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Dakota Days A Broadcaster's Look at the Bruins 16-Day Road Trip

Emergency Executive Order 20-99: Implementing a Four-Week Dial Back on Certain Activities to Slow the Spread of COVID-19.

That's the official verbiage put out by Governor Walz's press room regarding the November shutdown which changed the way we, the Austin Bruins, approached our season. Having already gotten started and even hosted a few games, suddenly we were forced to adapt. As you probably already know, listed in those "certain activities" that would be dialed back, were ice hockey rinks and subsequently ice hockey teams, the Bruins included. At that point, we didn't know that Executive Order 20-99 would stretch into December, but in the back of our minds we knew four weeks wouldn't be all. If there's one thing that has rang true throughout this season, the mantra has been that we will be playing a full 56-game season no matter what changes, inconveniences, or limitations we had to deal with. With the newest executive order to deal with, a new plan had to be made. If you think owning a sports team is easy, think again. Even in a normal season the amount of direction, delegation, adjustment, and shuffling that ownership has to handle is nothing short of immense. Add in the struggles of 2020 and COVID-19, and you have yourself a recipe for disaster. That is, unless you're the Austin Bruins and have Craig Patrick and Mike Cooper running the show.

"I LOVE IT WHEN A PLAN COMES TOGETHER!" - Hannibal Smith, The A-Team

Immediately after the announcement of Executive Order 20-99 in November, the C's (Craig and Cooper) got to work. The plan? Spend majority of the shutdown in states where hockey can be played and where fans can attend. Fortunately for the Bruins, half of their divisional opponents are located in such states. The Aberdeen Wings (South Dakota), Minot Minotauros (North Dakota) and Bismarck Bobcats (North Dakota). If that plan was to be executed, it was going to take some strategy and cooperation - not only from the Bruins but from the rest of the NAHL Central Division as well, especially the teams in North and South Dakota. Immediately, phone calls were made to find lodging, food accommodations, practice ice, and opponents. For the better part of two-weeks, Mike Cooper and Craig Patrick spoke with fellow NAHL Central Division Division owners and a direction was starting to take shape. The first agreement came with the Janesville Jets, a non-divisional opponent for the Bruins. Wisconsin had recently announced that fans could no longer attend games, but that games could still take place if the teams so chose. Jets owner Bill McCoshen offered to host us and an impromptu series in Wisconsin took place just days before Minnesota's shutdown went into effect. The purpose of the Jets/Bruins series from an Austin point of view was to keep the guys' legs moving, not really knowing what the future held. There was still some deliberation going on behind the scenes regarding long-term. Worst case scenario at the time was that the Bruins would be off for a month, maybe more, if arrangements couldn't be made. Knowing that, a quick two-game series against the Jets made so much sense. Following that series, the Bruins' plan came together. A 16-day road trip had been organized, and it all began on Black Friday in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

45.465141, -98.488068 — ABERDEEN, South Dakota

Before we get to the Aberdeen portion of the trip, I have to preface this section by explaining some things that were going on in my personal life that made for an even more eventful trip. On Monday, November 23rd, I had one wisdom tooth extracted. It was a routine extraction, but I was still going to be under general anesteshia for the surgery. Normally, I reserve this kind of work for the offseason, especially anything having to do with my mouth considering how important to my job that particular body part is. However, I was in pain and I wanted to get it done ASAP. With me needing to go under general anaesthesia, I was informed that someone would have to be with me for 6-8 hours after the surgery and knowing that, I chose November 23rd. Not only was it a Monday with plenty of time to recover before the weekend's games, it was also the Monday before Thanksgiving and I knew my mom would be in town visiting for the holiday. Who better to help with post-surgery care than Mom? The day of the extraction came, the wisdom tooth was pulled, and I was on the road to recovery. Thanks for nursing me back to health, Mom.

Fast-forward a few days and it's Black Friday, November 27th. We were supposed to be playing a home game against the St. Cloud Norsemen, the first matchup of the season between us and the newly named Norsemen. Instead, we were on a bus in the A.M. hours headed to South Dakota for two games against the Wings. The start of this trip was pretty normal for us, we're used to leaving the day of a game. For me, however, things inside my mouth weren't progressing as planned. I was in a bit of dull pain, but nothing I couldn't handle with some ibuprofen and ice packs on the bus.

We arrived in Aberdeen, as we would any other game and it was a relief to play some hockey. I'm usually the first one off the bus when we arrive to a road game. Since I sit up front near the coaches, and they generally stay onboard until everyone departs, my suited-up body is the first one out the door. As I broke the threshold of the Odde Ice Arena, I took pause. Looking around the landscape of the NAHL at the time, we knew how lucky we were to be competing. Even teams in our own division such as the Norsemen, or the Minnesota Wilderness, had opted to take time off. Some took more time than others and it wasn't always by choice. The hard work of the league, the division, and our ownership group particularly made this all possible. I'm very aware of how our situation could have been entirely different this season. Jamestown, Corpus Christi, Kansas City, and Springfield all opted-out in 2020-21. As someone who lost a job once before to a team ceasing operations, I'm more aware of the consequences it brings, and it's always in the back of my mind. Standing in Aberdeen, ready to call a game because of the efforts of so many people who just wanted to play hockey, which by connection allowed me to call a hockey game, it was a semi-emotional moment for me.

That Friday night game was a great contest between division rivals, though it didn't go the way of the Bruins. Aberdeen ended up coming out on top, 3-1, but considering Austin was without some of their best players due to injury/illness, it was hard to get on the black-and-gold. The fight was certainly there. Cullen Rush netted his first goal of the season while Sutter Muzzatti earned his first assist not only of the year, but of his junior career. Taking on a team that was as solid as Aberdeen, you knew it was going to be tough for the Bruins, but they hung in and made it interesting.

The exact same thing could be said for Saturday, not only on the ice, but in the press box. Many of you know by now, that broadcasting live sports is far from an exact science. If we haven't met, or you're unaware, let me clue you in: I am 1,000% a Type-A personality. I rely on lists, I over-prepare, I over-plan, and by default I overthink. I do my best when things go off the rails, but man do I dread those moments when things don't go as they're supposed to. While the Bruins were out there battling it out, thanks to the first two goals of Jens Richards junior career, I was dealing with a couple of minor issues in the corner-situated visiting press box. The first, and least pressing but most annoying, was my mouth. Five days after the surgery, it hurt worse than it did before I had the tooth removed. I wasn't a happy camper. Thankfully, when you're doing something you love - especially something as fast paced as a hockey broadcaster - you don't have time to focus on the pain you just kind of work your way though it. Plus, I was able to manage the discomfort with ibuprofen but it was VERY apparent to me when the meds were wearing off. In addition, alongside Ron Budrik - color commentator for our home games and studio producer for many Bruins road games - we learned that our internet signal was affected by the amount of people inside the Odde all accessing the tower at the same time. Our equipment setup which relays the broadcast to the studio in Albert Lea relies on a signal booster which taps into the local cellular network. In Aberdeen however, the mostly aluminum structured barn makes accessing the cell network hard to begin with. Add in the intermissions when everyone in the building is on their phones browsing Facebook and it became too much for the rural tower to handle and sure enough, we'd get kicked off the air. Thankfully, Ron (and Reggie Bauer, who handled the studio on Saturday night) are pros and if I didn't describe to you just now what happened, you probably would never know.

During that Saturday night struggle on the ice, the Bruins fell 3-2 in a very close game. Amidst the competition, Bruins forward Hunter Olson took a stick up high which caught him in the mouth. (And I thought my mouth hurt). Due to the severity of the injury, the Aberdeen trainers worked with Head Coach Steve Howard and the Wings' team dentist to open on Sunday and assist Hunter in getting things straightened out, literally. Normally, we depart town after the game on Saturday is played and return to Austin, however with no place to practice, it made more sense for us to stay in Aberdeen for a few days before leaving for Minot, our next opponents. Knowing the kind of problems I was dealing with post-surgery, Coach Howard called me on Sunday morning. "Hey, so Hunter has to go to the Wings' team dentist to get things repaired. We need a member of the coaching staff or front office to go with him, and with your mouth bothering you, I talked to the dentist and he's willing to see you, too, if you want." Sign. Me. Up. I was running low on ibuprofen (which I could get at any convenience store across the state), but something was wrong and I wanted it looked at.

Hunter and I rode in a shuttle over to the dentist, sat in our respective chairs, and within an hour we had new positive outlooks. That's where the story of Hunter Olson's dental issues ends. I wasn't so lucky. First of all, I'm not complaining in any way, shape, or form. I already felt so blessed to be calling games when there are people in my profession who are wondering if they'll EVER get back into a booth, let alone call games this season. I felt so blessed that my Mom could drop everything and fly to Minnesota from North Carolina to help me with my post-surgery care and be okay with the fact that for most of her stay I was going to be, well, less than fun. The amount of favors I owe people were adding up, and now you could tack the Aberdeen Wings team dentist to the list. He did his work on my lower jaw and told me by the time our shuttle returns back to the hotel, I'd be feeling better. He also told me that I'd be pain-free in 12 hours. He was half-right. On the ride back to the hotel we were shuttled by a local Aberdeener, who as it turns out, is originally from my hometown of Allentown, PA. We got to talking, I got to reminiscing about home, and by the time me and Hunter got out of the van I realized, "hey, I feel great!" After giving Hunter some salt to help with his open wounds (I had traveled with a big bottle of Morton's salt knowing I had to take care of my own wounds), I strode over to the Wings and Rings and enjoyed lunch with Coach Howard and Assistant Coach Justin Fisher, it was a football Sunday after all and I had to catch up on my fantasy players. Up next, the Bruins were practicing at the Odde Ice Center in Aberdeen on Monday morning and promptly heading up to Minot afterward. So while the boys skated on Monday morning, I sat on the bus with our driver John Kirby, and worked on some graphics for the upcoming games, exchanged some emails, and began to pen this story. For the first time in three days, I felt like things had slowed down a bit. Maybe that's why I started to notice my mouth hurting once again. Either way, the bus was loaded and off we went to our next stop, Minot, North Dakota.

48.235531, -101.296059 – MINOT, North Dakota

We knew going into the road trip that most of our time was going to be spent in Minot, ND. We arrived on Monday night, November 30th and stayed at the same location until Thursday, December 10th. Knowing that you're going to be spending that kind of time in the same location, you have to hope for the best and that it's somewhere tolerable. The word I'd use to describe our stay in Minot? Perfect. All the credit in the world goes to Mike Cooper, Craig Patrick, Minot Minotauros owner Brad Porter, and 'Tauros Director of Operations Ken Oda. As the bus pulled up, we unloaded our bags in the parking lot of the Sleep Inn, which was conveniently attached to a shopping mall. Within walking distance were other strip malls that included a Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, various eateries, and more. Ubers/Lyfts can be expensive, and in the time of COVID-19, can be risky. Having this kind of access was the key to my enjoyment during our long stay in the Magic City.

My roommate on the road was Assistant Coach Justin Fisher. Usually, I get paired up with Bruins equipment manager Jim Sequin while the coaches bunk together, but with Jim not travelling on this trip, Justin and I paired up. Our room was sizeable, with two queen beds, a desk/workspace, mini-fridge, microwave, and lounge chair. Not to mention, this was the first time in five seasons as a broadcaster for a hockey team that my hotel room came equipped with a stall-shower and not a tub/shower combo. Pre-prepared meals were provided for the team via room-service, which was more convenient than you can imagine. Hot ham and cheese sandwiches, fried fish fillets, meatloaf and mashed potatoes were some of the food highlights for me. For somewhere that we were going to be stationed for ten-days, we certainly could have done worse.

I spent most of my days working - sending emails, following up on the sales portion of my job, writing press-releases for both the Bruins and the Grizzlies, and otherwise keeping busy. It can be easy for someone to take their foot off the pedal when they don't have to report to the office every day, ask anyone who is working from home during the pandemic. I made sure to use my time as best as I could. While the guys were at the rink practicing, I was typing away. The only day that was out of the ordinary for me, was Tuesday, our first day there. While riding to Minot on Monday afternoon, I called ahead and scheduled (yet another) appointment at (yet another) dentist to fix my ailing mouth. Thankfully, after a half hour consultation and a different combination of anti-biotics, I was ship-shape by mid-week and finally, that's where the story of my dental issues stops. A two-day recovery time took well over two-week, with dozens of pills, dozens of salt-water rinses, and more than enough discomfort.

We saw a lot of each other over this road trip, even if we didn't specifically spend a lot of time with one another. I tend to avoid the players unless I need them for some work-related purpose. I'm 13+ years older than them, we don't have much in common unless they also spend their time on YouTube watching microphone reviews and video editing tips and tricks. That said, one of the upsides to being stationed in such close proximity to the players, was when I did need something work-related, they were much more accessible to me. I was able to get interviews easier, record liners for the radio station, and get involved in more team activities. As I continue to sing praises of the hotel, it came equipped with a "theatre room" which was a stair-stepped theatre with an HDMI-compatible TV mounted to the wall. One of the activities I tried to get into was video sessions which were held in the theatre room. Head Coach Steve Howard and Assistant Coach Justin Fisher had the perfect forum to discuss the weekend's upcoming game plan in the theatre room, it felt like we were a NCAA Division-I team with our own video room. As for the players, it was a great bonding experience for the team, and the hotel environment wasn't too dissimilar to what most of these players will experience in college with dorms and communal housing. They took advantage of that set up, too. The guys would take walks after practice through the mall and around the shopping centers, organized their own NHL '21 tournament in the theatre room.

The boding didn't serve up immediate results on the ice, as Austin dropped both games to the Minot Minotauros at the Pepsi Rink at Maysa Areana. That's the thing though, this kind of bonding is more important long-term. Players were coming in-an-out the entire time we were at the Sleep Inn. Garrett Dahm made his Bruins return, John Lundy was acquired via trade, Mason Poolman drove out in his personal car from Austin as he was cleared to rejoin the team after a medical issue, and more. Imagine being a player like Lundy, completely new to the team and knowing only a handful of faces. You get acquainted with everyone much faster since the entire team was spread out across one hotel floor.

While the Bruins practiced for the final time at Pepsi Rink at Maysa Arena on Thursday, December 10th, I shot a weekend preview using the sight lines of the arena as a back drop. It might have been Minot's home rink behind me, but all the content was geared squarely on the upcoming games against the Bismarck Bobcats. Following that practice, and a brief encounter with the St. Cloud Norsemen who arrived in Minot just as we were departing, we were off North Dakota's state capital, Bismarck.

46.808327, -100.783737 – BISMARCK, North Dakota

Much like the Aberdeen portion of the trip that kicked everything off, not much was different for the Bruins when it came to travel to Bismarck. It's standard practice for the team to leave Austin on a Thursday morning before a weekend series on the road against the Bobcats. The only difference this time, we were departing from Minot and not Riverside Arena. Oh, and the trip is MUCH shorter.

After losing their last four games, two to Aberdeen and two to Minot, this road trip hadn't gone the right way on the ice. I know I'm in a generally upbeat mood when I reflect on the trip itself, but trust me, the coaching staff and the players were NOT in a great mood. Friday night, the first game against Bismarck and the fifth game of six on this extended road trip, was the breaking point. The Bruins dropped the game 5-1, and if it weren't for a late Jens Richards goal it could have easily ended in a 5-0 shutout. I've never seen a team vacate an arena so fast following a game in my career. From the moment the final horn sounded just shy of 10:00 local time, I began my post-game show. With commercial breaks, a recap, and a sponsored three-stars of the game segment, my post-game show usually runs around 10-minutes long. Add in a 5-10 minute equipment breakdown and I'm usually loading my gear on to the bus at a MAXIMUM 20 minutes after the final whistle. The team was so dejected and annoyed with their performance that night, they were ready and sitting on the bus in 10-minutes. Obviously, I couldn't join the team on the bus that night, I had a responsibility to the listeners and our sponsors to not rush through the postgame. Thankfully, I caught a ride back to the hotel with my friend, and Bismarck's play-by-play broadcaster, Andrew Weiss. We even stopped at McDonald's for a little post-game rejuvenation. (It gets tiring talking for three hours straight and I'm always hungry after a game!)

I could tell entering the hotel in Bismarck that things were different after that loss on Friday night. The same sentiment carried over as we rode the bus on Saturday afternoon to the rink for the game. There was a different vibe. It was all business. The attitude was different, and it sure paid off. Behind the stellar goaltending play of Hudson Hodges and goals from Richards, Barrett Brooks, and Mason Poolman, the Bruins ended the 16-day road trip on a high note, with a 3-2 win over their division rival Bismarck Bobcats.

"The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic." – Peter Drucker

It wasn't ordinary for the Bruins by any stretch of the word. To be away from Austin for more than 16 days. To be away from their billets and good home cooking. It wasn't easy for the coaching staff to keep the players focused and involved with all the distractions and general lack of rhythm. Most of all, it wasn't easy for the management and ownership of the Austin Bruins to arrange this trip which required a good amount of money to be put forth, compromises to be made, and changes to employ. The bottom line, everyone involved, stuck to the mantra: we will be playing a full 56-game season no matter what changes, inconveniences, or limitations we have to deal with.

Did the Bruins have the outcome on the ice that they had hoped for? Of course not. Were there bigger things in play than just the hockey games, absolutely. I, for one, felt that the front offices of all the teams got a little bit closer due to the nature of having to work together under the gun. I felt the hospitality from the Wings, the 'Tauros, and Bobcats like I've never felt before. We're all in this together, and though we might be enemies on the ice, that wouldn't matter much if there was no league or no games to be played. The Dakota Days were something out of the ordinary for junior hockey, but it's an experience I will never forget.

I don't want to go a day without saying out loud how blessed I am to be a professional broadcaster for a hockey team. I get paid to talk about the sport that I love, and to write pieces like this. Specifically, I don't want to go a day without expressing my gratitude to the Austin Bruins organization on the whole. The commitment that was made to this team by our owners during this most recent shutdown was something to behold, and something I will never forget. The priorities this season are to stay safe, while completing a 56-game season. Through the first half (albeit not mathematically half), we've done that and there are so many people who deserve a share of the credit.

The second half of the season looks bright, and we've got BIG things planned for this team both on the ice and off. We hope you're coming along for the ride!