Posted 2 years 84 days ago ago by David Fine
Bus Driver starts 17th season and relives best memories
David Fine//Kearney, Neb. – 17,775 miles is nearly 3/4ths of the way around the earth. It’s also the number of miles the Tri-City Storm travelled on its Navigator team bus to away rinks during the 2015-16 season, all traversed on the interstates, state roads and local streets of the Midwestern United States.
“And that doesn’t even include the preseason and all the times we have to go to restaurants and morning skates. Add that in and you’re sitting about 20,000 [miles],” said Storm bus driver Bob Haller.
For all 17 seasons of the Storm’s existence, Haller has been behind the wheel. The first name on his birth certificate, Robert, barely registers to Tri-City supporters; the 74-year-old has been known as “Bobbo” to nearly every Storm player, coach and diehard fan since the team’s inception in 2000. He’s been to more than 1,000 regular season games, 60 playoff contests and every rink the Storm has ever played at.
He’s a community fixture in Kearney (his vanity license plate: “KRNY BOB”) that has lived exactly half his life in the town. After his favorite team won its first Clark Cup in 2016, there’s no better time to relive memories and share the lasting impact he has had on the Tri-City Storm.
For a man that’s digested more live hockey than the players he’s driven, the sport was a mid-life discovery. Haller started driving busses in 1965, 51 years ago, but didn’t begin driving Tri-City until the new millennium. The first 2/3rds of his driving career was without the Storm.
“I knew nothing about hockey and had never seen a hockey game in my life,” Haller reminiscences. “My daughter, Lori, was very much into hockey and sat me down to watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs. She explained what was going on as the game progressed. In 1996 when the Stars came to Lincoln, I was a partner at an insurance firm there and ironically our firm had season tickets to the Stars.”
Haller moved from Grand Island to Lincoln at age three and grew up in the Nebraska’s state capital. Now, the mere mention of the Stars might draw a sarcastic remark.
“I was driving for Eppley Express here in Kearney. They ran vans to the airports in Lincoln and Omaha but also had a couple of motor coaches. Eppley got the contract to haul the Storm and the rest, as they say, is history. Just since I retired my insurance practice in 2013 has the driving part been full time.
“I have to be a team player and do other charters. Navigator might not let me drive the Storm if I just cherry picked and just did hockey. I missed 11 home games last season doing other trips. Too many … won’t happen again.”
It’s part of Haller’s “sacrifice”, spending all year driving various tourism groups around the United States so he gets to drive the Storm. During the summer, he’s often outside the Cornhusker State, taking groups of international tourists to explore the western United States. For seven months a year, his Fridays and Saturdays are dialed in on the Storm.
Family, home games and road trips
A father of two, Haller’s two daughters, Lisa and Lori, were in their 20’s by the time Bobbo became the Storm driver.
It’s not hard to spot Haller at games, a gray-haired fixture sitting in section M, row 10, seats one and two. He is with his wife, Jan. Oldest daughter, Lisa, and her husband, David, occupy seats three and four.
“Jan is very supportive of me and my passion for hockey, which makes it possible for me to continue doing this even though the season does get a little long for her sometimes,” Haller smiles.
On the road, Haller often wears Storm track pants, a team jacket. Even as the intensity heats up late in the third period of a close contest, he’s getting ready for his drive.
“I prepare myself mentally for the trip, just like the coaches and players prepare themselves mentally for the game. After that, it’s all Nike: ‘Just do it.’”
He opens the window next to his left shoulder as the trek to Kearney starts. There’s always a fresh bottle of diet Mountain Dew and a bag of sunflower seeds.
Those night time drives are isolating, even with 25 adolescent players up until 2 a.m. There’s the occasional laugh and shared story. The Storm coaching staff sits in the first two rows of the bus and reviews game film, leaving silence from the front of the bus after a couple of hours.
Sometimes, the only thing that accompanies Haller is the sound of a movie streamed through the bus’s DVD player. On a road trip to Muskegon in November 2015, he once mentioned he doesn’t “see” movies, he “hears” them. After 2 a.m., the only noise on the bus might be the movie. Once it ends and the credits role, a player or staff member might turn off the DVD player.
By 3 a.m., there’s often blackness behind Haller, his front beams the only light on a rural Nebraska road. It’s possible Haller might not see a car or truck for a couple of minutes at a time. He keeps chugging along.
“I don’t even think about it,” the veteran driver explains.
The craziest travel
The Storm will be on the road for approximately 260 hours this regular season – roughly 11 days. Like the 16 other USHL teams, Tri-City travels through the Midwestern United States through the winter months and there’s bound to be undesirable weather.
There’s one story Haller describes as arguably the most-historic of his Storm career.
“There was this blizzard coming in 2011 and we had to play in Ann Arbor [against Team USA] on Thursday, Youngstown on Friday, Indianapolis on Saturday and Sioux City on Tuesday night. We left on a Monday to get past the snow, but the next day for some reason the coaches decided to have a sit-down lunch at Chipotle in Chicago. Instead of five hours, it took us nine to get from Chicago to Ann Arbor to play Team USA. There was this heavy, wet snow.
“We got near Ann Arbor and you could see the exit sign, but not the exit ramp. We were dropping our stuff off at USA’s rink and you couldn’t even see anything outside. We had to drive ten or 12 miles from the rink to the hotel and somehow we made it. I was watching TV at the Holiday Inn that night and I saw all these cars stranded on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. That could have been us if we waited another few hours. Well, we ended up being on the road 11 days because we had to play Sioux City on Tuesday … It was Super Bowl weekend.”
Upon further review, Haller’s details are spot on. The Storm played those four games from February 3-8, 2011. The city of Chicago closed Lakeshore Drive on that Tuesday, the same day Tri-City had that sit-down lunch at Chipotle. Oh, and the Packers defeated the Steelers in the Super Bowl that Sunday.
Haller nitpicks the “crazy travel” Tri-City endured for almost a month last season, going to Fargo, Youngstown and Sioux Falls on three straight weekends.
“We figured out it’s farther than the distance to the Panama Canal from Kearney, all those miles,” he states, showing off his automatic recall. Indeed, Tri-City travelled more than 3,700 miles over those three weekends. Kearney to the Panama Canal is 3,674.
Saving a Team
During the 2008-09 season, the Storm was in financial trouble. Needing a new owner to replace Joel Wiens, Las Vegas businessman Kirk Brooks purchased the Viaero Center and team.
Haller believes that Mr. Brooks saved the team and his job.
“I’m so happy every day that Kirk bought this team. He’s done so much for it. This team was in really bad shape. Kind of easy to forget that now.”
Brooks has also extended the Storm’s deal with Navigator. When Brooks purchased the team, he remained dedicated to Haller, at that time about to start his 10th season. After Tri-City won the Clark Cup, Haller had his name engraved on the trophy and received a championship ring, just like the players and coaches.
“I love being part of the team. It’s what keeps me going.”
Haller relates easily to Storm players that are more than 50 years younger than him. Players approach him on road trips to share jokes. He captures the attention of the young men with his wisdom. The players’ parents inevitably hear about Bobbo and chat with him at away rinks before they watch their son play.
“There are parents and players from the very first year I still text with,” Haller explains. “It keeps me young. I love being around the players, coaches, parents.”
It leads to the inevitable question - who’s his favorite player after all the seasons?
“I don’t have a particular favorite player … I’ve seen the seven coaching staffs and the one thing that sticks out is they all make an effort to recruit good kids that can also play hockey. Only one or two kids over the years weren’t good kids. The positive impact goes both ways. They have an impact on my life as well.”
Winning the Clark Cup
May 20, 2016 holds a special place in Storm fan’s hearts; it’s the night Tri-City captured its first Clark Cup. Four months since winning the 50-lb. trophy, Haller still gleams.
“We were sneaky after all those  losses in overtime and shootouts last year. But after winning the first two [Final games] in Dubuque, I knew we were going to win it. I was so happy for the kids and the staff.”
On the ice after the Storm took Game 3 to sweep Dubuque and capture the Clark Cup, Storm players and coaches went up to Bobbo to embrace the same way they did with fellow teammates – lots of yelling and hugs. Storm President of Hockey Operations Steve Lowe sought out Haller.
“He told me ‘long time coming, but here it is,’” Haller remembers. “It was a fantastic feeling to be part of having been through everything from start to finish.”
After watching more than 1,000 Storm games live, well worth the wait.
There won’t be any “hanging them up” or trying to leave the Storm as a champion. Haller didn’t start watching hockey until he was 54 years old, but talking with him now, it’s as if he’s a player in the prime of his career.
"I intend to keep doing it as long as I’m being safe on the road. No reason to hang it up until then.”