Away w’ the lads…

Last season, we ran a feature about away travel in our match night programme – read it all again here…

They’re a superstitious bunch, ice hockey players. Even coaches, for that matter. Take Tom Watkins, for example. His reply when I suggested another trip on the Tigers team bus? “You’re not ******* coming again.”

Allow me to explain. A few days earlier, I had travelled with the team to Swindon. Yeah, I know, not a great choice. It’s not a bad place, the Link Centre, but with Stevie Lyle having munched his way through Weetabix +10 beforehand, we trundled home empty-handed.

My presence, it would seem, was like the elephant who sat on a butterfly. Or was a rabbit’s foot? Whatever it was, I was bad luck.

Tom, struggling to hide a smirk after my reaction to his opening gambit, explains: “Players hate change, they want everything to be as familiar as possible, same seats on the bus, always sit in the same spots in the dressing room and go through the same routines pre-game.

“Habit is what they’re accustomed to. Some more than others. Some are superstitious, but I think they do it so often that it becomes instinct and the habit becomes ingrained.”

So let’s rewind a few hours to the start of my journey. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, everyone has their own place on the bus. Some even sleep on the floor, flat on their back. I’m told it helps.

Andy Phillips, who has been travelling with the Tigers for as long as anyone can remember, says: “Everybody has their own place on the bus, and it’s just the unwritten rule that we each always sit in our own seat.

“It’s a strange feeling as it’s only a chair, but I personally don’t feel comfortable if I sit anywhere else on the bus and it throws me out for the day. I assume the players feel the same way, just part of a long established and historic bus routine.”

One of the first people to put me in my place, even before I board the bus, is Les, the ever-present assistant to Andy: “Oi, give us a hand with these bags, or I’ll have your eyebrows shaved.” It’s a menacing statement that keeps me awake throughout the journey.

Not that eyebrow shaving is high on the agenda of the players. They’re far too professional and as we leave Telford, quiet descends. A film featuring Jennifer Garner seems to keep the guys occupied.

There are tales, of course, but Tom is one for playing his cards close to his chest: “What happens on the road stays on the road!!!

“There are way too many incidents that have created lasting memories, but going back to my younger days I remember, and this is not to be tried at home, but we were pulling into a rink car park and all of sudden from above a players head pops in through the open skylight above.

“He had climbed through the skylight at the back of the bus and crawled along the roof and through the skylight at the front whilst the bus was moving.”

Yeah, seriously, don’t try that one at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

There are plenty of laughs, of course, as Andy chortles out a story: “I’ve seen quite a few things over the years, some I can’t repeat. We have left more than one player at a service station over the years, but the one that springs to mind was a journey when I worked with Cardiff.

“We had a young import who’d never been to the UK so on a trip to Scotland we all took our passports. As we approached the border we got them out and asked him where his was – obviously he didn’t have it and was distraught – so we told him he had to hide in the toilet, he’d feel the bus stop, players get off and he needed to stay in their silent and hiding until he felt the bus move.”

Our arrival in Swindon is greeted by a flurry of activity, as Andy leads a trail of equipment to the dressing room.

A public skating session is in full flow, but for Andy, the hard work is just beginning: “Players always complain we arrive too early but it gives us plenty of time to unpack, get set up for games and sort out any equipment issues, i.e. new sticks, running repairs, skate sharpening etc.

“Arriving at the away rink it’s access to the changing room and as I unpack the coffin, set up the sticks in numerical order, set up the glove drier and get the skater sharpener ready to go, Les is busy in the changing room handing out playing kit and filling the water bottles.

“We’ve got away games down to a well practiced and oiled routine and we can usually be completely set up and good to go in about 20 minutes from first arrival.”

As the game itself gets underway, the famous Swindon speaker makes its presence felt. Loudly. Located immediately above the away team bench, it makes communication incredibly difficult.

Accompanied by a glare at the DJ booth, it is swiftly moved, giving the Tigers coaching team some semblance of peace.

A hapless rink assistant attempts to replace it during the period break, but Les – guardian of the bench – steps in with his own words of advice: “I wouldn’t bother mate, we’ll just move it again.”

Indeed, Les is true to his word.

The history books will of course, show that we lost the game 3-1 – ensuring a quiet return to Telford.

But not before Tom and his players refuel for the journey home: “Game and over its pack up, get some food to aid recovery and back on the road home. I spend time evaluating the performance and watching some footage on my Ipad.

“When we get back to Telford, it’s a team effort to unload the bus and hang the kit so we can get home to bed.”

That team effort ensures a late finish for Andy, as he and Les unpack – ready for the resumption of hostilities the next day: “Les and I both know exactly what needs doing. We don’t need to ask each other what to do, it just get’s done and in record time

“Leaving the away rink it’s usually in to whatever town is close for the guys to grab a bite to eat. Me personally I try and take my own food where possible (pasta bolognese) as I don’t eat fast food late at night.

“Then it’s the journey home, usually more terrible bus movies.

“Back at the rink I’m the key holder, so as guys are unloading the bus I’m opening up the rink, setting the heaters timers and setting the fans.

“All player kit is hung on individual stalls to dry for the next day, all the kit bags are then collected in and put back in to storage, and usually 30-45 minutes after arriving back home Pete is last out then we lock up, I drop Les at his house on the way, then I can finally go home myself.

“If we’re playing somewhere close like Manchester or Sheffield then my typical away day is 10-12 hours long. If we’re further afield such as Hull, Basingstoke or Guildford then my day is 14-16 hours long.”

A long old day, that – and it doesn’t quite finish there. Andy is back in his Tigers ‘office’ the next day, hours before the players arrive. It’s part of the job, you could even say.

And as for my invite to travel on the team bus again? Lost in the post, apparently…

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