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Everything must go

Sticks, pads, skates, CDs: Equipment managers have the daunting task of moving it all in a hurry.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published December 1, 2003

Times beat writer Damian Cristodero spent two days working with the Lightning's equipment managers and helped move the team from Tampa to Raleigh, N.C., between games on consecutive days. This is his tale of aching muscles, lack of sleep and how, suddenly, he appreciates his job so much more.

* * *

If you weren't watching your back that Saturday night outside the Lightning locker room at the St. Pete Times Forum, you might have been run over. At the very least, you were pushed aside with barely an excuse me.

Players, dressed only in towels, scurried from the shower to the locker room. Reporters tried to slow them down to get a few quotes. Equipment managers lugged large bags of pads and sticks, mostly two at a time, to a truck parked under the stands.

About 15 minutes earlier, Tampa Bay had finished a 9-0 rout of the Penguins. But there was a game with the Hurricanes the next afternoon in Raleigh, N.C., and the team had to get packed and to the airport in about an hour.

Suddenly, a voice boomed through the hallway.

"Dana."

Defenseman Brad Lukowich stood at the locker room entrance holding high in his right hand a black case of CDs. Assistant equipment manager Dana Heinze forgot the team's music.

Popeye without his spinach would have a better chance.

"It's important for everybody," Lukowich said later. "It's part of our preparation."

Lukowich wasn't mad. How could he be? Equipment managers aren't generally responsible for transporting CDs, but it is something Tampa Bay's offered to do.

"They do such a good job, if they do forget something, you can never blame them," Lukowich said. "You know how it is after a game. They're bringing stuff for 23 (players) plus the coaches, plus themselves. They do an exceptional job."

It is a job few get to see.

Equipment managers don't just work behind the scenes. They work below them in the deepest regions of an arena. Safe to say, though, if not for this hard-working, selfless, dedicated group, the NHL would grind to a halt.

Equipment managers maintain the players' gear and order new when the old wears out or breaks. They clean and maintain the locker room and the players' lounge. They sew ripped jerseys, sharpen skates and wash sweaty underwear and socks.

They troubleshoot such as when Lightning associate coach Craig Ramsay wondered if he could get a hook put in his office wall so he could hang his jacket. And they cater to personal preferences such as placing three sticks of sugar-free gum in the lockers of Tampa Bay stars Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards before every game.

But nothing compares with getaway day, when an equipment manager's stamina and planning are put to the test.

A game ends. There is another the next day in another city. Captain Dave Andreychuk said players "kind of take it for granted" their equipment will be in place and the Powerade will be mixed.

Sleep? A little on the team plane but, generally, only after the last elbow pad is in place and the last stick is in its stall. If it's really late (or is that early?), equipment managers crash on training tables or the locker room floor waiting for players to arrive.

"I can sleep anywhere," Lightning equipment manager Ray Thill said. "The floor mostly."

"They are the hardest working people on this hockey team," Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said. "They're the grunts, and I say that with a tremendous amount of respect."

A grunt's life

Did I really want to be a grunt? Did I really want to haul bags of equipment and sticks, go without sleep and make sure jock straps were hanging correctly in locker stalls.

Thill slapped me on the back and said it would be a piece of cake. Looking back, I should have known something was up when he promised me a Lightning golf shirt (a little compensation for my two-day gig) that never materialized.

Still, if I was going to appreciate how hard these guys work, there was no better way than to help them move the team, and its approximate 2,500 pounds of equipment, to Carolina.

Planning is the key. Before the game against the Penguins is over, five equipment trunks, which carry a skate sharpening machine, a sewing machine, practice and game jerseys, practice and game socks and what seems like tons of tape, are loaded.

There are two trunks of medical supplies, a 5-foot high trunk of video equipment, a massage table and a bag with game underwear, laces, more socks and cups for jock straps.

"Everything is ready to go," Thill said. "The only thing we need to pack after the game is the bags and some sticks. When you're prepared, it's simple."

There is no chain of command when loading the truck. Players come off the ice after the game and throw pads, helmets, skates and sneakers into bags in front of the their lockers.

The bags weigh about 35 pounds each, though bags with goalie pads go about 60. Thill, Heinze, assistant equipment manager Jim Pickard and locker room assistants Vincent Humphries and Chris Bottini grab what they can, sling the bags over their shoulders and, as fast as they can, haul them to the truck.

After four or five trips, shirts are sweaty, especially one worn by the guy who generally carries nothing heavier than a note pad.

The task is done in about 15 minutes. Not bad but two minutes off Tampa Bay's record, which might have been broken but for a bag of flip-flops players wear in the shower that was left behind and had to be retrieved.

Loading the team plane is not nearly as hectic. A baggage loader is backed up to the truck, and the bags and trunks are put on a conveyor belt, which does the rest.

Thill, Heinze and Pickard get on the plane for the 90-minute flight to Raleigh.

It is a veteran group. Thill, 31, of Chicago came to the Lightning in 1999 and took over as head man two years later. Heinze, 35, is in his fourth season with Tampa Bay and has worked for the Devils, IHL Detroit and his hometown Johnstown, Pa., Chiefs.

Pickard, 53, of Queenston, Ontario, is in his seventh season with the Lightning. He was with the Islanders from 1972-90 and also worked for the old Seals, the Blues and IHL Las Vegas and Phoenix.

"At least I got to see some places," Pickard said, "and had some laughs along the way."

"Just being in professional sports," Thill said of the job's attraction. "There are 20,000 other guys who would kill to have this job. I love it. It's not like coming to work. We don't pound the clock. We know what has to be done, and we do it."

Into the night ... and next morning

The truck with the Lightning's gear rolls into Carolina's RBC Center at about 12:45 a.m. The back door rolls up, and the unloading begins.

Individual equipment bags go in the locker room in front of the stalls at which the players will sit. Equipment trunks are rolled in and emptied. The medical trunks wait for the trainers.

Setting up a stall is like creating a work of art.

Helmets flanked by leg pads go on the top shelf. Elbow pads flanked by gloves on the next level down. Padded pants go on a hook next to suspenders. Skates have to be laid down and turned toward the center of the room so the air from fans can get inside and dry the sweat from the Penguins game.

Everything is sweaty. The pads, jock straps, the players' pants and suspenders. I grab Nikolai Khabibulin's skates and notice four holes in the bottoms. Thill said the goalie sweats so much during games and practices, holes had to be drilled to drain the liquid.

"Remember to wash your hands," Thill said when everything was hung. "You don't want to get fingernail fungus."

Ever try to hang a pair of upper-body pads on a small hook? They are so bulky, with each unit enclosing arm, shoulder and chest pads, it seems impossible to get them to stay in place until the trick of hanging them from underneath the shoulder pad is revealed.

Even then, Thill and Heinze follow me like mother hens, getting the pads to hang even more evenly.

There are specialty requests with which to deal. Left wings Fredrik Modin and Cory Stillman use specific tapes on their stick blades. And center Vinny Lecavalier likes to have a puck in his stall. Not any puck, of course, but a type made in Slovakia.

Lecavalier has used the pucks since juniors to rub the tape on his stick blade so it adheres more tightly. The Slovakian pucks, he said, have a tactile rubber perfect for the job.

Each puck is used only once. Back at the Times Forum equipment room, there is a tub full of what the managers labeled "Vinny pucks."

Little details abound. Is the soccer ball Alexander Svitov kicks around under the stands to warm up in his stall? How about Richards' football, which he and St. Louis throw as a warmup?

"We get treated exceptionally well here," Lukowich said. "The guys really work hard for you. I've never heard them b----. They don't whine. When something is not going right with you or you're having a bad day and you come down hard on them, they never fight with you. And then you feel like such an idiot because, "Why am I fighting with this guy? He can only control so much."'

By the time the work is done, it is 2:30 a.m. Thill called it an early night; early enough to get to the team hotel and get three or four hours sleep. Maybe it was the extra pair of hands (mine), but considering how many times Thill and Heinze redid the pads I tried to hang, maybe not.

"Everybody knows what has to be done for this to work out the way it does," Thill said. "We all just work together. If somebody needs help, everybody is there for each other."

By 8:30 a.m., Pickard is back in the RBC Center hallway, lining up the sticks that were hauled in bags heavy enough that two people need to carry each.

No wonder my shoulders are aching.

There are 154 sticks on the road trip that will last a week and includes stops in Sunrise and Washington. Three sticks each for 23 players plus 85 new sticks that move into the rotation as others break.

Thill is sharpening skates, and Heinze is busy in the locker room. He has sprayed it with Lysol - "to keep it smelling nice" - and is putting name tags on lockers. A clock with a Lightning logo on the face goes on a wall. Then it's time to hang the signs.

These aren't hand-drawn on oak tag. They are made professionally by Heinze's friend in Johnstown. He hangs them so the players feel at home. One denoting Tampa Bay's locker room goes on the door. Another reads "Tampa Bay Lightning: Attention to Detail." Another reads "Safe is Death," a reminder of how the team does not want to play.

Finally, there is this year's slogan: "Good Is the Enemy of Great."

"When I go into a building, I want to turn that area and make it look like the Lightning locker room," Heinze said. "I know these little things don't win games, but it's an environment kind of thing."

The touches are noticed.

"It's nice," Lukowich said. "It's a little bit of home you bring with you. Some of these rooms on the road, they look like dungeons. So when you have a familiar sign or something around to look at rather than cockroaches, it's pretty nice."

Game jerseys are hung, and game socks are put inside the padded pants. A thread hanging from the stitching around Dan Boyle's jersey number is pulled away.

At 10 a.m., players to be scratched from the 5 p.m. game begin arriving for a skate and a workout. It won't take long for them to start messing up what the staff worked so hard to put together.

Heinze took a moment to look around.

"I like the way it looks," he said of the tidy locker room. "When we're done setting up, I see why we did this. We like being around the locker room. We like the attention to detail."

With that, he switched on the music.

[Last modified December 1, 2003, 02:01:23]

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