "They had a lot of money, so the bus we had was really nice. Everyone had their own bunk, we had our own card table in the back. Most of the time we wouldn't even sleep, we'd just play cards the entire trip."

Wilson can definitely appreciate where he is now, but he also knows the benefit of being stuck with your teammates for a few hours on a bus.

"It was a fun experience, but I don't miss it much, Wilson laughed. "The travel here now is a lot nicer than that. Those bus trips were a lot of fun, they really brought the team together. You're just sitting there having a couple of beers with your coach after the game on the bus, because they sit right with you there. It's pretty cool to get close to your teammates that way."

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THE ROSTER MOVES

• The Nailers signed college free agent forward Conor O'Neil out of the University of Vermont.

THE INJURIES

• Defenseman Blake Siebenaler was injured on March 15 and placed on injured reserve, keeping him out a minimum of two weeks.

• Defenseman Kevin Spinozzi has not played since March 10 with an upper-body injury.

THE NEWS

 The Nailers are holding a contest to design the t-shirts to be used in next season’s t-shirt tosses. Fans can submit designs here.

• The ECHL is holding a "March Maskness" bracket to determine the best goalie mask in the ECHL. Jordan Ruby is the Nailers' nominee, you can vote for him here.

THE GAMES

• March 12: vs. Indy, 2-1 shootout win
Hirano scored his 16th goal of the season in the first period, and the Fuel tied the game in the third period. After a scoreless overtime period, the game went to a shootout.

Former Nailer Josh Shalla scored the lone shootout goal for the Fuel, while Zac Lynch and Hirano scored for the Nailers to earn the win.

Ruby earned the win with 37 saves on 38 shots.

The Nailers went 1-for-9 on the power play and 5-for-5 on the penalty kill.

• March 15: at Cincinnati, 5-1 loss
The Cyclones scored three goals in the first 11 minutes of the game. Cedric Lacroix scored his 19th of the year in the second period, and then the Cyclones added two more in the third.

Ruby took the loss with 16 saves on 21 shots.

The Nailers weren't awarded any power plays in the game, and went 2-for-4 on the penalty kill.

• March 16: at Toledo, 3-2 loss
The Walleye opened the scoring in the first period with a goal that was questionable at best. The Walleye have one of the few buildings in the league that even have video replay, but the on-ice officials' iPad wasn't loading the video replay. After a long delay, the off-ice official decided to call it a goal.

Renars Krastenbergs tied the game later in the period with his 16th of the year, then the Walleye extended their lead with two second-period goals. Danny Fick cut the Walleye's lead to one with his sixth of the year, but the comeback fell short.

Matt O'Connor took the loss with 31 saves on 34 shots.

The Nailers went 0-for-5 on the power play and 6-for-6 on the penalty kill.

THE LEADERS

• Goals: Troy Josephs, 21 in 32 games.

• Assists: Lynch, 41 in 58 games.

• Points: Lynch, 56 in 58 games.

THE COMBINATIONS

Renars Krastenbergs - Zac Lynch - Alec Butcher
Mark Petaccio - Michael Phillips - Yushiroh Hirano
Mike Fazio - Cedric Lacroix - Winston Day Chief
Conor O'Neil

Robbie Hall - Danny Fick
Johnny Austin - Aaron Titcomb
Jake Schultz - Dane Birks

THE STANDINGS

• After this week, the Nailers fell to last place in the six-team Central Division with a record of 28-27-6-2, but only four points out of a playoff spot.

• The Nailers’ power play sits in fifth in the league at 20.3 percent, and the penalty kill is 21st in the league at 80.7 percent. The Nailers have the third-most power play goals (54) and the most shorthanded goals (18) in the league this season.

THE SCHEDULE

• The Nailers will visit the Cincinnati Cyclones (45-10-4-3) on Wednesday. They'll host the Indy Fuel (30-29-2-2) on Friday, and visit the Kalamazoo Wings (32-27-2-2) on Saturday. The Fuel and Wings are the two Central Division teams that the Nailers will have to leapfrog to make the playoffs, so it's a big weekend. Including this week, there are nine games remaining in the regular season.

GOALS OF THE WEEK

Krastenbergs picked up the rebound:

Fick's shot went through traffic:

WHEELING FUN THING

Mike Fazio showed everyone how to cook his pregame meal:

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