It wasn’t “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’’ but it was a bus ride, a snowplow escort and hockey sticks becoming shovels — not to mention a championship celebration — for the No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State men’s hockey team Sunday.
Thanks to the blizzard that hammered southern Minnesota on Saturday night and Sunday, the Huskies endured a trip from Omaha to St. Cloud that normally would take 6 ½ hours but stretched to nearly 450 miles and more than 15 hours.
Here’s how it went:
On Saturday night, St. Cloud State defeated Nebraska Omaha 5-0 on the road to complete a two-game series sweep and clinch the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular-season championship. The Huskies, who sport a 23-4-3 record, celebrated their accomplishment by parading around with the Penrose Cup for the second consecutive year.
Usually, the Huskies would travel back to St. Cloud immediately after Saturday’s game, but bus driver Ron Nyquist advised against it because snow had started to fall in Minnesota. So, the team stayed overnight in Omaha and hit the road at 7 a.m. Sunday.
“The bus driver made a wise decision,’’ said Huskies assistant coach Mike Gibbons, who gave Twitter updates of the trip. “Let’s not fight the weather.’’
With the bus traveling on Minnesota Hwy. 60, Gibbons said the roads weren’t great but passable until they went through St. James in Watonwan County. They learned that Hwy. 60 was closed to the east, so they decided to try Minnesota Hwy. 15 near Madelia. To get to Hwy. 15, they took a county road. That’s when things deteriorated.
“It looked pretty good for a while, but all of the sudden there was a drift right in front of us,’’ Gibbons said. “… We plowed through that.’’ But ahead was a larger drift that Gibbons estimated was the length of four or five buses. “There was no way to go ahead and there was no way to go back,’’ he said. “We were stuck.’’
They did, however, try to MacGyver their way out of the situation. Players and staff — 29 in all — grabbed hockey sticks and used them as makeshift shovels in attempt to clear a path for the bus to go back. “It sounds on paper like it should be a good idea,’’ said Huskies senior forward Robby Jackson, an Alameda, Calif., native. “But it wasn’t going to happen. Guys were giving it their all.’’
Added Gibbons, “We discovered as fast as we were shoveling with our hockey sticks, snow was blowing in, so we were fighting a losing battle. After the failed shoveling attempt, that’s when we called 911. That’s when the real adventure began.’’
The Huskies waited for about 1 ½ hours on the bus before the Watonwan County Sheriff’s Department could arrange for a snowplow to lead them out.
“This guy was plowing through major drifts,’’ Gibbons said. “We actually came upon a car that was more in the middle of nowhere than we were.’’ The sheriff’s department pulled the stranded motorists out of a ditch, then the caravan continued to St. James so the team could wait out the blizzard.
There were no hotel rooms available in St. James, so the team hung out at the sheriff’s department headquarters. If weather forced the team to stay overnight, options for lodging were the town’s armory or even the county jail. “There would have been six to a jail cell to be comfortable,’’ Gibbons said.
By late afternoon, the Huskies party was getting hungry, so the sheriff arranged for the Hometown Family Restaurant, which also prepares food for jail inmates, to feed the hockey team. All the while, the Penrose Cup was proudly on display.
“When you’re stuck and you have to go all these places, that trophy’s heavy, man,’’ Jackson said. “It’s tough to carry around. We were getting a workout.’’
With Gibbons providing Twitter updates, some chirping from the hockey community soon followed. A Minnesota State Mankato coach, Gibbons said, recommended a golf course near St. James to pass the time.
The winds subsided early Sunday evening, and the sheriff agreed that the team could embark for St. Cloud if it followed a pair of snowplows out of St. James. The bus left around 7 p.m., the roads improved as they reached Mankato. They used Interstate Hwy. 494 in the Twin Cities, then took I-94 to St. Cloud, where they arrived at 10:15 p.m., their long, eventful journey complete.
“We had just won a championship, so everyone was in such a wonderful mood,’’ Gibbons said. “No one complained about anything. … You can’t say it was a wonderful experience, but it was an entertaining experience. Guys just had fun with it.
“We can’t thank the sheriff enough,’’ Gibbons added. “And also, our bus driver. He was a true professional.’’