ON I-75 NORTHWARD — Here I am, on the road again. Here I am, riding a bus…(with apologies to Bob Seger)
You know you’ve been doing something a while when you notice how different things are now than they were the first time.
For the 13th year, I’m on the bus heading north with the Brighton hockey team to the Copper Country.
When the team started these trips 15 years ago, assistant coach Kurt Kivisto was a junior on the Bulldogs and the youngest players on the bus today were toddlers.
Wi-fi was a ways into the future, and so was cell service for most of the Upper Peninsula.
When we got a couple of miles west of St. Ignace, you heard sounds of cellphones notifying owners they were out of service and would be until we got to Marquette. After a few crazed minutes touching base, once west of Marquette the phones went dead again,.
The bus had a VCR, as DVDs were too new (and expensive) to install on a bus.
We stopped at either McDonald’s or Burger King in St. Ignace on the way there and back.
Why, shoot, I’d only fallen flat on my back once or twice in my entire life.
All that is long in the past.
It’s been a changing cast of characters, except for Paul Moggach, who has made every one of these trips.
But the reason remains: An opportunity to improve, and bond, as a team.
The trip comes at the midpoint of the season, when 18 kids out of a student body of well over 2,000 spend time together for the first time.
There are team building things, of course, and the games, but for the next four days they are a hockey team, taking a road trip with guys who, in a lot of cases, they barely know.
We stay at a Holiday Inn on the west side of Houghton, a mile from downtown and, except for practice or skates, spend the rest of the time there.
“It’s a hockey environment,” Moggach told me years ago. “It’s all hockey, all of the time.”
The coaches, parents and reporter sit in the front, the players in the back.
The trip is planned to the last minute and, despite a revolving cast of parents who organized the meals, runs smoothly.
The players bond, and so do the parents.
More parents will make the 540-mile drive and stay at the hotel as well.
I’m asked every now and then why I still go, and I think the best explanation is every year is different.
I remember 10 years ago (already?) taking a picture after we had stopped by Lake Superior east of Marquette. Zach Hitch had challenged a teammate to sprint the last 100 yards back to the bus shirtless.
Mind you, the temperatures were in the low 2os, and the wind off the lake was as bitter as it could get.
In the photo, the teammate was in agony, the wind and a little sleet off the lake pelting his body.
By his side, in the same conditions, was Hitch, smiling and laughing like it was the middle of summer.
The next year, same place, it was 42 degrees and no snow.
That was the year that Mark Kivisto cleared a puck at Calumet. The puck was airborne and coming straight at me. I ducked, figuring I would be hit in the shoulder if I was lucky. I heard a loud slam, looked up and the puck was on the ice.
It had hit an old laptop and ricocheted back on the ice. The computer was none the worse for wear.
As for the falls, one was on the ice at McDonald’s. If I had been looking up, I would have caught the full drink that landed next to me.
The others were while curling a couple of years ago. Spectacular, if I must say so, but no injury. Last month, while talking to former Brighton assistant Rick Bourbonais about my Chicago clumsiness and the broken rib it created, he looked in amazement. “You got through curling, and then this?” he said, astounded.
It’s a school activity, and there have been times where players had to be disciplined. One player had to sit out one game for some infraction, then woke up the next morning to see a couple of his teammates out and performing an activity.
The player thought he had overslept, and was relieved to find the teammates were paying a penance. “I thought for a second I wasn’t going to play all weekend,” he said.
It’s about playing, after all, and taking advantage of an opportunity most players don’t get.
The Brighton hockey trip wasn’t the first; under Pam Lee-Campbell, the Bulldogs softball team went to Florida for decades.
Most athletes around Livingston County know each other and have friends at other schools.
Word of the bonding and the benefits of being together as a team got out, and other teams in other sports have bought in, in the spirit of borrowing what is perceived to be a good idea and adapting it to their purposes.
In years past, the trip was a working vacation. I usually worked a lot during the holidays, as others took vacation, and it was a chance to relax, be a beat reporter for a couple of days, and gaze at the beauty that is northern Michigan in the winter.
And there were the stories. It’s always the same, but very different each and every year. We’ve gone through all kinds of bad weather, and there was a year we were driving by a golf course with duffers out there getting in rare January rounds.
It was a revelation to me: I didn’t even know it was a golf course.
And so we go. We’re in the woods now, long past West Branch, on our way to Gaylord for our first stop of the day. We’ll stop again at Naubinway for lunch and Marquette for a quick bathroom stop before finishing our journey long after dark.
Another weekend of memories, coming our way.