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Skating To Keep The Dream Alive

Jim Levulis

Hockey: It’s a sport enjoyed by kids a few years removed from taking their first steps and by those still agile and sturdy enough lace up. Hockey is played across the world and around the clock, as young and old scramble for ice time at their local rink. And like most sports, nothing’s guaranteed, but still, there’s no shortage of dreams.“We’re all here for the love it,” said Berkshire Battalion forward Tom Tracy said. “We’re not making enough to not love the game.”

Love – it’s not the first word that comes to mind when watching the rough and tumble game that is minor league hockey.

“It’s bang-em, clang-em, fights,” said play-by-play announcer Chris Erickson.

But for Chris Erickson and Tracy, love is what keeps them coming to rink – wherever that sheet of ice may be, in fading arenas in minor league towns.

“The long bus rides are bad,” Tracy said. “Seventeen hours is the longest we do and at the end of the day you know you’re sitting in the bus for 17 hours so you get used to it. Then you get to go play hockey at the end of it. It could be way worse.”

“It’s pretty grinding on the body and on the mind,” Sanders said. “It’s a pretty long season. The hardest parts are the road trips where you got four games in four days and you’re covering about three states.

For Tracy and defenseman Jeff Sanders, life on the move has become an accepted reality as members of the Berkshire Battalion.

“You got guys from Ukraine on our team, Russia, Serbia, Czechoslovakia and Slovakia so we cover pretty much all of the world, but we feel like we’ve known each other our whole lives so it’s pretty unique,” said Sanders.

Sanders, a California native, was in Germany before he found himself in North Adams, Massachusetts this fall trying out for the newest five-club Federal Hockey League team.

“It’s pretty much the starting level of pro/semi-pro hockey,” Sanders said. “A lot of us are looking to move up in the different leagues to progress our careers. It’s a good place to start and get looked at so that maybe next year you can get a tryout in the Southern Professional or East Coast Hockey League. Some of us have just graduated college. Some have played pro in other leagues. This is kind of the central point to start so that you can better your career in the future.”

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
The Berkshire Battalion warmup before the Sunday afternoon game.

The league spans from Danville, Illinois to Danbury, Connecticut and up to Watertown, NY. Having just beaten the Wolves of Watertown in North Adams Saturday night, the Battalion loaded up the team bus with gear still wet with sweat from the night before, destined to close out its inaugural season with a Sunday afternoon game in the upstate New York city.

The first stop of the morning includes pumping $200 of gas and then the four-hour trek in the rattling bus with duct tape keeping overhead compartments closed includes another stop for lunch – Chipotle.

From there it’s a straight shot to the Watertown Ice Arena with most of the players trying to sleep in the cramped seats while others talk to friends and family on the phone, listing the latest itinerary. Arriving about one hour before they hit the ice currently occupied by kids no older than 10 years old, the players stake out a stall or at least a folding chair in the crowded visitors’ locker room where dance music drowns out the dripping showerheads.

Once laced up, the team heads out for a pre-game skate and shoot, loosening up their legs from the bus ride while the goalies take shots in net between stretching sessions. After the players head back into the locker room, the Zamboni comes by to shine up the ice before faceoff. Coaching this game is Vadim “Goose” Guskov, a forward who was injured earlier in the year.

“I had a pretty good year, but I finished my regular season with two games against Watertown, zero points, minus 2 and a broken finger,” Guskov said. “I don’t feel any satisfaction. I want to be on the ice with you.”

He tries to energize the team by recalling the play of shifty goal-scoring forward Martin Uhnak the night before when they beat the first-place Wolves. It wasn't his first league goal, but it was a goal he paid the price for.

“Digging it with a shovel in front of the net receiving punches to the face and putting it home,” said Guskov to a chorus of laughter.

“His first North American goal,” joked a teammate.

Also behind the bench is Mike “Curtsy” McCurtain, a 6-foot-4 defenseman who was injured earlier in the season.

“That feeling of being in the locker room with these boys, strapping on the pads and going to battle, it goes away as you get older,” McCurtain said. “A lot of you boys, I hear talk, going to camps. You’re focused on tomorrow. Great, camps, what you’re doing for the summer, how you’re going to train. My message to you boys, there’s plenty of time for tomorrow. This is about your name, who you are and your brother’s name sitting next to you in this locker room.”

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

One by one the players make the walk from the locker room by the rink’s lobby and concession stand to step onto the ice. After the Canadian and American national anthems, its puck drop.

Down 1-0 after period one, the Battalion locker room is practically inaudible during the first intermission.

Showing a little bit more life than the first period, the Battalion put a goal on the board in the second followed by two more in the third, a period where after playing each other for four straight games frustration comes out via hits and fists between the two teams.

In the end, Watertown put six pucks past Berkshire goalie Louie George, noted by public address announcer Brian Hunziker and play-by-play man Chris Erickson.

“He’s playing the last game of a long season,” Erickson said. “It might be time for him to get a cup of coffee and head for home. Send in the relief pitcher.”

After the game, a few of the players fortunate enough to have friends or family in the area meet them in the lobby or catch up with opposing players who may have been teammates sometime in the past. The others like Dmitry Antipin of Russia just load up their gear and get back on the bus.

“It’s not easy,” Antipin said. “But I’ve been away for quite a bit. This is my sixth year in the United States. I played of juniors on Cape Cod then I went to college at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. I’ve been away for quite a bit. I’m kind of used to it, I guess. I still go home at least once a year for a few weeks. So it’s not easy, but it is what it is.”

Grabbing snacks at a Nice N Easy gas station after the game seems like small peanuts for Martin Uhnak. The 5-foot-8 forward was captain of Slovakia’s national U-20 team.

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

“I was talking with my agent and he told that option is to go to North Adams, to Berkshire Battalion and I was like…‘OK, I want to try it,’” said Uhnak.

Uhnak barely spoke English five months ago, but after living in close quarters with his 16 teammates he’s getting the hang of it. He says English was something he thought could help him in life as he finishes his degree in sports and recreation. As the bus rattles back to North Adams with the season over, the future is uncertain for many of the players. So why go through it all…moving across the country or even the globe to sit through long bus trips, living with 16 other guys you’ve never met in a total of nine apartments all while getting paid about $200 a week? For Tom Tracy, the scrappy forward from outside of Boston who played for Framingham State, the real question was, why not?

“I said I’d give one year to see what I can do, see if I can make it, see if I can keep playing hockey,” Tracy said. “I almost took it as a year like backpacking. I knew I wasn’t going to be making much money. I knew it wasn’t a career move. I could spend eight months and see if I could make it as a professional and so far it’s working out. Hopefully I get another year out it.”

Maybe it is the shot at another level like theEast Coast or Southern Professional Hockey League. Or as Antipin explains, maybe it’s that whole love thing and the desire to not let it slip away just yet.

“I might not have a shot of making it to the NHL anymore, but I just wanted to give it a shot, see what I can do,” Antipin said. “I just graduated. I wanted to give it a year or two maybe try to play hockey and see how it goes before I just legit settle for life. Once you settle there’s no way of coming back. I knew if I just gave up right away I’ll miss the game. I’ll be missing playing hockey. I love the game and I’ve been doing it my entire life so it’s hard to give up, hard to stop. So I guess I was just trying to keep the dream alive.

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
The Battalion's home locker room in North Adams, nearly empty as the team wraps up the season.

Sixteen hours and 440 miles since leaving, the bus pulls to the back of the rink in North Adams around 2 in the morning. The players grab their bags, sticks and car keys and take off just like any other day. Without fanfare, the bus drives off destined for Syracuse, where it will take a junior team to a tournament in Boston.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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