Travis Armstrong’s bond with the city of Roanoke began unwittingly, more than 2,000 miles away.
It was May 17, 2016, and Armstrong was enjoying a daylong hike near Calgary, Alberta, — far enough off the grid that he couldn’t get any cell service.
When he got back to the city, he checked his phone.
“Congratulations!” the text messages said. “You’ve been drafted by the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs!”
“Roanoke?” Armstrong remembers thinking. “What is this?”
His soon-to-be adopted hometown, that’s what.
Nearly four years later, the Dawgs will play their 100th home game in franchise history Saturday night. Armstrong, their 29-year-old captain, is the only player left who’s been with the team since its inception.
In fact, he’s the second-longest-tenured employee of the franchise behind general manager Mickey Gray. Ownership hired Gray and former coach Sam Ftorek, then selected Armstrong with the first pick in the SPHL expansion draft.
“He cares a lot about the team and the city,” teammate Jeff Jones said. “He’s been here a long time, so he’s built a lot of relationships here.”
He has. Armstrong frequently can be found signing autographs for kids or taking pictures with fans after games. As the tallest member of the Dawgs at 6-foot-5, the veteran defenseman also is hard to miss on the ice.
Armstrong has earned multiple call-ups to the ECHL and has played 91 career games at that level. But year after year, he returns to the Star City.
“I couldn’t see myself playing in another spot except here if I’m in this league,” he said. “It’s just the support from top to bottom, from our management, ownership to the players and the coaches. Everything just seems to be moving in the right direction.
“The city itself, the fans here, the booster club – everyone here is just so supportive. It’s not even like I’m thinking twice if I should come back or not.”
A native of tiny Smiths Falls, Ontario (pop. 9,000), Armstrong grew up playing tennis, basketball, football and hockey. Winter days on outdoor rinks with his buddies shaped his athletic future the most.
“It’s a small town, so I feel like you grow up with close friends,” Armstrong said. “You kind of create that bond with closer friends as opposed to growing up in a city where everything’s a bit more hectic.
“That’s why I like Roanoke. It’s not too big of a city. You get to know people here. There’s a sense of community.”
The affable Armstrong has been a popular player in the locker room all four years he’s played here. In October, coach Dan Bremner named him a captain for the first time, but Armstrong didn’t have to change much.
He already was among the most respected players on the team.
“He’s a great guy,” teammate Chris Lijdsman said. “As far as a leadership role, he’s been around for a long time and played in a lot of places and seen a lot of different things.
“He’s just a pro through and through.”
Armstrong, who has two goals and 10 assists this season, leads the Dawgs with 56 penalty minutes. He’s not afraid to mix it up with opponents. As soon as the game ends, though, he’s a teddy bear — particularly with the young fans.
“I was around older players growing up, and I kind of saw how that made me feel,” said Armstrong, whose family would host players in the winters. “They were only junior hockey players, but I thought they were gods. They were my biggest role model.
“To able to give back to kids that probably feel the same way that I did as a kid, it’s kind of a no-brainer to take five minutes to say hi to a kid. We live a pretty privileged life being able to play pro hockey. To be able to interact with a kid after a game and to make his day, I can’t turn that down at all.”
Armstrong admittedly knew nothing about Roanoke when he was drafted. But he’s seen every step of the franchise’s evolution, including attendance increases in each of the past two seasons.
“The future of hockey here is bright,” he said. “You see the same ticket holders come. You see new people that are coming. Around town, if you say that you play for the Rail Yard Dawgs, I’d say 90% of the people know what that is, which is different than some other places that I’ve been.
“I just want say thanks to the fans for being super supportive. It makes me look forward to each year that I come back. It’s definitely going to be a place that I will remember for the rest of my life. I’ll always have a place in my heart for Roanoke.”