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The Boys of Winter

Inside the blue-collar hockey of the Richmond RiverDogs



“Welcome to hell on Earth.”

This is how John Emmett of the Richmond RiverDogs greets us as we board a bus headed for the frozen north.

It's Feb. 6 ane we've been waiting outside in the cold in a parking lot on West Broad Street. (“If you think this is cold, imagine what upstate New York feels like,” deadpans Scott Elmquist, the photographer assigned to this trip.) Emmett leads us onto the bus after the rest of the team has unpacked and picked their places. We get the two bunks in the back, next to the coaches' cabin.

To our surprise, there are no seats, just tiny casket-like beds situated next to perhaps the toughest-looking man I've ever seen. RiverDogs Coach Rod Langway had his nose broken more than 25 times and recorded more than 1,000 stitches on his way to the National Hockey League Hall of Fame. He's listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. He looks at least 250.

Turns out someone failed to tell Langway a reporter and a photographer were coming with the team on its first road trip in February. Looking up from his laptop -- the cabin holds a TV, refrigerator and couch -- the former Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals defenseman doesn't look happy to see us.

Let's bail. I think we can get out of this, I tell Scott. Let's get off now and tell our editors they didn't have room for us. Otherwise, over the next four days we're going to spend 22 hours trapped in a cage just like those Tyson chicken trucks, next to bigger, stronger chickens who already want to kill us.

Given another five minutes, we'd be heading back to the office. But before we can make our escape, the bus is rolling.

Traveling is a part of every sport, at every level, but it's particularly brutal in minor-league hockey. The distance and the weather are unforgiving. The space is cramped. Unlike the summer bush leagues of baseball — tough in their own painful way — and the geographically based conferences of college basketball and football, hockey scrambles it up. It pairs warmer-climate teams such as the Richmond RiverDogs with the IceHawks of Glens Falls, N.Y., and the Wings of Kalamazoo, Mich.

The bulk of the season is played in the dead of winter, when travel is typically more difficult — a 10-hour trip turns into 12 hours with a good snow, 14 hours with sleet. Players and coaches often have no choice but to sleep on the bus between back-to-back games, with players taking up quarters in smallish bunks or on the floor, where they lie together like sardines, side by side, head to foot.

The RiverDogs are lucky this weekend. The bus for their four-day jaunt to play the Elmira Jackals and Adirondack IceHawks, both in upstate New York, is a charter with about 20 bunks, enough for each of the players and coaches. The bunks are slightly more than 6 feet in length, about 2 ‹¨«-feet wide and 2 feet high. Each has a tiny reading light and a curtain for privacy.

Riding in a bunk for 10 hours is like riding in a drawer. There's no room to sit up. The suspension is worse than that of a car — if you're reading, words bounce with every bump in the road. The aisles are tiny, barely big enough for a single person to navigate, much less a couple dozen men. Eating lunch is done lying down; removing shoes requires bending unbendable body parts. And for newcomers to the road trip, there's one all-important rule: If nature calls, don't answer.

“No shitting on the bus,” explains John Emmett, the team's radio broadcaster and head of media relations, as the RiverDogs climb into their bunks the morning of Feb. 5, a Thursday. The players will spend the next eight hours on this largely windowless bus, and the potty rules are no joke. No. 1 is OK. But the toilet can't handle anything else. An assistant coach once ignored this important maxim, Emmett explains, and soon found himself out of a job.

In their inaugural season in a city where hockey has traditionally struggled, the RiverDogs have quietly moved into first place in the double-A-level United Hockey League. Teams around the league are praising their talent and work ethic, and admiring Richmond's trademark physical play. And Langway, the man many credit with single-handedly rescuing the NHL's Washington Capitals in the 1980s, appears to be working similar magic in Richmond — only this time not as a player, but as head coach of an upstart hockey franchise.

On the bus, Richmond hockey doesn't look so tough. The rowdiness that defines the RiverDogs on ice has morphed into gentle ribbing, pillows and blankets. Brawny Brad Both (pronounced “Booth”), the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder who plays left wing and is known for a punishing opponents with his fists, sports a black eye as he politely squeezes down the aisle.

There's a light, almost jovial mood as the players prepare for takeoff. The team is aglow with an impressive winning streak. The night before, the RiverDogs shut out Elmira at the Richmond Coliseum 3-0, their seventh win in eight games. Even with injuries to four key players, the Dogs keep winning. They lead the league in penalty minutes, something the players, coaches and even the General Manager wear like a badge of honor.

“Hard hitting, aggressive hockey sells tickets,” boasts general manager Jeff Croop. “I'll take hitting over soft hockey any day.”

The parking lot feels like a made-for-TV movie. Minor-league hockey meets “Bull Durham” in upstate New York. “Slap Shot” minus Paul Newman. But as the players hunker down in their bunks, it's anything but. To the players, hockey is a just a regular job. Most flip off their shoes and jackets and fall asleep. Some watch movies on portable DVD players. At least two — including Both — work on crossword puzzles. Coach Langway, sitting in the cabin in the back, complete with TV and a wrap-around couch, sits quietly and works on his laptop.

The hockey season lasts more than seven long, cold months, not including the playoffs. By mid-February teams are banged up. The RiverDogs have five players nursing injuries that keep them at home.

J.J. Wrobel is out with a shoulder injury. Anthony DiPalma is day-to-day, battling Crohn's disease. J.F. Picard is nursing an ankle injury. Darren “Stormy” Wetherill is out with a groin pull. Brad Both can only use three of his fingers in his right hand, swollen like a pineapple from fighting. But the players shrug off the injuries like old pros.

They all have stories to tell. Luch Nasato, a defenseman renowned as a classic hockey instigator, remembers breaking the orbital cavity under his left eye a few years ago. It happened during a fight.

“I was looking for the right and he hit me with the left,” says Nasato, 26, a native of Mississagua, Ontario. The injury, at first, was a little scary. The orbital bone supports the eye socket, so when it broke he could feel his left eye sinking down his face. But Nasato doesn't blame the other guy for landing the blow; no player wants to permanently injure an opponent.

“There's a code on the ice,” Nasato explains. “You don't want to screw a guy up permanently for a stupid game.”

There are the run-of-the mill false teeth. Almost everyone has a couple. There are also bruised bones, swollen knuckles and much more serious injuries. Jay Murphy, a nine-year-veteran who got his start playing professional hockey as a Richmond Renegade in 1994, remembers a check into the boards that led to a concussion. But it was even worse. Initially undetected, fluid from his brain leaked into his spinal cord, and he wound up with spinal meningitis — fatal if undetected.

“I had the Bambi legs,” Murphy recalls of the initial impact. “I played the next day, but then I passed out.”

The bus leaves Richmond at 10 a.m., and by 3, the driver stops at a small strip-shopping center in Hazleton, Penn., for a late lunch. There's a McDonald's, a Taco Bell, a Chinese restaurant, an OTB that serves food and a restaurant with a bar across the street. Some head to the McDonald's, but because the team isn't playing tonight, most scurry across the road for a drink and a steak.

There are giant snowbanks alongside the roads and in the parking lots, which are covered with black ice. At 4 p.m., the guys pile back on the bus. For about a half-hour, the guys are joking and laughing. Nasato, who had Taco Bell, lets his bunkmates know they'll pay for not telling him about the bar across the street.

Mayhem ensues. The bus becomes a cauldron of farts and sweaty socks. The ruckus agitates one of the players, who, from behind a bunk curtain, yelps with an angry Canadian accent: “Who keeps shitting like that?” After about 30 minutes, the commotion dies down, and the air begins to clear. But not for long. It comes in silent waves for the next three hours. Sometimes the gas is minor; occasionally it jolts the senses like a hellish foghorn.

By 7 p.m., the bus pulls into the Holiday Inn in Elmira, and the guys slog off of the bus and head to their rooms. At 7:30, some of the players head to dinner at their favorite spot, the Green Derby. Others order room service. Langway, assistant coach Don Martin and equipment manager Todd MacGowan, call a taxi and wait at the hotel bar, sipping beer. A few of the players meander in moments later.

Kevin St. Jacques — at 32, the second-oldest veteran on the team — prods Coach about his days with the Montreal Canadiens, when they won the Stanley Cup in 1979. Then he inquires about Coach buying the guys beer.

“How about a round for the boys?” asks St. Jacques, half joking. Langway's taxi has just arrived, and as he leaves the bar he tells the players he'll buy two, and be back later to drink them both.

At first glance, Langway looks not unlike a piece of worn leather. His nose is crooked from numerous breaks — it was smashed so much he had a chunk of his sinus cavity surgically removed. His hair is thinning and his mustache is graying. He's had four knee operations, two shoulder operations and once had surgery on his elbow. Years of playing hockey without a helmet left him with several concussions and a face chiseled by hockey sticks, Plexiglas and ice. It's shaped like an upside down horseshoe.

When he stands behind the bench during games, as all hockey coaches do, his back is straight as a board. He looks like an old general who spent too much time in the pits. His war-torn face overpowers his suit, and his is toughness amplified by woolly barks directing players in and out of the game.

He doesn't smile much, and when he does it's a barely visible grin, the kind that forces you to look more closely to make sure he's actually smiling.

“Look at him when he walks,” says MacGowan, the equipment manager. “He's got that ‘Don't f—k with me' walk.”

But Langway is revered by his players. They say he hardly ever yells, and when he does raise his voice, it's still on an even keel, like an old drill sergeant going through the motions. He's actually a nurturing coach who cares for the players like his own sons. Langway describes his decision to release Darren Wetherill, a popular defenseman known affectionately as “Stormy,” off the roster the week after Christmas as the most painful 15 minutes he's experienced in hockey. He loves his players — he hired Stormy back a week later — and Wetherill swears he'd still do anything for Coach: “If he told me to jump through a wall, I'd say ‘When and how?'”

Former Providence (R.I.) Bruins coach Tom McVie hired Langway to be his assistant coach for the Boston Bruins' top farm club during the 1997-98 season. It was Langway's first assistant coaching gig, but McVie immediately saw Langway as a gifted motivator and teacher.

A former head coach with the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils and numerous minor-league teams over the past 25 years, McVie says there are three kinds of coaches: Those who rule with fear, those who instill hunger (“If you're f—king hungry, you'll do anything in the world”), and those who inspire pride.

“Pride, that's where Rod comes in,” McVie says.

Although McVie isn't coaching anymore — partly because of what turned out to be a disastrous season in 1998 — he says Langway would be the first person he'd call if given the chance to coach again.

“This guy had the game of defensive defense figured out better than anyone I ever saw,” Says McVie, now a scout for the Boston Bruins. “But we both got fired. We just had a horrendous year. He finally got a break, got with the Bruins organization. … and we both got the hook.”

Today, Friday, Feb. 6, Langway's in Elmira as head coach of the RiverDogs. During the team's afternoon practice, he suits up and skates with the team, participating in drills and slapping his stick on the ice, just like old times. The two-rink arena in Elmira is one of the nicest in the league. It's bright and clean, and on Friday night, the Jackals-RiverDogs contest is the main attraction in this town of 50,000, of which 3,500 will show up for the game.

The Jackals are a hard-working team. A bit soft, but they play tougher than they look, Langway says. In order to beat the Jackals, the Dogs need to be physical early to slow down their speed, but not too physical. The Dogs are short on defensemen, so Coach tells the players to stay out of trouble. They can't spend all night in the penalty box.

In the locker room before the game, the guys are laughing and joking, talking about each other's girlfriends and the time Coach played with the Richmond Renegades, the team that predated the Dogs, that went out of business for good at the end of last season. Some played alongside Langway when the Renegades won the Riley Cup in 1995, often remembered as the glory days of Richmond hockey. He pulled his groin in one of his first games, laughs Brian Goudie, a 31-year-old defenseman. To demonstrate, he flails backwards, grabbing his leg and smashing his stick on a trash can at the center of the room.

That they laugh so freely at Coach is a product of good chemistry. The players say there isn't anyone on the team who sticks out. They all like each other and get along, something only a few have ever experienced with a team. While country music plays on a boom box in the corner, they argue about how many Big Macs Nasato can eat in one sitting. A big, muscular player with a little extra girth, Nasato swears he can down 10. He devours each one in three bites.

The guys grumble in disbelief. Nasato admits he's eaten slightly less. “I have done six Big Macs,” he says sheepishly. “Probably in about an hour.”

The players call one another by nicknames, slashing their last names in half, often adding a feminine twirl. For example, they refer to Coach as “Langer,” Jeremy Wray as “Razor.” The goalie, Maxime Gringas, is “Maxie.”

Just before they hit the ice, Langer gives a short speech, instructing the guys to slow down the Jackals and stick to their game. His speaks in short bullets.

“Let's play the game and get the puck in,” he directs in his deep, scratchy voice as the players sit silently. “Both, don't drop ‘em, keep your gloves on. Jump in and cut them off and let's f—king win!”

Shortly after 7 p.m., the game is underway. It starts slowly. In the first period, the Jackals get the better of the Dogs, at least in the shots-on-goal ratio. But there's no score. In the second period, both teams score two goals apiece. By the end of the game, Jackals have outshot the RiverDogs 42-21. There are no fights, just a few shoving matches and a couple of minor penalties.

As regulation expires, the teams are still tied, which means a shootout. The five best shooters on the team get a one-on-one opportunity to score against the other team's goalie. With Gringas — easily one of the top two or three goalies in the league — it's an advantage for the Dogs. They win the shootout 2-1, with David Brosseau and Jay Murphy putting the biscuit in the basket. The Dogs win.

The fans leave disappointed, but there's a respect for Richmond. Some ask for Langway's autograph; crowds of children stand at the gates gawking at players.

“They always play us tough,” says Randy Gordon, a 42-year Jackals fan who lives in nearby Millport, N.Y., a half-hour drive from the rink. He's held season tickets for two years and says the Dogs are well-respected for their work ethic and physical play.

And then there's Langway.

“You've got an all-star on the bench,” Gordon says. “That pulls people in.”

What do the other players think? Not so much. After the game, one Jackal complains that the RiverDogs play dirty. The game was theirs to lose, as evidenced by the number of shots they took.

The team's coach, Todd Brost, sees it differently. He's never met Langway, but he admires what he's done with the team in his first year. “They are by definition a hard-working team that plays a lot like their coach,” he says. “They have a good work ethic and they play real physical.”

As the fans and players exit the arena, there are hordes of teenagers milling about in the lobby as Jay-Z pumps through a loudspeaker. In the other, adjacent skating rink in the same building, it's Rock N' Skate night, as it is most Friday nights; by the door, two teenagers are kissing, pressing their bodies together against a community bulletin board. The players walk to the Derby a few blocks away for a late dinner. They limit themselves to three beers apiece, then head back to the hotel.

Tomorrow, the team is leaving in the morning for Glens Falls for a Saturday night game against the Adirondack IceHawks. It's a four-hour bus ride.

It's 11 a.m. and most of the players are reading about last night's game in the paper. St. Jacques and Murphy call home to check in with wives and children. The team heads back to the arena to load up their gear and chat with security. The night before, three of the players had meal allowances stolen from their lockers.

The players receive $25 a day for food, a small supplement to their salaries, which range anywhere from the low 20s to about $30,000 a year. But that money is critical on these trips. Jeremy Wray lost $35, Eric Perricone $80 and Derek Schutz $40. A police officer meets the team at a restaurant in Elmira and files a report.

Four hours later, the team pulls into Glens Falls. It's after 5 p.m. The arena here, once home to the top farm team of the Detroit Red Wings, was built in the 1980s but looks and feels older. It's freezing inside, something the fans hate but the players love. The colder the arena, the better the ice.

Hockey in Glens Falls is serious business. Tonight, 4,300 fans pack the arena to see the IceHawks. The team recently came under new ownership, giving this game an interesting twist. The same group that owns the RiverDogs now owns the IceHawks.

Down in the basement, in the hall near the locker rooms, Dr. Eric Margenau, one of the key owners, limps around on crutches greeting the players. (He recently had both knees replaced.) General Manager Croop is here as well; he's helping rebuild the IceHawks after the team was purchased by his bosses.

In the dim concrete hall near the locker rooms, Margenau says he's been extremely pleased with the RiverDogs, and coach Langway, especially considering this is the first season. The team is playing well.

He remembers interviewing Langway for the job last summer in Richmond. He was immediately impressed with his knowledge of the game. Hiring Rod was risky considering his lack of experience, but it's working.

“There are some things he had to learn,” Margenau says. “He had to learn about the technical aspects of coaching. Line changes, personnel changes.”

At some point, Langway would like to move on to coach in the NHL. But there are no guarantees. He has a one-year contract with the RiverDogs, and Langway says he hasn't discussed his future with Croop or Margenau.

Croop says he hopes Langway gets a job at the next level. Some suspect Langway would be happiest as an assistant coach, teaching defense. He used to say he didn't want to be a head coach. He didn't like the mind games.

“You see some of the coaches, they are yellers and screamers. They've never been in the trenches,” Langway says. “I've learned that keeping my mouth shut is better.”

In the coaches' locker room, Langway and Croop go over roster changes. Croop advises Coach about the new IceHawks. Their personalities complement one another. Croop is an intense, fire-and-brimstone kind of guy. In one of the first home games of the season, he got into a shoving match with a player from Muskegon. Another incident led to pizza getting smeared on his car after a game against the IceHawks.

That would never happen with Langway.

“You know what you're getting with Rod,” says Croop. “He doesn't always tell you want you want to hear.” Croop, not one to downplay his hockey knowledge, says he feels bad when he's right and Langway is wrong.

But, to date, the arrangement has worked. Croop has been the expert recruiter with his knowledge of the league and its players. Langway, not as familiar with the UHL, has been the quintessential players' coach.

Tonight, with Langway's bosses watching, the RiverDogs come out scrapping, whipping the IceHawks with a dazzling first period. They are quick, tough, and they move the puck uncharacteristically well. The Dogs jump to a 3-1 lead in the first period, setting the tone for the rest of the game.

During the break, Langway can't put his finger on why the team is playing so well, but he's clearly pleased. Adjustments for the next period? None.

“Whatever the f—k you're doing, keep doing it,” he barks, then walks back to the coaches' room. He's smiling like a proud father. This is what it's about. The fans have been screaming obscenities at him and the players, which he happily soaks up. Through a promotion with local schools, students got $2 off on tickets tonight, and kids are everywhere.

“This is the best crowd we've seen here,” Langway says.

t's 10 o'clock on Saturday night, and the players are loading their gear onto the bus after beating Adirondack 3-1. A group of fans and family members stand in the lobby, where the players exit to get on the bus. Jeff Croop is riding back to Richmond with the team, a 10-hour trip. They stop by a convenience store on the way out. The bus is filled with beer and friendly chatter. Seven or eight players squeeze into the coaches' cabin to watch movies and drink with Coach. Tonight they've earned the privilege. They're watching “The Bourne Identity,” starring Matt Damon. The guys sit quietly. They have a satisfied look about them.

A few players crouch in the aisle of the bus, sipping beer and yapping about girlfriends and the trip back home. Derek Schutz, a 6-foot-3 right wing who was drafted 60th overall by the Calgary Flames in 1997, waxes poetic about hockey life, which is nothing like what some people think. The boozing and womanizing, the big dumb goons — these are stereotypes concocted by Hollywood, he says.

“It's not a game, it's a business for us,” says Schutz, 24. “It is a nice lifestyle, it is a good job. But [some fans] don't understand. Physically, it takes a lot out of you.”

The guys love this life. Most UHL players will never get the chance to play in the big leagues like their coach. And while they recognize this reality, deep down they want to skate out onto NHL ice, hear their names announced at the MCI Center, Madison Square Garden, Maple Leaf Gardens. At the least, they want to keep playing until they physically cannot.

What about life after hockey? Many haven't a clue. Some, such as Both and St. Jacques, plan to become firefighters. Nasato says he'll to go back home to work in his father's business. Schutz doesn't know what he'll do.

Even those who have stable lives outside of hockey can't give it up. David Brosseau was working as a personal trainer at American Family Fitness Centers when Croop contacted him about joining the team in December. He jumped.

“Once you experience the real world, you realize how good this is,” he says.

How many have a shot at the big leagues? Langway gives it straight. When asked, he doesn't say a word but gestures, forming a “zero” with his hand.

In some ways, he's in the same predicament. He, too, probably doesn't have a shot at coaching in the NHL, says McVie, no matter how many championships he wins in Richmond. To be a coach in the NHL, you have to know somebody.

“I don't think [winning games] means dick. It's all bullshit,” McVie says. “You have to have someone who likes you, believes in you and brings you along.”

Don Martin has to nudge Langway, who's covered in a blanket in the back, to wake up. It's 7:30 a.m. on Sunday. They're back in sunny Richmond.

Groggily, the players unpack their gear at the Coliseum and head home for a few hours of rest. They have one final installment to the three-game stretch. They play the Port Huron Beacons at the Coliseum at 5.

Back home, the crowd is nothing like the road. There are a little more than 2,000 people in the arena, and the fans are subdued. Only a couple of children roam the stands. And some of those kids belong to players and coaches.

The Dogs jump to a 2-0 lead in the first, and it almost becomes a rout in the second as Richmond adds three more goals. The guys are tired, they're testing a new, rookie goaltender, Ryan Aschaber. Early in the second, Schutz catches a puck in the mouth, knocking several lower teeth loose. Schutz heads to the locker room with a mouth full of blood, but minutes later he's back. In a late surge, the Beacons catch the Dogs off guard and score two in the second period. It's now 5-2.

Coach issues a warning.

“We're starting to play individual hockey,” he tells the tired players. The game is played in three 20-minute periods, and the RiverDogs have just one left. One more and they go home. “Just 20 minutes, boys, before a nice little vacation. It's been a hell of a two weeks. Twenty minutes — that's all we need!”

Soon, the game is in hand. As the final minute winds down, the Dogs are comfortably ahead at 5-3. The announcer is reminding the fans, the few of them that are here, that if the Dogs score a sixth goal it's free wings at Hooters for everybody.

The tension is building, and with 45.4 seconds remaining, it happens. Eric Perricone gets an open shot and rips it down the ice. It goes in! The crowd erupts. Fans stand up and cheer, in a rare burst for in the dungeonlike arena. Steamers are thrown onto the ice. The players head to the lockers as fans hang over rails.

It's over. Someone rolls an ice bucket filled with beer into the locker room.

There is no after-game speech. As the players are drinking and showering, Schutz walks out of the trainer's room after being examined by the dentist. He's in pain, but says he's OK. This is hockey, after all. A few teeth are no big deal.

“The puck came so fast, you have no time to react,” he says, casually explaining that his lower front teeth are all loose, he can move them about a half inch either way. “I have a feeling they'll have to come out. They feel crushed underneath.” The other players are going out for dinner. Schutz figures he'll have a milkshake.

Langway grabs a beer, a 24-ounce Bud Light, and heads into his office across the hall from the boys' locker room. He's got the next road trip to think about. They'll have their next practice on Wednesday and then leave Friday morning for a two-game stretch that starts with the Wings of Kalamazoo, Mich., on Feb. 14.

Tonight, however, the victory had nothing to do with X's and O's, line changes and defensive strategies.

“Sometimes, it's about surviving,” Coach says. S

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