Let's say Jonathan Toews feels a twinge in his back on the first tee of a golf outing next July in Flin Flon. Two events are likely to follow. He will complete the round, not because the greens fee is gratis, but because that's what hockey guys do. They finish what they start.
When done, however, rest assured that the first phone call will be to Mike Gapski, the Blackhawks' Head Athletic Trainer who has been point man pertaining to the health and wellness of players employed by this franchise forever.
What constitutes forever? Well, when the Blackhawks visit the Arizona Coyotes Thursday night, it will mark Gapski's 2,500th game at his post. That does not count playoffs, scrimmages, exhibitions or any other activity contributing to the countless hours Gapski will have logged since 1987. No current individual in the National Hockey League with that title has served longer, or better.
Or without ever really being off duty. Gapski is like the convenience store on the corner. He is always there when you need him. Vacations, included.
"That's happened," says Gapski. "I was away in Michigan one summer and got a call from one of our players about an injury. But the reception was bad, so I got on my bike and took off for the open spaces - cornfields - trying to find a better cell. Part of the job."
The boiler plate perception of a sports trainer is someone who tapes ankles and hands out towels. This is so tired, and so wrong. A professional of Gapski's ilk requires acumen through education and experience, plus people skills that cannot be taught. A head trainer's foremost responsibility demands daily attention to players' maintenance, but he is also a friend, confidant and father confessor. He works for management, but must develop a relationship with athletes, or else he becomes radioactive.
"There can be a fine line, but it's about trust," says Gapski. "Be honest, true to yourself, not two-faced, and be fair. You almost have to know the players better than they know themselves, if that makes any sense. You pick up on their routines, superstitions and nuances. If they share personal thoughts, that's where it stays. Between us. If they don't believe in you, trust you, it doesn't work. Mutual respect."
The Blackhawks have an elite medical staff and a mental skills coach. Even when the organization wasn't quite as organized as it is now, a continuity evolved with the inner sanctum. Jeff Thomas, assistant athletic trainer, is in his 17th season. Troy Parchman, the head equipment manager, his 25th. Pawel Prylinski, massage therapist, his 28th. Dr. Michael Terry, the head team physician, his 15th. They've seen it all, heard it all, and are among the first to learn of pending roster adjustments, not that they impart information with the outside world.
Gapski in many ways is the glue. It can be complicated if a common mission is not shared - what's best for the individual and the Blackhawks - but the fact that he has survived so many regimes confirms Gapski's status as indispensable. If you want to stump him, as how many general managers and coaches with whom he has worked. Law of averages dictates that one of them would have chosen "his guy" to be head trainer.
Gapski's break occurred during the summer of 1987, much to his surprise.
"Bob Murdoch was hired as coach here," recalls Gapski. "I was head trainer at UIC, where I went to college. I'm not sure exactly why, but he contacted me about coming to the Blackhawks. I was a big fan. Saturday nights as a kid, their games on TV were a ritual. My mom, Marlene, would make a big bowl of popcorn. We'd watch with my dad, Mike. I'd look for the trainers behind the bench, Skip Thayer and Lou Varga, but had no aspirations about going pro. When Bob offered me the job, my parents were through the roof excited."
While at UIC, Gapski switched majors to applied sports nutrition. In those days, the Blackhawks' version of same comprised "a bucket of water, a bucket of Gatorade and some power bars." The rest of the NHL operated similarly. Although Gapski proudly considers himself old-school, he was way ahead of the curve that now pervades all sports: you are what you eat and hold the mayo. The Blackhawks have replaced those buckets with their own chef.
"You don't put regular gas in a Mercedes," reasons Gapski. "Why put garbage food into a professional athlete? It's much different now. We travel with our own doctor, which is huge. We have Julie Burns, an expert on proper diet. The support we have from [Chairman] Rocky Wirtz and [President & CEO] John McDonough the front office is the best ever since I've been here. A great new practice facility. The reception to new ideas.
"Everything is so advanced now, like with the league-mandated concussion protocol. You don't want to stay stagnant. One thing that hasn't changed is the players. They're making big money now, but they're still real, genuine, down to earth. Ask anyone who's been around all sports. Hockey players always top the list."
When a problem occurs, such as Troy Murray swallowing his teeth during a game in Vancouver, Gapski says he must react instantly and instinctively "without much time to think." For his Blackhawks debut behind the bench, on opening night of the 1987 schedule, the Stadium was full. Gapski's family attended, as did Lynne, his girlfriend, future wife and mother to their four children. A Blackhawks' player went down, and Mike darted out onto the ice.
"They cheered," recalls Gapski. "When they saw me out there, my group cheered. They took some grief for that. Not a good idea, to cheer when a player gets hurt, especially one of your own. Didn't go well. I didn't find out until later. They were just excited to see me out there. We talked about it."
Murdoch lasted one season. For Gapski, this is 33. Years, not coaches.