SAN ANTONIO – When the Rampage left the ice at the AT&T Center on March 8 after a tough loss to the Admirals, the players and coaching staff were all focused on rebounding during a crucial four-game road trip. There were 16 games remaining on the schedule -- plenty of time for a late playoff push.
Four days later, following a road rematch in Milwaukee, the AHL season was suspended indefinitely “due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Rampage team captain Jordan Nolan said the team was mentally preparing for a shutdown. “It started to get a little scary during our last road trip. We kind of knew that things were getting a little dangerous with the possibility of the league shutting down. Once we played that game in Milwaukee, we had an idea that we would be going back to San Antonio. We were told to wait a few days and eventually got the call that play has been suspended for awhile."
Thoughts of a playoff push instantly vanished, replaced by concern over the health and safety of friends and family during the burgeoning global crisis. The AHL immediately understood those feelings and allowed players to return home. The vast majority of the Rampage team jumped at the opportunity. That includes Nolan, who is currently back in his hometown of St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada.
“With the border issues starting to come up, I think everyone kinda wanted to get home and be close to family in case anything happened,” Nolan said. "Pretty soon after, I packed up, rented a U-Haul and we drove out here with my wife and kids. We’re just waiting at home and waiting to see what happens. We also know that it’s going to be a while before we get answers and know when to start back up. If hockey does start back up -- if and when -- we’ll definitely have enough time to train and get ready for the season and playoffs.”
Those two questions -- if and when -- loom large for a Rampage squad that was already preparing to say goodbye to the Alamo City. Since the franchise was officially sold on Feb. 6, the team has made it their goal to give the San Antonio faithful a proper sendoff. A quick surge up the standings at the end of their annual ‘Rodeo Road Trip’ injected them right back into playoff contention. But now, two weeks removed from the AHL’s shutdown, the team still has no answers for whether they will play another game in the AT&T Center.
“I’m trying to be open-minded," Nolan said. "It’s pretty wild watching the news everyday and keeping up with the headlines. I know it’s going to take a lot of time, whatever the answer is. It’s just an awkward season. When we found out the news that we weren’t coming back, I think a lot of guys were disappointed. I was in San Antonio last year, and I wanted to come back. I love the city. I love the weather. The arena is unbelievable, and the fans are unbelievable too. When we go into some of these American League cities, they’ve got smaller rinks and don’t do great on crowds. To play in front of our home crowd, it feels like a big league city.”
That news and the following uncertainty has wreaked havoc on players’ lives. With a five-year agreement between the Rampage and the Blues in place prior to the 2018-2019 season, several team members were already making longterm plans to live in San Antonio. Those who didn’t have longer contracts with the Blues were at least intending to stay through the end of the season. Now, following the sale and shutdown, everyone’s plans have been upended.
“It’s just a guessing game for a lot of us," Nolan explained. "Lots of guys bought furniture. Their girlfriends and wives live in San Antonio, and there’s a couple guys that have met girls in the city and have relationships there. For those guys, it’s definitely tough. I don’t know where they’re going to live next year. I have a contract next year, but that’s something that a lot of us have to discuss with our families.”
The players who do stick with the Blues organization next year will have to adjust to a new city in Springfield, Massachusetts as they transition to the new affiliate Thunderbirds. The difference between the two cities is pretty stark -- San Antonio has a population of 1.5 million people, while Springfield is home to just 154,758. Nolan will be one of those returning for next season, and he has some experience playing in the Northeast.
“I started my career in Manchester, New Hampshire," Nolan said. "Springfield is -- maybe -- two hours away, so we played there a lot. It was a smaller city, a gritty city. State taxes are different, the weather is different. The travel is different. You’re not on the planes as much, you’re on the bus. It’s definitely a lot different than San Antonio.”
Fortunately, that move to Massachusetts is still in the future. In the meantime, Rampage players are slowly emerging from a two-week, travel-mandated quarantine and returning to a workout routine. The circumstances aren’t ideal, but Nolan said the team has a plan of attack for staying in shape.
“You treat it as if the season just ended. You take your couple weeks off, a month off, whatever it is, and you ease back into it. You don’t want to go too big, too early. I think guys are in pretty good shape. It doesn’t take much for guys to get back into it. Just stay healthy, eat right, keep moving and I think when we get back to San Antonio, we’ll obviously have some time there to skate and get ready for real play.”
There’s still some hope left in that final statement. Hope is what players, coaches and staff members cling to right now with so many decisions left in limbo. Regardless of what lies ahead, they will face the future holding their loved ones close -- a silver lining around a cloud of uncertainty.
“Our team travels so much, so I think guys are enjoying their family time right now," Nolan explained. “For myself, it’s kind of nice to spend some time with the family. I’ve been spending time with my kid and watching her grow. She’s starting to do impressions of us now. I see my parents more. My brother-in-law just had his first kid, so we’ve been FaceTiming with him. It’s just been very different these past few weeks, but I think the main thing is that it’s a good time to connect with your partners. That’s been the best part of it so far.”