The San Jose Barracuda began their season with an unforgettable road trip -- the team got stuck in Texas for a week as the state was ravaged by a devastating winter storm and power crisis.
It's a classic minor league tale, featuring bus hijinks, close calls and 50 frozen DiGiorno pizzas. Combine that with the challenges of staging a season through a pandemic and ... you'll have to hear how it all unfolds.
But the story actually begins in Arizona. Due to Santa Clara County's contact sports ban, the Sharks' AHL affiliate relocated its training camp from California to Chandler, Arizona.
Nick Gialdini (hockey operations, video coach): I went down there on December 27th, and we thought, oh, you know, maybe a month. And then we finally started to get our schedule and got an idea of how long we'd really be gone.
Jaycob Megna (team captain): We ended up being down there for about two months.
Nick Nollenberger (PR, broadcaster): The guys made the most of it; they all had a really good attitude. Junior leagues haven't started up yet, so we had a lot of extra guys too. The setup wasn't ideal. They would give us ice time, but our locker room was a big wedding tent in a parking lot. The American League is still a high level, but sometimes you get reminders that you aren't in the NHL yet. Looking at the wedding tent was one of those moments. We're in the minors.
Mike Murphy (equipment manager): I don't expect to ever have to do anything remotely like that ever again. We were in a big circus tent. We had 38 guys in camp. Where we stored our gear, to dry it out, was the farthest distance possible. We had to wheel all of these racks across uneven pavement. Stuff is rattling off, breaking, you name it.
Roy Sommer (head coach): The organization got a big tent and that's where the guys got dressed in. We practiced, then guys would walk back to the hotel and shower. The guys did a good job. They survived.
The Barracuda began their season on a road trip, finishing their preseason with a game against the Henderson Silver Knights on Jan. 29.
Sommer: We were in Vegas and we were supposed to play two games there. We got one game in, then two periods of the next, but one of our players' test results came in positive so we had to shut that game down.
Gialdini: That kind of threw everything into panic mode. We were supposed to be traveling back to Arizona that day. So our trainer said, "Hey, we're not traveling." So I had to lock down 50 rooms in Las Vegas for a few days. We think it ended up being a false positive.
Sommer: We had to quarantine in Vegas for four days in our hotel rooms.
The team is cleared to travel back to Arizona. The Barracuda have a two-game series against the Tucson Roadrunners on Feb. 7 and 8, before heading to Austin, Texas.
Murphy: The Texas trip was like the light at the end of the tunnel. One more week, and we'll finally be able to come home.
Megna: That was the plan. It was our last trip and then hopefully return to San Jose, and a return to normalcy.
Nollenberger: Fifteen minutes before we landed, we bumped our way into Austin. Looking out the windows of the plane, there was frost everywhere. Everything was frozen. It didn't look like Texas one bit.
Sommer: I knew we were in trouble when the bus picked us up to go to the hotel. We were on an overpass, probably 100 feet in the air.
Nollenberger: I'm about six or seven rows from the front, and I see at the peak of the overpass that there is a box truck just going sideways. The bus driver says, "Uh oh." You can tell she's trying to pump the brakes.
Sommer: The bus skidded, and started going sideways. The back end hit the railing, and the railing came up to about the tire.
Nollenberger: If you're scared of heights, you're going to be nervous just looking over the overpass, let alone being lifted eight or 10 feet off the ground.
Sommer: If the bus would have gone over the overpass, we would have been done.
Megna: We were all a little on edge.
Sommer: The bus driver got the bus straightened out. She stopped, and I said, "Just inch along." She did. And then once we got off the overpass, she started speeding again. Everyone in the back was like, "Tell her to slow down!"
Megna: That should have been a signal it was going to be a rough week.
Sommer: I've probably spent 100 million miles on a bus coaching as long as I have been in the minors. Been through a lot of bad storms. Coached at Cleveland for five years, but the drivers up there were used to it. Down [in Texas], drivers just didn't have any experience driving in those types of conditions. It was a short trip from the airport to hotel, but it was pretty hairy.
After settling in following the stressful bus ride, the team would pick up its schedule against the Texas Stars, the AHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars.
Murphy: We played the first two games and it was normal. Actually really normal. There were fans in the building -- we haven't been around people forever. In California, specifically Santa Clara County, we were locked down pretty much this whole time. So we got to Texas and I forgot how great it is to be at a sporting event with people.
Megna: We heard there was a storm coming and it might be a little dicey. But most of the guys are from Canada or Chicago or places where they get snow, so we didn't think it was that big of a deal. We didn't realize it was Texas, and they're not used to this sort of thing.
Nollenberger: They don't want us playing [three games in three nights] in the AHL anymore, so we had Sunday [Feb. 14] off between games.
Megna: The storm hit overnight.
Sommer: It was actually worse there than the TV was reporting. Everything was shut down. The roads were shut down. The highway. The grocery stores. The hotel we were staying at was running out of food to feed us.
Gialdini: We had probably 15 restaurants that we could walk to, but nothing was open.
Megna: With COVID, we weren't all allowed to hang out. We had a main room in the hotel where we were supposed to get tested, but that turned into kind of a meal room, but it was mostly to take your food and leave. Everyone was in their rooms, we were FaceTiming each other trying to figure out what was going on, trying to put in DoorDash orders but none of them were going through.
Gialdini: The next day me, our strength coach and our equipment manager went to Target and spent about $850 on groceries. We bought Uncrustables. We bought DiGiorno pizza, and some sandwich meat. We thought it was just for lunch, but we didn't know how long we'd need it to last for, so just tried to get through a few meals.
Megna: At first, we were trying to find healthy things to eat. We'd been on the road for two months and ordering food all the time. Without being able to cook, you're trying to stay healthy and stay in some sort of physical condition. Then it was to the point where it was like: Give me whatever you have. You literally felt like you were in elementary school again: Pack your lunch, go to school, and it was Uncrustables and juice boxes and whatever they could put together. Then we had DiGiorno for dinner. They ran out of water; we only drank Gatorade at some point.
Murphy: They are professional athletes, they drink a lot more water than most people do.
Gialdini: We bought 10 cases of water at Target, but after like a day and a half, they were gone. We were really fortunate, the hotel hit us with a water station.
Nollenberger: The guys were bored. Absolutely they were bored. With COVID protocols, they don't want people to hang out in each other's rooms. Guys would be roaming around the hotel, they needed human interaction.
Gialdini: We were supposed to leave Wednesday to fly back. The trip to the airport should have taken 20 minutes on a normal day. It took us an hour and 15.
Megna: Right as we were pulling up, we found out our flight was getting canceled, but our bags were already there. So we all got off the bus, grabbed all the bags from the airlines, put them back on the bus.
Murphy: We travel with about 70 pieces, and we usually have to play Tetris to fit it all underneath. Luckily we had two buses, to keep up with social distancing, so that was a little easier. But we got back to the hotel, and it was like, "What do we do now?"
Gialdini: Luckily before we left the hotel, I told them that there was a chance we could end up back here if we can't get out, could you keep our rooms? Because there were really no hotels in Texas when that happened, because everyone that lost power was moving in. And we had a block of 37 rooms.
Megna: So we got back to the hotel. And then we kind of hunkered down for a couple days.
Joe Will (general manager): We were going to see if we could play some games while the team was stuck. They have some fans in Texas, but for the most part we're not playing in front of fans anyway. But they couldn't safely get all of the people into the rink who needed to work there. And then I think they had a power issue at the rink. The storm was a lot more serious and tragic than people realize. It was a tough, tough situation.
Gialdini: We started getting worried about food again. The hotel didn't have anything for us. We were hearing the grocery stores were long lines and limiting what you could get. We're a pro hockey team and if we go two or three days without food, what's going to happen?
Will: The coach of the Texas Stars [Neil Graham] offered for us to go into the arena, and open up the concession freezers and take out hot dogs and hamburgers and have a barbecue. That was the hospitality they showed.
Megna: I know a lot of their players were without power for quite a bit, so I'm sure they had a rough couple of days as well.
Sommer: [Graham] even said he would cook for us. But they gave away all of the buns to the hospitals, because they were low on food. Then he called his owner, and his owner knew of somebody who was opening up a restaurant.
Gialdini: The restaurant wasn't open yet, but it just so happened the day we had our flight canceled, their entire staff was at the restaurant training, preparing for their soft opening the next week. We all had steaks and french fries in 45 minutes. It was delicious. And then our coach asked their manager, "Hey, do you think you could do dinner?" The guy was like "Yeah, absolutely." Our bus went back there that night and they made steak sandwiches for the guys, which were really good too.
Megna: Honestly that restaurant was unbelievable. If I'm ever back in Austin, I'll eat back there for sure.
Gialdini: We talked about trying to get out of there, driving to Albuquerque or something just to get out of the winter. But because the roads were so bad, we were worried about traveling at 40 mph for six hours, then getting stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Will: We were looking at other cities we could fly from. Houston and New Orleans, Dallas, even up in Oklahoma, what other city could we get to? It ended up being Houston, but it was dicey -- 165 miles. They did it safely, they talked to highway patrol. And once we got to Houston it was like, we gotta get out, or guys would have had to sleep on the bus.
Gialdini: I told Jaycob Megna, we're throwing a Hail Mary here. If we drop the ball, we might be in serious trouble. But I think the risk is worth the reward. If we didn't get on that flight Thursday, we would have been stuck until Saturday, or probably Sunday when the weather warmed up.
The team makes the flight back to Arizona on Feb. 18, but on the way to the airport, finds out that the Tucson Roadrunners, its upcoming opponent, has a cluster of COVID-19 cases.
Megna: We were supposed to go to Tucson and play three games, but those got canceled, which is probably a blessing because we hadn't skated in a week.
Murphy: We still had to go back to Chandler because we were on this long trip, and the guys had all of their personal items there. All of their wardrobe, with all of their clothes, their golf bags. You know, the essentials. Clothes and golf bags.
Gialdini: We landed in Phoenix at like 10 p.m. on Thursday. I had all of the guys on flights to San Jose by Friday.
Murphy: The equipment truck, and the few guys on the team that brought our cars, did the 12-hour ride together.
Megna: My wife and newborn daughter were in San Jose, so it was exciting to get to them. I think I did the drive in 10 hours. We were definitely moving.
Will: When we were in Texas we had to follow protocol, but a lot of hotels also just shut their gym down. The guys were doing things like planks, in their room, outside, in the halls, whatever they could do. They still tried to work out. But when you don't skate for a few days, you're going to be a little rusty.
Megna: We got to San Jose on a Saturday [Feb. 20]. We had Sunday off. We skated Monday, Tuesday. Then someone on the Sharks had COVID, so Wednesday practice was canceled, Thursday practice canceled. Thursday game canceled. Then we were able to practice Friday.
Will: We ended up being off 12 days in a row, nearly two weeks between games. Then we play Saturday [Feb. 27] against Ontario. And we were rusty.
Megna: We were down 3-0 in the first 10 minutes.
Nollenberger: We were completely tired, guys looked out of sorts. They were losing battles; felt like they were a step behind.
Will: And then the guys came back and scored six, and won the game 6-3.
Gialdini: Playing through COVID, as a whole, has been really challenging. Like, we had two games this weekend. In a normal world, guys would go out to the bars or hang out after. You kind of lose that chemistry aspect. So I'd like to think the experience in Texas brought us together a little bit, because we all knew we were in a hairy situation, and we were all going through it together.
Will: Roy Sommer likes to take a team bonding trip every fall. He takes the guys camping, and things like that. And this year he was really sad, because he missed it. We were laughing, but he kind of got that and more. Foraging for food. Getting blankets to sleep in. We have some guys who are 18, our oldest guys are still younger than 30, so it was a lot of life situations a lot of them haven't had to be in before.
Sommer: They went through a lot. But they held up pretty good.