Thursday, November 10, 2011
Written by Neal Goulet
Anyone who has visited other American Hockey League arenas knows what a competitive advantage the Hershey Bears have in their home rink, Giant Center.
Almost without exception, Bears players can count on a packed house cheering on their 11-time Calder Cup champions. Sure, Wednesday’s sellout had much to do with a Hersheypark pass giveaway, but the Bears have led the AHL in attendance for five years running and are No. 1 so far this season.
Of course, that’s for only half of their 76-game schedule. For the other half, they will travel mostly by bus to destinations such as Norfolk, Va., Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Binghamton, N.Y.
But to call the Bears’ mode of transportation a “bus” does not do justice to the comfort in which the team travels. The motor coach’s amenities include wide leather seats, satellite television, six video monitors and wi-fi. Every seat has a headphone jack and 110-volt power.
In other words, the old iron lung, she ain’t what she used to be. Not for the Hershey Bears, anyway.
Transformed into VIP coach
“It’s like upgrading from a Toyota Camry to a Cadillac Escalade,” said Scott Stuccio, the first-year Bears broadcaster who had been with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. “It really was something else for me to see and experience the first time.”
Most Bears fans have never seen the bus, or at least didn’t know it if they did. That’s partly owing to the late-night nature of road trips, but also to the fact that there are no overt team decals on the bus’ exterior. There’s no figurative yellow sign suggesting, “Bears on board.”
The 45-foot Canadian-built Prevost is owned and operated by charter bus company Elite Coach of Ephrata, and it bears Elite’s name on each side against a maroon paint job accented with silver and gold stripes.
Built in 2001, it began life as just another motor coach in the company’s fleet. To the naked eye, it looks little different from Elite’s 19 other full-size coaches.
The stainless steel bus had 390,000 miles on it when the Bears came calling in the summer prior to the 2008-09 season. Within months, Elite invested $110,000 to transform the bus into a “VIP coach” that the Bears have called their home away from home for three-plus seasons.
‘An advantage to have this bus’
Dave Dickson, Elite’s co-owner and fleet manager, is quick to point out that the Bears have won two Calder Cup championships during that time. Is there a correlation?
“I want to think so,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think the bus has much to do with it, although I have had some coaches tell me that they think the way the guys can relax at the end of the games and be able to stretch out and be comfortable is a plus.”
The Bears won a team-record 26 road games in 2009-10 and 25 last season.
Right wing Graham Mink, who returned to the Bears this season, was with the team the season the VIP coach debuted before he moved on to the AHL’s Rochester (N.Y.) Americans. He lobbied for that team’s owners to emulate what the Bears had done, to the point that the Americans actually reached out to Dickson.
“But once they found out what kind of cost was involved to convert the inside of a bus to make it as plush as what we did for the Bears, I don’t think they were as interested,” Dickson said.
Mink, who returned to the Bears this season, stands 6-3 and weighs 220.
“After a game,” he said, “you don’t want to be sitting scrunched up. You get tight, and that leads to more injuries. You’re not as rested. It’s an advantage to have this bus.”
Of course, players feel the wear and tear of hockey no matter their size. Keith Aucoin, a Bears center, is 5-foot-9, 187 pounds.
“When you’re on the bus until 4 in the morning, if you can recline back almost all the way, put your feet up and catch a little sleep before you get back home after a game, I think it helps us out a lot,” Aucoin said.
Bears head coach Mark French sits right behind bus driver Ron Lindberg.
“It’s hard to sleep on a bus, period,” French said. “But you have a better chance sleeping on our bus than a regular one. It gives us a little bit of a competitive advantage.”
Driving to Indiana to repair headrests
A typical motor coach has an aisle running down the middle and two seats on each side of it. Wider seats can be accommodated by switching to a “two and one” configuration, with just a single seat on one side of the aisle.
The Bears tried that with their previous bus company, Capital Trailways, but the off-the-shelf seats that the team purchased weren’t popular with the players. By summer 2008, the team was ready to try something different, approaching Elite with the idea for “more of a first-class VIP bus,” Dickson said.
Elite didn’t have one in its fleet, so Dickson set about building one. The bus he chose had been in regular charter service, logging some 390,000 miles on trips to Florida and California.
That September, he drove the bus to Elkhart, Ind., where he knew someone who built plush custom leather seats, particularly for conversion vans. A sample seat – eight inches wider than a standard bus seat – was shipped to the Bears, namely president and general manager Doug Yingst, who gave it his blessing.
Dickson said his biggest challenge was designing and building the wooden console that accommodates cup holders, 110-volt power outlets and headphone jacks.
“All of that had to be put somewhere with the seat, so that the players could access that, but yet made in such a way that it was compact and it fit,” Dickson said.
In late October, Dickson drove the bus back to Indiana to install the 31 seats, which recline almost flat without interfering with the seats and passengers behind them. They come with armrests and adjustable footrests.
Gathering in the galley
The image that many fans have of a hockey team traveling by bus is colored by the movie “Slap Shot,” which showed players boarding with cans and coolers of beer. However, the Bears don’t allow alcohol on their bus, so the built-in stainless steel cooler in the galley (in the back of the bus, to the right of the bathroom) is full of water and sports drinks.
Dickson, who once joined the Bears on a trip to Norfolk, said the galley serves as a gathering place when players want to get up from their seats.
Besides people, a team bus also has to accommodate a wide array of equipment, from players’ bags to skate sharpeners to medical supplies. Some AHL teams – Norfolk comes to mind – pull trailers behind their buses. Because the Bears’ bus sits higher than others, the cargo hold is big enough – but just barely.
Dickson said that virtually every square inch of the undercarriage is spoken for.
“And I don’t think that you could put a carry-on bag that you would normally take on a plane anywhere in that undercarriage when they’re done packing it,” he said. “That’s how full it is.”
The Bears liked the bus from the very beginning – except for the headrests. When the seats were upright, players complained, the headrests pushed their heads uncomfortably forward. After the first season, Dickson made his third trip to Indiana so that the headrests could be flattened.
Elite continues to make modifications as requested by the Bears. Prior to this season, Elite replaced the 16-inch monitor at the front of the bus – where Yingst and the coaches sit – with a 22-inch screen.
Dickson said he is well pleased with Elite’s relationship with the Bears, particularly Yingst.
“They’re a great organization to work for and to work with,” he said.
Available to the public
Elite just signed a second three-year contract with the Bears; it will take them through the 2013-14 season. The Bears have first dibs on the bus, but it is available for lease when the team is home and, of course, during the off-season. On Monday, for instance, the bus took fans to a Philadelphia Flyers game.
Elite charges no more for the VIP coach than any of its other buses, despite the six-figure investment to convert it. But because it has 31 seats instead of the standard 56, it costs customers more per seat to lease it.
“The bus is a great piece of equipment, and it’s a great amenity to our fleet, but it is a challenging vehicle to market,” Dickson said. “It was a risk that we took that continues to be a challenge for us to market it and to make it a profitable piece of our business.”
Dickson hopes to bring the bus to a Bears home game to showcase it to potential corporate customers. The bus could sell itself, but then a Bears player such as Joel Rechlicz would put in a good word, too.
“When I was with Albany and Bridgeport, they didn’t have anything like this,” he said. “They weren’t crappy school buses by any means, but here we’ve got leather seats, satellite TV. … It’s amazing.”
Dave Sottile contributed to this story.