When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last June, nobody in civilian clothes could have enjoyed it more than Mike Gapski. He’s a Chicago guy who grew up in “a hockey house,” landed his dream job without pursuing it, and has held it through good, bad and ugly seasons, including a winter when there was no season whatsoever.
As the team’s head athletic trainer since 1987, Gapski has worked with numerous players, all of whom call him a professional and a friend. We prefer to call him a survivor. Gapski has gone through so many general managers he could be an owner, and so many coaches he could be a general manager. Just don’t ask him for an exact number.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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“Coaches?” says Gapski, thinking hard now. “Maybe 12? 14? General managers? Well, my first GM was Bob Pulford, who hired me when Bob Murdoch was coach. But Pully took over as coach a couple times after that. And after Mike Keenan, who was GM and coach for a while, left, Pulford took over again. So I don’t know. Do you count Pully as one for both jobs, or do you count each time he was part of a switch?”
When Rocky Wirtz took over as chairman in October 2007, Gapski welcomed a defining regime change, albeit with some trepidation. Wirtz and President John McDonough rapidly cleaned up the stagnant franchise, and Gapski wondered whether he would be retained. After all, you can list on both hands the number of people who made the cut, and you’ll have fingers to spare.
“You never know,” Gapski says. “If you ask why I’m still here, I can just tell you I try to be what I’ve always been. You don’t last in this position if you’re two-faced, dishonest or a backstabber. You have to work hard, give respect in order to receive it, and earn the trust of management and the athletes.”
You also have to be terrific at what you do, and no trainer in the National Hockey League has done it longer or better than “Gapper.” There are no hard statistics like goals and assists or plus-minus ratings to verify excellence in his domain. Games lost due to injury is a vague gauge, and although the Blackhawks routinely fare well in that category, a better measure of Gapski is his devotion to occupational ethics.
Pro sports team doctors and trainers have been known to feel pressure from above, but Gapski is resolute in his mission: no player plays unless is he able. Gapski is invested in perpetuating healthy careers, not compromising them.
“When everybody is on the same page, that’s the ideal situation,” Gapski says. “And from top to bottom, the atmosphere around here now is the best it’s ever been. Joel Quenneville is great to work with. I can do my job, and beyond that, he treats our staff like we’re part of the team. I talk to some other guys in the league and they say that they’re ‘just trainers.’
"The Blackhawks are so professional in all aspects. We travel a team doctor to every road game. We have a great training and medical staff. We have the resources to do what is right. And there is mutual respect.”
Back in the day, Gapski was not only prohibited from discussing injuries with the dreaded media — a common practice — but was occasionally left out of the loop. In 1992, after the Blackhawks lost the first two games of the Cup Final in Pittsburgh, Gapski reported to the Stadium only to discover Jeremy Roenick wearing a cast on his arm. Presumably a head trainer would be involved, but no. Coach Mike Keenan, trying to “work” the officials, had choreographed the scene to amplify his belief that the Penguins were taking indecent liberties with the rules.
“That was a ploy by Mike that I knew nothing about,” says Gapski, laughing now. He’s good at that, too.
“Mike has a light touch and unbelievable experience,” says Clint Reif, assistant equipment manager. “He’s seen every type of injury and every type of equipment failure. Plus he’s an expert at holistic healing and nutrition.”
Gapski counters by praising the overall landscape. “Last year’s trip to the finals was intense,” he says. “My only other one, in 1992, was tense.”
Gapski attended St. Rita High School and graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he remained for five years as trainer. When the Blackhawks inquired, he was ready. In 2004-05, when the NHL shut down, Gapski was paid. But he fretted about the implications. The Blackhawks were down and out. When they became invisible, Gapski wondered whether the incredible shrinking fan base would ever return. Little did he foresee lugging the Cup around the South Side last summer for pub crawls and charity events at a time when wife Lynne and their four grown children could soak up the fun.
“A dream year on a dream job,” says Gapski. “One thing has stayed the same. Hockey players are the best athletes to deal with. So many great guys.
"Steve Larmer, who lost a tooth during a game and just kept playing. I mean the whole tooth, root and all. Comes to the bench, hands it to me, and goes right back for another shift. Bob Probert and Keith Magnuson, two tragic losses. Tough guys like them and Stu Grimson and Dave Manson, complete gentlemen off the ice. I really like this group too. Solid people. Good people.”
Gapski has endured scary moments. Michel Goulet was knocked unconscious when he went head first into the unyielding boards at the Montreal Forum. Trent Yawney got flattened and had convulsions. Troy Murray swallowed a partial upper bridge.
“He was choking on his teeth, went to the hospital, and of course played the next game,” Gapski recalls. “Then there was a player to remain nameless who was having diarrhea problems during a game. All of a sudden he leaves the ice after a check and goes down to the locker room at the Stadium. I found him in the shower. He couldn’t contain himself.”
Just another day in Gapski's dream job.