The Tri-City Americans’ bus had mechanical issues Wednesday morning, delaying the team’s departure time to Prince George. But no matter how you slice it, it is one long bus trip to northern British Columbia.
“It’s a five movie trip, and that’s just one way,” said Americans coach Jim Hiller. “We were delayed about an hour and a half, but it didn’t affect us much. It’s just a long day. A lot of pavement and trees.”
The team crossed the border at Osoyoos, then traveled through Kelowna and Kamloops on BC 97 before making a stop for dinner in Williams Lake, the hometown of former Americans goalie Carey Price. The team then hopped back on the bus for the last 150 miles of the trip, arriving at their destination at 1 a.m.
The Americans completed the first half of their Central Division swing the first week of November, going all the way to Medicine Hat, Alberta. But on the road, or as the crow flies, the trip to Prince George still is two hours longer.
“We usually make this trip earlier in the year,” said Hiller, who noted there was snow on the ground in Prince George on Thursday morning and very cold. “It’s a long one and we have some guys who haven’t experienced it yet. It’s a tough place to play. The bus trip is one thing. It’s kind of an easy day you just hang out. Then we have to get focus and make sure we are ready to play (today).”
Tri-City makes an annual trip to Prince George for two games, and it gives the players a chance to get to know one another better, and in the case of defenseman Jeff Hubic, to start putting names to faces.
“I’m terrible with names,” said Hubic, who arrived via a trade with Kootenay on Nov. 27. “Bus trips, they give you a chance to really bond with the guys. Especially all the way to Prince George.”
Hubic has played just two games with the Americans — wins over Spokane and Saskatoon.
“It has been a blast, especially the last two games being wins,” Hubic said. “That helps a lot when you go on these long trips. We just have to continue doing that.”
The Americans (16-12-1-2, 35 points) are seventh in the Western Conference standings, but just four points out of fourth place. The Cougars (11-16-1-3, 26 points) are ninth in the West, looking to climb the ladder.
“They are always tough games,” Hiller said. “We are on a roll. We’ve won a couple in a row and we know it’s important to string some wins together, not win a couple, lose one, win a couple more. You want to get on a bit of roll like we were the beginning of November.”
Tri-City, which is on a quest to win 40 games for the eighth consecutive season, needs four wins in its next five games before the Christmas break to reach the halfway point. The Americans hope to parlay their two-game win streak into a few more victories.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to be on a roll,” said defenseman Justin Hamonic. “We’re going to jump on the bus with a couple of wins — it makes it easier to get on the bus and drive 15 hours and it gives us the confidence to go up there and win a couple of more games while we are at it.”
In his third year in the WHL, Hamonic has seen his fair share of miles on the bus.
“We have been playing a lot. A little down time will help us come together as a team,” Hamonic said. “It will be a good time for all of us to get to know Jeff a little better.”
The Americans headed north with a short bench. Defensemen Mitch Topping and Wil Tomchuk are out with upper-body injuries, while forward Parker Bowles is battling a knee injury.
But Tri-City has found an answer to shutting down opponents, using its stingy penalty kill (ranked fourth in the WHL) and the line of Marcus Messier, Phil Tot and Lucas Nickles.
“Both Nicks and Totter are great defensively and they have a lot of offense to them,” said Messier, whose line kept Spokane’s Mitch Holmberg off the score sheet for the just the third time this season last Saturday. “It’s really important to take care of the defensive side. If we can keep their top line in their D-zone, how are they going to score? We’ve been successful because we’ve been able to shut them down.
“Those two (Nickles and Tot) can move. If they (opponents) slip, we have two guys who can fly, and (goalie) Eric (Comrie) has been playing great.”
Though Prince George won the first meeting between the teams Sept. 22 at Toyota Center, the Americans have had the upper hand the last five years with a 11-3-1-2 record against the Cougars, including 6-2-0-0 on the road.
“They are a strong home team (5-6-1-3) and they have some dangerous forwards, too,” Hiller said.