Ryan Stanton would pull off the highway every few hours to give his pregnant wife, Kirsten, a chance to stretch her legs.
That’s usually when Kirsten and her mother-in-law would switch places to tend to the Stantons’ 18-month-old daughter in the backseat of the pickup truck during a 27-hour drive from Southern California to St. Albert, Alberta. The trip came after the coronavirus pandemic put the American Hockey League season on hold last week.
“It’s something we’ll remember forever, that’s for sure,” said Stanton, an Ontario Reign defenseman.
Pulling a U-Haul trailer behind him, and with his dog Ralph squeezed into the cab, too, Stanton elected to drive home rather than risk his wife be exposed to COVID-19 by flying home from a crowded airport.
“It was a huge sense of relief,” the 30-year-old journeyman said of a trek that took him more than three days.
“I’ve always driven to where ever I’ve been, 40-hour trips,” said Stanton who has played 120 NHL career games, the last with Washington in 2015-16. “But it’s a lot easier when you’re doing it by yourself and you don’t have to worry about feeding a year-and-a-half-old, and letting the wife get out and move around.”
Stanton was hardly alone among minor leaguers and college hockey players whose travels were disrupted by border closures and self-quarantine regulations.
NHL players, by comparison, had it much easier. Some chartered flights back to Europe, while Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger experienced no difficulty booking a flight through Chicago to his home in Switzerland.
Others weren’t so fortunate in what became a planes, trains and automobiles-type adventure.
And some still aren’t home yet.
Chicago-born defenseman Conor Allen was stranded this week in the Czech Republic after postponing travel a few days to take part in his Hradec Kralove team’s exit meetings. Allen’s flight was canceled after Poland closed its airspace, and he’s not sure if his March 29 ticket home will be valid.
Though there are other flights, Allen isn’t traveling because Poland’s LOT is the only airline allowing him to take his dog. And he’s not leaving Ozzie behind.
“I’ve got 1,000-piece puzzle I’m doing right now with a friend. and that’s about it,” he said.
Allen’s thoughts waver between thinking of staying put because there have been few cases of coronavirus in Hradec Kralove, and bouts of homesickness.
“Even if the situation in Chicago is worse than here, these are the times you want to be with your family more than anything,” he said. “I still want to be home, and I also want to be with my dog, so I’ve got to get him home, too.”
Penn State captain Brandon Biro had no time to bid farewell to his nine fellow seniors or celebrate signing a two-year entry level contract with the Sabres on March 18. Biro had a few hours to pack up, get into a friend’s car and head to Canada.
“It was kind of a unique day, obviously, good stuff and some bad stuff,” Biro said of waking up that morning to find several messages from his father suggesting he head home because of talk of the border being closed. “But it was mostly sad, because all my roommates were leaving that day, too, so I’ll never get to be roommates with them again. But it is what it is.”
And Biro can’t yet travel home to Edmonton, Alberta. He’s instead staying at his friend’s place in Ottawa because Canadian regulations require anyone entering the country to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Upon signing with the Utah Grizzlies on March 10, Matt Hoover arrived in Salt Lake City the following day. Fresh out of Canisius College, he got to practice twice before the ECHL season was postponed and then canceled.
“Yeah, I don’t know if I could call myself a pro yet,” the 24-year-old Hoover said, laughing, from his home in Brantford, Ontario. “It was probably one of the shortest pro stints out there for guys leaving college, but it was a good couple of days there, being around the rink.”
Back home in Alberta, Stanton had difficulty putting into perspective how surreal the past two weeks have been.
“When you sit back and think about it, you don’t know when you’re playing next or what’s going on. But obviously, that’s pretty minor in the grand scheme of things,” he said. “I was more worried about getting my family home and everything safe.”
Stanton began to chuckle, recalling how this wasn’t his wife’s first lengthy road trip while being with child. Kirsten was eight months pregnant in joining her husband to begin his second season in Bakersfield, California.
“She was like, `I’m never doing that again,’” And then of course this happens,” Stanton said. “I owe her a couple of massages or something.”