If the Prince George Spruce Kings ever want change their name, they might want to choose Greyhounds.
That would be fitting, considering how much time they spend riding the bus.
Geographically speaking, the Spruce Kings' closest competition in the B.C. Hockey League is in Merritt, a mere 553 kilometres away from Prince George. On winter roads, that's a seven-hour trip.
But they only play one regular season game in Merritt. That's because the Centennials are in the Interior Division, while the Spruce Kings are part of the Mainland Division, grouped with Chilliwack, Coquitlam, Surrey and Langley. All of their division rivals are at least seven-and-a-half hours away, with Chilliwack being the closest trip at 688 km.
According to communications director/broadcaster Ron Gallo, the Spruce Kings were on the road for about 50,000 kilometres last season. The league average per team, excluding Prince George, Trail and Powell River, is about 8,000 km.
"It's difficult but we have to manage it," said head coach Dave Dupas. "These guys have to learn how to sleep and how to get their rest on the bus. We have to make sure they're home early most nights so they catch up on their sleep."
The other factor that weighs against the Spruce Kings on the road is they are usually playing well-rested teams. All their Mainland rivals are within an hour's drive of each other. The longest trip for Interior Division teams within their division is Penticton to Salmon Arm, 2 1/2 hours away.
"These teams in Vancouver and the Okanagan where the kids live at home, they can drive to the rinks, they don't have to take a bus," said Dupas. "Those guys don't have this problem that we have, and it gets more difficult as the season wears on."
Dupas stresses the positives of the long bus rides to his players.
"Other teams don't have to go through that adversity but it builds character and mental toughness," he said. "They're like brothers by the end of the season, they're so close, it really is like a family, and they battle for each other."
The new Spruce Kings bus has 11 sleeping compartments for a team of 20 players. That means the rookies better get used to curling up for a snooze in the seats.
With 58 games to play, 30 games in 2003-14 are on the road, starting with next weekend's BCHL Showcase in Chilliwack, where the Kings will play Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo. The Spruce Kings will make two ferry crossings in January, starting the new year with a weekend trip to Powell River, Port Alberni and Chilliwack, Jan. 3-5, then another visit to Vancouver Island for games in Victoria (Jan. 17) Duncan (Jan. 18) and Nanaimo (Jan 20). They make make just one trip this season to their furthest opponent in Trail (987 kilometres from P.G.) on Nov. 8.
The three-game weekends are killers but they minimize the number of times the Kings have to leave home. Six of their 12 road trips are three-gamers this season.
February is the shortest month of the year and thankfully for the Spruce Kings, it's an easy one on their travel schedule with 11 of 14 games at the Coliseum.
Dupas did change the team's practice schedule from 8 a.m. starts to noon. The players attending school will have to switch their spare periods to the third block of the day rather than the first one.
"It gives those guys the opportunity to sleep in," said Dupas. "When we're travelling as much as we do and when you have to get up at 6:45 every morning to be on the ice by 8 o'clock you don't get caught up sleep. By Christmas time you can see it. The guys are worn out and in practice there's just nothing there."
That extra time on the bus is especially hazardous during flu season. When one player gets sick, it spreads to the rest of the team in quick order. Last season in November, the Kings were down to one goalie, four defencemen and eight forwards for a game in West Kelowna.
"It happens at least once a year where our whole team will get the flu," said Dupas.
The Spruce Kings will be in Merritt this Saturday to wrap up their brief preseason. The Kings lost their first exhibition game 5-2 at home to the Cents on Sunday and were defeated 3-1 by Vernon Wednesday at 100 Mile House.
The two overnight trips haven't left a lot of time for practice. The Kings were on the ice Thursday afternoon for only their third practice since training camp ended last weekend and they'll have one more Friday before they leave for Merritt. The Coliseum is closed Sunday and Monday and that leaves three days to practice before the season begins in Chilliwack.