Christmas on the Bus

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The National Hockey League is about to go on its now-annual three-night Christmas break, spanning Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. That wasn’t always the case. Years ago, the NHL held games on Christmas and especially on Dec. 26.

Back when I was playing in the minor leagues in the mid-1970s, road trips over Christmas were hardly uncommon.

I remember one in particular from my early days with the Binghamton/ Broome Dusters of the lowly North American Hockey League. My sister, Pat, and other family members visited South Yarmouth, Mass. to watch us play against the Cape Codders.

Pat was horrified by our team bus, which the players had nicknamed “the Iron Lung.” The vehicle was in terrible condition. There was no working heating and even if there was, it wouldn’t have done any good because there was a broken window by the toilet that never got fixed. We got blasted with arctic air and, plenty of times, snow and sleet blew in through the busted window.

When the driver had difficulty gaining traction up an icy hill, us players ran from the back to the front to help the wheels gain it. The bus then often fishtailed as it started up the hill, so we had to run to the back again to level it off.

One night on the road trip, the spring broke on the accelerator. For lack of a better and more expeditious solution, we tied a batch of hockey skate laces together and used it as a chain from the accelerator all the way around the bus and through the broken window. We pulled the laces harder to help the driver accelerate speeds.

The bus contained crude bunk beds — undersized mattresses stacked vertically and supported by wooden frames. Every player, sleeping or awake, clutched a sleeping bag (which we had to buy with our own money) because we would otherwise get frostbite driving through the frigid towns in winter.

I learned quickly to move fast and claim one of the beds in the middle of the bus away from the rear where the broken window was located and a repulsive smell permeated from the tiny bathroom. Most players disliked the top bunks because they were so high up, leaving approximately three inches between one’s head and the ceiling. It was almost like sleeping in a bunk in the torpedo room of a submarine. I preferred the top bunks, though. It felt warmer up there away from the windows, all of which let in the freezing cold air.

At any rate, our game against the Cape Codders coincided with Christmas. Pat brought me a chocolate cake, completed with white frosting and a Santa Claus on top. She walked with me to the bus, frowning as she scanned the vehicle.

“Your teammates, they um…” she said, her voice trailing off.

I knew what she was thinking. Many guys on the team looked like derelicts, between the shaggy hair, mustaches and loud clothes — it was the ’70s, after all — as well as the fact that the opportunity to take a hot shower was not something we could take for granted.

Pat also looked at horror at our driver, who had more teeth missing than most of our players, and may have enjoyed a little too much pre-Christmas cheer.

It’s been said that one of the foulest stenches on earth is the smell of hockey equipment, especially the gloves. That’s certainly true but it’s easy for hockey lifers to become “nose blind” to the smell of a hockey dressing room and the equipment. The smells that emanated aboard the Iron Lung, however, could make anyone wince. Pungent doesn’t even begin to describe the potpourri of stale cigarettes, spilled beer, body odor and, well, other unpleasant things.

I believe this was the same road trip in which we got caught in an awful snowstorm leaving Erie, PA and and the New York State Thruway was temporarily shut down. We slept in the bus under an overpass one night. Whenever we slept in a motel, it was a fleabag motel where we actually may have been better off on our bus.

On December 14, 1975, the day that I completed my degree at the University of Pennsylvania, I picked up a newspaper and looked at the sports section. I saw that the Dusters were mired something like 30 points in last place in the North American Hockey League. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I picked up the phone and called the Binghamton team’s office.

I asked for a tryout. I was told to report to Binghamton at my own expense. The next day, I left my then-wife, all of my clothes but the ones that were on my back and my bag of hockey equipment, and our half-decorated Christmas tree to head to upstate New York to take my shot — possibly my only one — at living out my dream of playing professional hockey.

The tryout went well. The team told me to stay put. In my first game, I had a fight and fared well. I became a member of the team. Shortly thereafter, I attended the team’s Christmas party.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. It was my new Dusters teammate, Bill “Goldie” Goldthorpe, with whom I had not yet had a chance to interact. He had recently cleared waivers in the WHA and was himself new to the club.

“Are you Paul Stewart, the tough guy?” he growled.

“Yes,” I said, not liking his tone of voice. “And you are?”

Goldthorpe promptly sucker punched me in the face.

“I’m the muscle around this team,” he sneered.

I challenged Goldthorpe to meet me outside in the parking lot. Then we went at it full force. I was bigger than he was, and got the upper hand. Finally, I lifted him up off his feet and threw him to the ground. I explained that we were teammates but I’d be damned if he was going to get away with starting a quarrel with me and then pulling the cheap stunt he tried.

Goldthorpe responded by biting me. I wound up having to go to the hospital for a tetanus shot.

During our brief time playing for the Dusters, I got into it several other times with Goldthorpe. One time, we had a game in Johnstown where Goldthorpe went into the stands to fight a fan. At intermission, we were back in the dressing room and I was trying to get the troops rallied. Goldthorpe, who was swigging from a bottle of Coke, screamed “Shut up!” at me and threw the glass bottle at my head. He missed and it shattered on the wall.

I got the last laugh on this one. After the game, Goldthorpe ended up getting arrested and subsequently charged with assault for the fight in the stands. Talk about a bad night.

Many of my teammates were heavy smokers and drinkers and played cards a lot. As a rookie, I wanted to fit in with the guys so I did as they did. Many of the best fights we had weren’t against other teams but on the bus when someone helped himself to another guy’s beer.

My sister asked me, “Is everything OK, Paul?”

I smiled. She and I both knew the answer was yes.

Whatever the inconveniences, I was just happy to be there. I was playing professional hockey. It didn’t matter that it was with the last-place team in a lowly rung of the minor leagues. It was a start, and it was an education in many ways.

I loved Binghamton. The fans were amazing, and I liked the town. I also made some good friendships. Our team was terrible my first season (27-45-2) but we were a solid club the second year (41-31-2) and reached the semifinals in the playoffs.

I also made some good friends on the Dusters. With the exception of Goldthorpe — of whom everyone was wary and kept their distance — I liked all the guys on the team.

My first roommate in pro hockey was Dusters goalie Ken Holland, who went on to become the Detroit Red Wings’ longtime general manager. During my time with Binghamton in the NAHL and AHL, I was teammates with other guy also played in the NHL — they were either on the way up the ladder or the way down — such as Lew Morrison, Joe Hardy, Richard Grenier and Hank Nowak.

Playing against other North American Hockey League, players I had known about and respected — such as Blake Ball, Cleland “Keke” Mortson, “Gypsy Joe” Hardy, and Ted McCaskill, then the Mohawk Valley Comets head coach — was tremendous fun and a great learning experience. I used the opportunity to grow as a player and learn as much possible about the game and the style I had to play for the best chance to make the NHL eventually.

It didn’t take long before I began to believe playing hockey was my life calling. I never had felt happier. My mission became to make my mark at each level of the minors and then the NHL.

Billy Gratton and some other teammates introduced me to “Tom & Marty’s” — a bar on State Street in Binghamton — about three or four days after I arrived at Binghamton.

As we sat there, Gratton turned to me and said, “Hey kid, we all like the way you come at it. But if you think you’re going to make it as a goal scorer, you have another thing coming. You’ll have to become a better fighter.”

I got a lot of practice. In my first season with the Dusters, I had 273 penalty minutes in just 46 games. The next year, I had 232 penalty minutes in 60 regular season games plus 35 more in 10 playoff games. I started to build my resume as a capable enforcer, which helped me move up the ladder, eventually reaching the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques.

My first week in Binghamton included a few fights, a few points, and earning the Duster of the Week award, which came with a gift certificate to the Endicott Johnson Shoe Company, which had factories in Binghamton and some surrounding villages. With the gift certificate, I bought a stylish pair of leather brown shoes with a higher heel than I ever owned before or after. They looked like something out of “Saturday Night Fever.”

Within a few months, I made the transformation from a Prep School/Ivy League dresser into the sort of, um, fashions that were on full display in Slap Shot. I was living the dream, looking groovy, and earning $250 — $197.36 after taxes — each week to play hockey.

Hey, what could have been better for a kid about to turn 22? Christmas on a frigid, foul-smelling and broken bus was a pittance to pay.

Happy holidays, everyone. My blog will resume on Friday.

******** MHL RUSSIAN RED STARS TOUR

Come on out to see the MHL Russian Red Stars play Harvard at 7 p.m. EST on Dec 28th and Babson on Dec. 31st at 4 p.m. EST. Tickets are $10 each, with a special offer of four tickets for $30 for a family of four. If interested, PM me for more details.

********* Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.