“Eerie” drive to Owen Sound allayed by Mike Stothers’ family devotion

Inherently North American, the cross-country road trip provides the opportunity to see and sample local customs and cuisines while meshing the brilliant topographical tapestry with a soundtrack as customizable as the itinerary itself.

Unless, of course, you’re making haste during a worldwide pandemic and not entirely sure the border to Canada will remain open long enough to cross it.

“You probably would’ve hearing from me or reading about me,” Mike Stothers said, envisioning his Plan B. “I would’ve been the guy making a mad dash or driving through the border gates.”

The border was open but empty, and the Ontario Reign coach, his wife, Judi, and his dog, Peyton made it home safely to Owen Sound, Ont. He recently emerged from two weeks of self-isolation in which his tic-tac-toe matches across a closed window against his grandson were both a highlight and an indication he’d made the difficult but correct choice to head home. Relieved to be safe and gravitating towards the positive, what began as a conversation about road tripping during such unprecedented times evolved into a talk about family, isolation and the complexities of being surrounded by loved ones but not actually able to hug them.

And that’s awfully difficult for Stothers, who can get his point across acutely and with color while speaking directly to a player, a method of delivery that doesn’t mutually exclude him from being the consummate and empathetic father and grandfather. Rather than discuss his communication with staff and preparations for next season, he clearly imparted his concern that kids are missing out on interaction with friends and teachers, and that there are no more sports and extracurricular activities during the temporary purgatory.

But even with the continent seemingly grounded to a halt and the constant reminders of an “eerie” drive east, he was much more apt to speak of the potential good – any good – that could come from the coronavirus pandemic.

“You’ve got to go with the positives, bud. We knew were going to get to come home and see our kids. That was the driving force and it made the trip go by. You know what? As we got closer to being home, the happier we became, so it was a positive move, for sure.”

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Marissa Baecker/Getty Images

Stothers, Judi and Peyton usually cross the country in the most direct route, using Interstate 15, 70 and 76 to get to Interstate 80, from which virtually any corner of the continent is possible. Because this trip began on March 26 while there was still inclement weather in the west, they were steered towards a more southerly route. “We went up 15,” Stothers said. “At Barstow we made a hard right, went through Arizona, New Mexico, ended up through Oklahoma and Indiana and then up into Michigan that way. We crossed the border where we normally do, in Port Huron. It’s like a three-hour drive from the border to where we actually live.”

Stothers joked that he’d previously spent the past two weeks in quarantine with Judi, so there wasn’t much left to talk about. There’s often a good, comfortable silence on a long road trip; this one was punctuated by the occasional remarks about how few cars there were on the road. And though the regular season doesn’t often afford enough time to catch Spittin’ Chiclets, “I’m a big fan of Paul Bissonnette, as you well know,” he said. “I got a kick out of a few of ‘em. It gives you some time to think when you’re driving and plan out your next move.”

There was some disaster mitigation, like what they’d have to do in the event they became sick en route or were denied entry into Canada and found themselves marooned in Port Huron. (See: Plan B.) Otherwise, this was a quick, direct jet across the United States sustained by their desire to see family and make the best out of a situation without any sort of tried-and-true instruction manual.

LA Kings Insider: Do you have a favorite stretch of road? I assume this is a drive you’ve done many times by now. Any particularly beautiful or scenic stretches?

Mike Stothers: I don’t really gauge it on that. I usually go with who has the highest speed limit. That’s how I pick my favorites. To be honest with you, both ways are good. It’s a little bit long, but this particular time was interesting because there were very few cars on the road. There was very little traffic. We left March 26 at 8:00 in the morning in California. Usually that’s gridlock. You’re not going anywhere. We had no issues getting up to Ontario and the 15. It never really dissipated the whole way. To be honest with you, Jon, I hardly had to touch the brakes because there was no traffic. I mean, there was truck traffic. Obviously, that wasn’t going to change. But as far as any of the states we went through, we really didn’t hit parts where we were heading through a bigger city during rush hour traffic or even construction down to one lane. It wasn’t an issue. We made really good time. We didn’t stop a whole lot, other to get gas and have pee breaks with ourselves and our dog. But that was kind of by design, too. Once I get driving, I don’t really like to stop anyway.

But this one was different because we didn’t really want to linger around a restaurant or anything else because of what was going on. When we did stop, at the gas pump, for example, I just slipped one of the dog’s unused poop bags over my hand and used that for handling the pump and putting in my credit card. The restaurants, most of it was the fast food places, and they had drive through. A couple of the places were open so you could at least use the restroom facilities, but you could only order to take out. There was no in-dining service. So that kind of cut into the time. I guess the only time we had any time consumed was the two nights we got hotels. We checked into the hotel, and before we even took one thing out of the car, my wife and I went into the room with the Lysol wipes and a big bottle of 409 and some rags I’d brought along for the trip, and we basically cleaned the room from top to bottom, including the head boards, the curtain rods and whatever else. The number one culprit is usually the remote, but we spent probably an hour cleaning, sanitizing the room before we even went in there. And then we spent the night, we got up the next morning, and we were on the road before it even got daylight, really. But it was different, Jon. It was kind of eerie to be driving and there’s nobody else around. It was weird, it was really, really weird.

LAKI: What was crossing the border like in Sarnia?

MS: That became even more bizarre because as you’re going through Michigan and you’re getting to Port Huron when you’re going to go across the border, we purposely stopped at what we thought was one of the last rest stops so that we could go to the washroom and make sure that we had a full tank of gas because we knew once we hit the border that they were encouraging people not to stop for any reason on the other side, whether it was to get groceries or to get gas or whatever. We knew we could do that because it was about three hours from Sarnia to where we live. But the crazy part is usually when you make that run, there are a ton of vehicles – both Canadian and American – heading to the border to go into the Canadian side. And it was so bizarre – I said to my wife, ‘did they close the border?’ Because we were the only car heading in this direction. Everybody else was coming the other way, and that was really, really strange. We got to the border, and there was zero wait. We crossed the bridge, there were two-to-three booths open with customs officials and there was no wait. They asked what we were doing and where we were headed and they proceeded to read us a rather extensive list of things we could and could not do, one of them being once we got to a residence, we were to stay there for the mandatory 14 days. We were not even allowed to go get our mail, not allowed to leave the property to walk the dog. Basically, we were going to be locked into our house, which was fine because we knew that coming in. We were prepared for that. But then they said for a violation of it, you could spend 60 days in jail plus pay a million-dollar fine. So, that million dollars, that kind of got my attention. I was actually going to be a smart ass and ask them if that was American or Canadian – what the exchange rate was. But I figured, no, let’s not push it.

So, then we got to our house and we basically stayed here for the 14 days, which wasn’t too terrible because there was plenty to do. At least I could go out and rake the leaves off my lawn or whatever – there’s always stuff you can do putzing around your own house, right? And it meant we were closer to our kids. That was the main reason we were wanting to get home so urgently. My wife came home in January, but I hadn’t seen my kids or my grandkids or my parents since I left in August, and it was really difficult in California with them calling all the time and seeing what was going on, and we were doing the same from this end. Not having a visual on them was really unnerving, and we found it very, very difficult to manage that way. Once we got here and we were still part of that 14 days of quarantine, my oldest daughter that has three kids, she came over to the house and she would bang on the windows and we would have a conversation through the dining room window or the living room window, and I was able to play tic-tac-toe on the windows with my grandson – and I actually got to meet my granddaughter for the first time. She was born December 29 and was three months old. We actually haven’t been able to interact, which is still strange and different and awkward. All you want to do is hug them, obviously. But just seeing them made us feel so much better and more comforted in the fact that they were OK and they knew we were OK. So, we’re just pretty much doing what everybody else is doing. We’re fully supportive of the social distancing, but at least we’ve been able to be close to family. We went and saw my youngest daughter and did a drive-by for my mom and dad. So, again, there’s no contact, there’s no hugs, there’s no sitting around dining together in the same residence or in a restaurant or anything, but it just feels better to know that everybody’s OK. If there’s one thing that’s taught us anything, Jon, there’s nothing bigger than family and the importance of your friends and family and loved ones. Hockey is a great sport, but it’s just a game when you get right down to it, and right now we’re all experiencing something we’ve never had before, and it’s going to change things dramatically, I’m sure. But there’s nothing better than being close to your family.

LAKI: Driving back, was it just you, your wife and the dog, or was there anyone else in the backseat?

MS: Nope, just me, my wife and the dog. Yeah, the dog was great. She’s well-versed in the travels. She’s barely finished having a squirt and she’s already ready to jump back in the car. She’s a golden retriever. Basically, before we’d left, we kind of had quarantined in California for two weeks. We really like our place, but it was a one-bedroom and kind of small. At the first part, the first couple days, at least we were able to use the facilities, like the gym and stuff like that. And then when they shut that down, I was like, ‘oh my God, I can’t even go and work out. The dog and I went out for long walks and I’d wear a mask, and I actually thought it was pretty neat at the start. There were a lot of people out walking – whether they were moms pushing the stroller or people walking their dogs – and everybody was so friendly. Like, it was unbelievable. Not that they were infringing on anybody’s space. Everybody was good at giving everybody their distance, but when you’d walk by somebody, and everybody said good morning, or how are you doing today, you know what I mean? Everybody had a smile on their face. Now, I don’t know as this kind of went further along that people were getting more and more frustrated – maybe they’re not quite as friendly as they used to be. I don’t k now. But those two weeks we spent in California, I was pretty impressed with the way everybody kind of had a good attitude about it. And it kind of made you feel good and gave you some hope that maybe this wasn’t going to go very long. As it turns out, it’s gone a lot longer than any of us could have ever imagined. And then, like I said, we ended up leaving after two weeks, hopped in the car. It might’ve been Dools (Ontario Reign Insider Zach Dooley) that asked me, ‘what did you and your wife talk about on your way home?’ We didn’t talk. We spent two weeks together in California, we were all talked out, so we just drove. Like, we got along famously, it was great. But, it was, OK, there’s not really much more to talk about other than ‘jeez, there’s not many cars on the road,’ or ‘jeez, the traffic’s great,’ or ‘you getting hungry yet?’

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