You’ve just spent three hours battling the Wichita Thunder, leaving more than your share of blood and sweat on the ice at the Independence Events Center.

You’ve just spent three hours battling the Wichita Thunder, leaving more than your share of blood and sweat on the ice at the Independence Events Center.

Your ankles are swollen, your knuckles are bleeding and your head is throbbing like a Megadeath concert is rattling inside your skull.

All you want to do is have a cold beverage, savor a great 2-1 victory, sit in a sauna and relax.

Yeah, right.

Welcome to the Central Hockey League.

“Come on boys,” shouts Missouri Mavericks equipment manager, confidante, father figure and all-around-good-guy Andrew Dvorak, as he packs the team’s equipment bags on a cart.

“Ready to go? Come on, let’s hit the road.”

With more than a few snarls and grumblings, the players exit the Events Center, walk through a pouring rain and help load the equipment in a storage area under the bus.

When you play minor league hockey, the rewards and few and far between.

There are no limos, charter flights or luxury accommodations.

Sure, there is the exhilaration that comes from playing in front of an appreciative packed house, but moments after the final seconds tick off the clock, it’s on the bus for a nice little 9-hour bus ride to Southaven, Miss., for the first road trip of the year.

“We’re used to it,” said Mavericks coach Scott Hillman, who made those bus trips for eight years while playing at Odessa. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. Really, the guys are used to it. It’s part of the job.

“If you don’t like the bus trips, well – you better find another profession.”

The bus that will take the Mavericks to Mississippi features 18 bunks.

Hillman sits in the front seat, with an adjacent bunk across the aisle. He has the upper, Dvorak has the lower.

Both grab a couple of hours sleep, but most of the trip is spent watching a replay of the 2-1 victory over Wichita – over, and over, and over again on the flat screen television that sits near the door opposite the driver.

Even though the Mavs pulled out a win, Hillman takes copious notes on the game as the subdued players watch movies on their lap tops, listen to music on their i-pods or grab some shut eye.

In less than 24 hours, they will be facing former Mavericks assistant coach and all-star forward Jeff Christian and his new Mississippi RiverKing teammates.

“They haven’t won a game,” team captain Carlyle Lewis said, as he shuffled through a large cardboard box filled with a variety of snacks left by the team’s fan club, “you don’t want to be the first team they beat. We have to do everything possible to keep that from happening.”

As I settle into my seat, which is directly behind Hillman’s multi-media center, I grab my notebook and post-game notes.

I turn on the overhead lamp, grab my lap top and begin to write my game story. Suddenly, a wave of nausea catches me by complete surprise.

When I was a kid, and my family would drive to Clinton, Mo., to see my grandparents at Christmas, I was always the first kid to get car sick.

I couldn’t read in a car, or I got sick. I couldn’t sit in the back seat of the family truckster, or I got sick.

I forgot about those days until this night, when I realized that the rumbling in my stomach and the pounding in my head was caused by reading on the bus.

Here I was, sitting with a group of warriors who had just spent three hours of organized mayhem on the ice, and I said to myself that the last thing on earth I was going to do was complain about being bus sick.

I managed to write my story, but for some reason the wifi on the bus wasn’t cooperating as I tried to send it to Examiner assistant sports editor Charlie Slenker.

Dvorak, who is the Mavericks answer to McGyver, somehow managed to get the internet connection to fire up and I breathed a big sigh of relief when I received confirmation that the story had finally arrived at the office.

I then grabbed my pillow, fluffed it to the proper comfort level, wrapped myself inside my blanket and tried to get some sleep.

As I heard players turn their seating areas into bunks and listened to the familiar sound of lap tops powering down, I looked out the window and did my best to try and fall asleep.

I pictured guys with gashes under their black eyes, aching backs and leg injuries that would put mere mortals in the hospital soldiering through the trip – and I was going to do the same.

As night turned to sunrise, I realized that I never did fall asleep. Suddenly, Dvorak’s computer alarm was going off and Hillman was sitting on his bunk, getting ready for today’s new challenge.

After a long, and sleepless night, I looked at the large sign that simply said, Welcome to Southaven, Miss.

Hillman walked through the aisle of the bus like a father waking his sons up on the first day of school.

“Come on boys,” he prompted. “Hotel is coming up. Come on, boys.”

There were surprisingly negative comments as the bus wheeled into the parking lot of the Key West Inn & Suites at 7:05 a.m.

It wasn’t the Ritz, but it wasn’t bad.

The players exited the bus and headed to the hotel for a few hours of sleep.

Hillman, Dvorak, team trainer Wes Fillingame, announcer Bob Rennison and I then rode to the DeSoto Civic Center to unload the equipment.

It’s a job that could take Dvorak a couple of hours to complete. With the help of this able crew, it look less than half the time.

We strapped a bag over each shoulder, as an accommodating guard allowed us in the dressing room area of a building that is similar to the Sprint Center, although not quite as large and certainly not as new.

When we got in the locker room, I noticed Dvorak and Fillingame placed rubber gloves over their hands.

I couldn’t imagine why, until I opened my first bag.

The smell was something out of a graveyard scene in a horror film.

Nothing on earth smells like wet hockey gear. Especially wet hockey gear that has spent 9 hours in the belly of a bus.

Just when I thought my nausea couldn’t get much worse, it skyrocketed.

I know Dvorak was watching when I opened that bag, and I’m sure he got the reaction he was hoping for. If I’d have barfed all over Ray DiLauro’s equipment I would have hitch hiked home.

But I managed to swallow my pride, and that little spurt of vomit in the back of my mouth, and began to hang the gear in the new defenseman’s locker.

After we finished getting the equipment in place, in what Dvorak called “record time,” everyone headed back to the hotel. Well, everyone but Dvorak, who stayed at the arena to make sure everything would be perfect for that night’s game.

Dvorak is a machine. He was surviving on a cup of coffee, a couple of hour’s sleep and the desire to create the perfect environment for his players in a foreign setting.

As we rode back to the hotel, Hillman asked if I would like to walk over the Civic Center to watch a 10 a.m. RiverKings practice session.

 We met in the lobby and made the mile or so walk to the arena. As we got closer, we spied a man and young girl, walking towards us.

It was Dvorak and 8-year-old Ryan Christian, Jeff Christian’s daughter. She is battling cancer and the Christian family lives just 20 minutes for St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. When Christian played for the Mavericks, Dvorak was a favorite of Ryan’s. She could hardly wait to see Dvorak and the minute she arrived at the arena with her dad, they were off for breakfast at McDonald’s.

After watching a half hour of the RiverKings vanilla practice, Hillman excused himself and we headed back to the hotel.

As the coach and players caught an afternoon nap, I walked around Southaven, grabbed a couple of bean burritos at Taco Bell and headed back to the hotel.

Before long, it was time to head over to the arena and I grabbed a ride on the bus.

After they changed into their gear, many of the players from last year’s team met Christian outside of the locker room area. They exchanged pleasantries, asked about Ryan and went their separate ways.

It was soon game time, and things looked good for one period as the Mavericks took a quick 3-0 lead in front of a sparse and lifeless crowd.

But soon, the RiverKings offense came to life – and so did their fans.

Mississippi scored three goals in the final period – including R.G. Flath’s game winner against rookie Zane Kalemba (who was later waived by the team) with just over three minutes left in the final period – and claimed a 5-4 come-from-behind win.


I wasn’t going near the locker room after that loss, and it soon appeared that the players felt the same way.

In what seemed like seconds following the heartbreaker, the Mavericks filed out of the arena and onto the bus.

Most were on cell phones and each player grabbed a bag of cold food from O’Charley’s that featured their jersey number.

The bus ride back home started in silence, but soon the players got involved in the television show “Deal or No Deal.”

A female contestant was down to one suitcase, and she was going to win one million dollars or five dollars.

I hate shows like this, but I have to admit, her final decision had everyone’s attention.

The shadowy banker made a call to host Howie Mandel and offered the woman nearly a half million dollars to end the game, but she refused.

You could have heard a pin drop on the bus when the final suit case was opened, revealing that she had won five dollars.

A voice from the back of the bus roared, “She has to be the stupidest bleeping . . .”

Well, you can imagine how the rest of the sentence went.

It broke the tension and soon, the guys were huddled around Hillman to watch former WWE wrestling bad guy Brock Lesnar get pummeled in a MMA cage match.

Soon, it was light’s out.

The trip back was much smoother as the first-time driver used the freeway system rather than the back roads of Missouri and Mississippi. Before long I began to notice many familiar landmarks on I-70.

As we wheeled into the Independence Events Center parking lot, the guys slowly closed their sleeping berths and filed quietly off the bus.

Rookie Mike Wakita was assigned the duty of carrying in the bags, and he received some help from the rest of us.

All I could think about was how these guys do this 33 times a year.

As Lewis, who is 32 years of age, walked in the locker room, he stretched and moaned, “How many more of these (trips) do we have this year? I feel like I’m 40 years old.”

Oh, to feel like you’re 40.

I felt like I was 80, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

Someone once said that you should never comment about a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.

I defy anyone to say anything negative about the Mavericks because I have seen up close and personal what these hometown heroes do on a weekly basis. I haven’t glided across the ice a mile in their skates, but I have spent nearly 20 hours on a bus with them, and I never heard a complaint.

They were disappointed in the outcome of the game, but they kept their rage inside, and used it to fuel their desire to get better.

A few days later, as the team prepared for its next road trip, I happened to be in the locker room, doing a few advance interviews when goaltender Gerry Festa asked, “You going with us again?”

Sorry Gerry, that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

From now on, I’ll be watching from the cozy confines of the Events Center, following a good night’s sleep in my own bed.