Minor league hockey thrives in the snow

For minor-league hockey teams in the Northeast, traveling in snowy conditions is the norm. AP Photo/Amel Emric

For pro and college teams in Syracuse, N.Y., the bus rides are never routine at this time of the year.

Carmen Losito spends much of January eyeing the skies suspiciously -- even on crisp, clear winter days. You never know when the snow will come, he says. Not when you live in Syracuse.

According to city-data.com, Syracuse has the highest average annual snowfall of any U.S. city with a population of 50,000 or greater.

Technically, its 115.6 inches of yearly accumulation is tied with Clay, N.Y., but Clay is essentially a northern suburb. Other cities in the top 10 dot the 60-mile stretch of Interstate 90 between Syracuse and Rochester.

Losito doesn’t just live in Syracuse, either. He ferries the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch all over the Northeast in a big bus. He also shuttles the Syracuse University soccer and softball teams, but in much better weather than what he deals with at this time of year.

“The weather up here can change on a dime,” says Losito. “It can be sunny and 35, and the next thing you know you get lake-effect snow. It keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure. You have to always think ahead.”

Losito’s prescience and nose for the weather are key reasons why the Crunch wanted him as one of their two primary bus drivers two years ago.

“You’re putting your life in these guys’ hands 38 times a year,” says Crunch head equipment manager J.W. Aiken, who works closely with the drivers to get gear and players on the bus quickly when a storm is brewing. “It is their job, but you want to know you have a good one.”

Aiken has had a trial by fire -- or snow, really -- in Syracuse this winter. He works for the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, which moved its AHL affiliate to Syracuse from Norfolk, Va.

“In Norfolk, if it snowed, it just shut everything down,” Aiken said with a laugh. “Up here, it’s just another day. People know what to do when the weather gets bad.”

Aiken is no stranger to snowfall, either. He’s from Boston, and on road trips north with the Norfolk Admirals he says he had his share of dicey bus rides. The worst, he says, happened two years ago.

The Admirals were on their way home from Manchester, N.H., when the team bus stalled out in a snowstorm on a particularly steep section of the highway. Which highway, Aiken can’t remember. You tend to forget details when the snow is piling up and a long line of angry drivers is behind you.

“I heard the total snowfall for where we were was 20 inches,” Aiken recalls. “It was huge. We were stuck there for six hours, and no one could get around us.”

Aiken has a sinking feeling this could be the winter he’ll have an even better winter-weather story.

“In Syracuse, you get snow and lake-effect snow on top of it, and it just keeps coming,” he says. “One minute it’s 10 inches, then the next thing you know it’s 20.”

The team already had a white-knuckler in December, on the way home from a game in Binghamton, N.Y. -- a trip that normally takes an hour took two.

“I know it was a lot longer, because we got to watch a full movie,” says Aiken. “Normally, we don’t.”

Of all the Crunch commutes from Syracuse, the worst just might be the 66-odd miles to Binghamton thanks to the way the land ripples into foothills around the city. Chris Taylor, development coach for the Rochester Americans, recalls getting snowed in there during his playing days in the early aughts.

“We were already there and our hotel was walking distance to the rink, so we went ahead and played,” he says. “There were maybe 50 people in the stands. A few had their cross-country skis in the seat next to them.”

That’s the thing about living in and around the snowiest place in the country: You learn to get on with your life, even with a few feet of snow on the ground.

“The great part about living here is there are so many things to do in the snow,” says Taylor. “I go tubing with my kids. We’ve always had snowmobiles. I built a rink in the back yard.”

As far as driving goes, Losito suggests getting comfortable with how your car handles in the white stuff.

“I’d go to an empty parking lot and do turns and sudden stops to get familiar with how slippery it really is,” he says.

But above all, adds Losito, if you don’t have to drive in the snow, don’t. Because once it starts coming down, the snow tends to accumulate fast up there.