FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – Over the past few years, I’ve developed enough friendships with players in the SPHL to get snippets of life on the road – a photo sent via text of a smoking broken down bus and the mildly irritated caption “This is outrageous…”; a handful of photos showing teammates sitting together on the floor, everyone on a cell phone; texts after an away game, usually something along the lines of “I can’t sleep on the bus” because it’s too uncomfortable or they can’t stop going over the game in their mind, or their teammates are being noisy. I knew how it worked, and I’ve always dreamt of the chance to travel with a team and document it. The opportunity finally came with the Fayetteville Marksmen as they visited the Pensacola Ice Flyers. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but as it turns out I had no idea.
In November, I spent a home weekend with the Fayetteville Marksmen. The entire staff was incredible about giving me access to anything and everything I asked, from the locker room, to the tunnel, they even let me shoot warmups from the bench! It was everything I had dreamed of working with a team on their home ice. What I saw during my time there changed the way I view hockey in general, and the Marksmen in particular. Everyone from the owner, Chuck Norris, (who went out of his way to seek me out and make sure I was taken care of), to the players (who let me in without question or hesitation), to the fans, made me see what I do differently. The prospect of catching up with them on the road and bringing my vision to life was so exciting, and also a little intimidating.
When I told Marksmen Director of Digital Marketing and Media, Shawn Bednard, about my idea of tagging along with them on the road to do a follow-up piece, combined with my dream life on the road story, I was met with an instant and enthusiastic “Yes!” from everyone. They were facing off three times that weekend against the Ice Flyers. Three days and three nights to learn what life in a hotel is like, three games to figure out the team dynamic in the locker room and on the bus and everywhere else.
I decided to get to Pensacola a day early so I could be there when the team arrived and also hit the beach for some shark fishing with former RiverKing and current Ice Flyer forward Ryan Marcuz. Sadly, the water was far too rough on Thursday for any fishing, but I was able to visit with him and be there when Marksmen arrived.
I had kept in contact with a couple of Marksmen players as they traveled. An optimistic “We’re about four hours away!” turned into six hours. As they slowly crawled closer, I became more and more nervous about the weekend ahead. It had been three months since I’d been a guest of the Marksmen, they‘d had a lot of turnover like all of the teams in the league and I was anxious to see how the dynamic had changed, plus how the new guys would welcome me and my plans of following them around with a camera in their face.
As I turned into the hotel parking lot I saw the bus parked in the back and immediately the nerves turned into a raucous, overwhelming excitement. This was IT!
Walking into the lobby was surreal. Familiar faces that vaguely recognized me but were too exhausted to make sense of it, new faces curious as to why I was staring so intently. I caught up with Taylor Pryce, one of the former RiverKings, very briefly in the lobby, said hello to Dillon Kelley and the handful of other guys I saw that I recognized from my time in North Carolina, and then took off to process everything and let them sleep after an extremely long day of being on a bus. I was overwhelmed at the enormity of what was happening and the thought of photographing anything that night didn’t even occur to me.
The next day, Friday, I swung by the Bay Center to pick up my media pass, and headed back to the hotel to catch the players before they loaded the bus and headed to the rink. I watched the team as they emerged from their naps and mentally prepared for the game ahead. The rapport I had witnessed in Fayetteville was still evident. This isn’t just a team, it’s a group of friends. Brothers even.
They’re just regular dudes doing guy stuff. They joke, hassle each other, eat a ridiculous amount of noodles, play on their phones, call their girlfriends… just guys being guys. They’re also hockey players, obviously. Depending on what position they play they have different things to focus on, but the goal is the same: win, do their job and help the team come out on top. They’re athletes so a big emphasis is put on take care of themselves. Napping, eating right, stretching, working out, more napping.
The other side of being a pro athlete is probably the most difficult. Being the “hero”, having fans, little kids looking up to them, dealing with the media, always having to be okay, not letting the home crowd get in their heads on the road. They also have to balance being people with families, most of them have a girlfriend, one even has a wife and a daughter.
I had an interesting talk one evening with Captain Jake Hauswirth about what it’s like doing what he does and also being married with a baby. His wife and their daughter were back in Fayetteville, just like every time he was on the road. I asked him how that works, leaving his family so often. He told me it wasn’t too different than having a “normal” job where he’d be away all day every day, instead he was gone on weekends. It was just their life. The way he spoke of his family made it clear they were his entire world, and the way he spoke of hockey made it clear that was his world too. I’m not sure how both can be so important and all-consuming, but it was. And it worked for them. I better understand the mindset now after living “on the road” with a team for just a weekend, but it’s still hard to wrap your mind around.
It’s all consuming, a complete and total lifestyle. Everything else disappears and it’s just the team and the game and noodles and naps. I have a huge amount of respect for Jake, he is every bit a captain and their leader. Some of the guys would even ask him for help on how to make their microwaved dinners, the one they went to for help or advice. Even with me, someone who was not on his team and really had no business following them around, he took the time and answered all of my questions patiently, no matter how ridiculous they got or how little sense I made trying to put my thoughts into words.
It was all fascinating to me, finally seeing what it was like after years of trying to imagine it. A typical day on the road looks something like this:
They start rolling out of bed and into the hotel lobby around 9 for breakfast. They eat a LOT. They sit in groups of twos and threes and fours, talking and laughing. Once they’re done eating they either load the bus for the morning skate, or if there’s no morning skate, they have a team meeting or stretch in the parking lot.
After all the morning team stuff is done they can nap, watch television, or find lunch. Lunch is pretty much either a container of noodles they brought with them from home warmed in the lobby’s microwave, or they walk to a nearby restaurant or store.
Afternoons are usually free until it’s time to load the bus and head to the arena for the game. When they’re in Pensacola they find time to go to the beach, or just watch television in their room until nap time.
A few hours before puck drop and they start making their way to the parking lot to load the bus, all in matching black Marksmen polos.
There’s an excitement and a tension starting to build. I can feel it, even see it in some of them. A leg bouncing up and down. The way some of them stare off into space for a second before their attention snaps back to whoever is talking to them. Nervous laughter. Bravado. Some are too loud, some go silent. There’s still the banter and the comradery and always the overwhelming sense of being a team.
The bus itself has it’s own atmosphere. There’s a stillness and a calm. It’s peaceful, despite the lack of size. Stepping into the dark closeness I don’t feel claustrophobic or cramped, it’s just comfortable. It’s like stepping into another world, but one I’m somehow familiar with. There’s warmth and welcome here. Bunks on top of bunks, blankets, and pillows scattered around, snacks left waiting on the too small counter.
As the players climb on, the bus suddenly seems even smaller. Impossibly small, there’s no way they all fit. They seem larger than life to me in that moment, impossible god-like giants doing impossible things. I stare around in awe, dumbstruck at the overwhelming feeling of insignificance.
How did I end up here?
I blink and suddenly they’re just dudes on a bus again. I grinned, once again overwhelmed, but this time by the enormity of seeing a mildly silly dream realized. And it was FUN. The lighting was terrible for photos and I couldn’t move anywhere to find a better angle or photograph anything different than what I could see in front of me, but I could not have been happier. To them, it was just another in the long line of bus rides. They looked at their phones, drank coffee, stared out the window, and quietly chatted. It was not a long ride to the Pensacola Bay Center, but it felt like years. But at the same time, it was over in a moment, far too soon.
We pulled into the parking lot alongside the building at the player entrance. Everyone grabbed their stuff and filed off the bus toward the building and through the door. The guys went to change, the coaches went to their room, the equipment manager and athletic trainer got themselves organized, and I found a seat right on the glass so I could enjoy the silence of the empty arena and stare at the ice. Soon enough, the guys began to trickle out around me, heading off in different directions to do whatever they did to get ready for the game. Some sit in the stands, some tape sticks by the ice, some throw a ball around. There’s stretching in the hallway, the locker room, and in the Zamboni area. Some make eye contact with me, some even give me a little half smile of acknowledgment. Most wear headphones. All of them are in the zone.
There is a beauty in the focus and the absence of everything else. Everything falls away and it’s just the game.
I stay as quiet and still as possible. It’s a balance, I want to get photos and understand what they’re doing, but I don’t want to be a distraction. Some of my favorite photos come from those moments.
Once it’s time to don the sweater there’s yet another transformation. They come out of isolation and become a team. Still focused, still in the zone, but together. They’re aware of each other and what they need to do. There’s more banter, more nerves, and more fantastic photo opportunities.
In the tunnel with the team is one of my favorite places. There’s a raw energy and excitement that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Traditionally, the starting goalie enters the ice first, so he’s usually in front. Dillon Kelley prepares for the start just like every goalie I’ve ever seen, except for one. They stand in the exact same position in the tunnel. Slightly apart from the rest of the team, bent over at the waist, leaning on pads, head down.
Nathan Perry is the only goaltender I’ve seen standing straight up in the tunnel before a game. Rocking from side-to-side, his arms occasionally shot out, seemingly at random. I realized he was visualizing himself making saves, he may have not even been aware his arms were moving. It was like watching a dance. His teammates lined up in the tunnel behind him. I think there was a certain order to it but I couldn’t make much sense of it. Several of them have what looked like a secret handshake with each other instead of a traditional fist bump or high five.
In Pensacola their pre-game intro is… dramatic. By the third game of the weekend, the players were reciting it aloud along with the announcer. From a spectator point of view, it’s pretty fantastic – they turn off the lights, followed by a laser and smoke show. The public address announcer gives the visiting team a little grief, they announce their home starting lineup with great fanfare. It’s very well done. From a visiting team’s perspective, it seems both slightly over the top and also pretty impressive. The atmosphere in the Hanger is great. Fans are engaged and excited, it’s a really fun place to be.
At one point fans took exception to a hit made by Tyler Palmer. Chants of “Pal-mer su-cks!” rang out, quickly picked up by two or three entire sections. Anytime he left the ice and was on the bench they would scream “Who do we want? Palmer! When do we want him? NOW!” and would keep it up until he was back on the ice when they would start cheering. I watched his face, wondering if it was bothering him. He seemed genuinely amused by it, especially when he scored a goal. I asked him later what it was like having masses of strangers yelling at him. He said, “It doesn’t bother me. Gotta have thick skin, especially on the road!” and was still fairly amused by the fact that “they really didn’t like me there.”
During intermissions, I watched in the locker room, on egg shells because of the high tension and raw emotion emanating from everyone. Coach Jesse Kallechy surprised me every single time he entered the room. He didn’t pull any punches or sugarcoat anything, but he was never cruel, always encouraging them to play better, to BE better. He pointed out things they needed to understand, listened to their questions, and got them fired up even when they were exhausted. I watched their faces as he talked. This is a man they respect and follow. He drew squiggly lines on a whiteboard that seemed to mean something to everyone in the room but me, the guys listened and watched intently, some even moving onto the floor to get a better view. They may have traded and cut some guys and signed new ones, but this was still the Marksmen.
Both teams battled it out fiercely all weekend. The Ice Flyers ultimately came away on top, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or hard work. Each game could’ve gone either way. Forcing all three games to overtime and one to a shootout shows just how closely matched the two teams were.
After the games, it was time for the boys to change back into the clothes they wore on their way to the rink, and devour the piles of pasta waiting in the hallway outside of the locker room. I hung back at first, certain everyone would be angry and closed off after a loss. I was wrong.
While they were upset, disappointed and angry, they were also busy and internalizing everything, trying to figure out how to be better. As they consumed yet more noodles, I planted myself by the food table to watch the process of coming out of “the zone” and back to being people again. They ate together, hung out with each other, and slowly pulled each other out of the disappointment of a loss. They didn’t forget about it or disregard it, but they were able to be friendly and kind and fun. Not as fun as at the beach or in a hotel lobby, but they had smiles for me and each other, despite the negative feelings lingering from the game.
Once everyone had eaten, they made their way outside to load up the bus and head back to the hotel, or on Sunday, to head back to Fayetteville. Almost all of them got on the phone immediately after walking out the door. Girlfriends, dads, brothers…they needed a familiar voice to tell them how the game went and how they played, plus receive encouragement and support. Because at the end of the day they’re people, just like you and me. Doing an impossible, ridiculous, amazing job playing a game they love.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sin Bin wishes to thank Fayetteville Marksmen owner Chuck Norris, broadcaster Shawn Bednard, players and staff for granting us this inside look at the team.