Jeff Daniels knows the feeling. He still has it once in a while, when he’s riding a bus that veers onto the rumble strips. He knows how the Carolina Mudcats felt when they were jarred awake as their bus tipped onto its side, how they’ll feel the next time they have to get on a bus.
Daniels was the head coach of the Albany (N.Y.) River Rats of the American Hockey League in February 2009 when their bus slid off a snowy mountain highway, flipped onto a guard rail that tore through the side of the bus and ended up on its side in the median in the middle of the night. Four players and a broadcaster were seriously injured.
“Even to this day, even trying to sleep on the bus is tough for me to do,” said Daniels, recently dismissed by the Carolina Hurricanes as coach of the AHL Charlotte Checkers. “I have that reaction as soon as I hear the rumble strips – I grab the armrest right away. It’s something that doesn’t leave you. But if you want to work and play in the minors, there’s a lot of bus travel and a lot of late-night bus trips. It’s something you have to battle through.”
In terms of injuries and damage, what happened to the River Rats was worse than what happened to the Mudcats, who had seven players treated and released after their bus crashed early Tuesday morning in Columbus County while traveling from Salem, Va., to Myrtle Beach. But the circumstances were otherwise all too familiar – and jarring.
“Especially seeing the bus the Mudcats were on flipped on its side,” said Brian Maddox, the trainer for the River Rats in 2009 and the Checkers now. “Our bus in Albany, the pictures were similar. It happening at 3 a.m. and knowing everyone was asleep, that was eerily similar.”
Tuesday’s game was postponed to rest battered bodies and shaken minds, but the Mudcats are scheduled to return from Myrtle Beach after playing there Wednesday and Thursday, so they’ll be right back on the bus. It won’t be easy.
Hurricanes forward Patrick Dwyer was aboard the River Rats’ bus when it crashed in that Massachusetts winter storm. He was once a serene flier, the kind who could snooze through the roughest turbulence, but the bus crash robbed him of that luxury.
“Now, I get on an airplane, and at takeoff I’m holding the back of the seat, sweating,” Dwyer said. “These kids are going to have an adjustment to get used to that. Some of these kids are going to have problems whenever you’re traveling in a situation where you’re not in control.”
The River Rats’ first long road trip after the crash was a tough one, a winding road from Albany, N.Y., to Bridgeport, Conn., in winter weather – which may not have been the worst thing for those who went through it.
“To be on a bus pitching from side to side probably wasn’t the best thing, but it was probably a bit therapeutic to get through a nervy first ride like that,” said Owen Newkirk, the team’s play-by-play broadcaster and media-relations director that season.
Teams at many levels – from high schools to colleges to the minor leagues – rely on buses to safely get them from place to place, and when that expectation of safety is shattered, road trips are never the same.
When something like this happens, it’s shocking to everyone, and yet given the number of miles sports teams accumulate in buses, often in the middle of the night and in bad weather, it may actually be more surprising it doesn’t happen more often.
What sticks with both Newkirk and Maddox is the realization it could have been so much worse. After the crash, the bus came to rest in one of the opposite travel lanes. The first few trucks to pass went zooming by in the night, narrowly missing the wrecked bus as its wounded passengers staggered into the snow.
The Mudcats will know that feeling: the knowledge it could have been worse, the feeling of being thankful it wasn’t.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947