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Meet the man who does everything

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /
Editor's note: This story originally ran on March 31, 2017. DePasquale was honoured during the recent Dec. 31, 2017 game against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks for working his 1,500th NHL game. DePasquale is in the midst of his 12th season as equipment manager for the Flames and 24th in the league. An incredible achievement by an incredible person. 

He can't recall any jolt of epiphany. No pinpointing a single, seared-in-memory 'Aha! This-shall-be-my-life's-work' moment of revelation.

Still, the infatuation that would segue into a career might actually be traced to the Ol' Potlicker himself, local legend Jim (Bearcat) Murray.

Scroll back to 1989. A hockey/golf/baseball loving teenager from the Cicero Berwyn Lyons suburb outside Chicago, planning on pre-med, is working the visiting dressing room at the grand old Stadium.

Chicago Blackhawks and Flames. Campbell Conference final.

"I still remember watching Bearcat running across the ice,'' reminisces Mark DePasquale, "and I thought he was crazy.

"I can't remember the player - I should, but I don't - but I did help Bearcat bring somebody down the stairs at the old Chicago Stadium that had been hurt.

"I also remember watching guys getting stitched up.

"Mostly, though, what I remember is Bearcat's shoes clicking as he was running across the ice. Click! Click! Click!

"I'm like 'Wha …?' Turns out he had spikes on the bottom of his shoes.

"I just thought that was super cool.

"I didn't know what kind of money trainers or equipment guys made at the time. I didn't know if you could make a living at it. I just know I thought it was so cool."

You're 18. A privileged place to perch during Blackhawk games beside the goal judge after pre-puck-drop duties had been attended to. Arriving early or staying late at the original Madhouse on Madison, with its wonderful quirks and aging, cavernous majesty, firing up the working lights and being allowed to skate on the ice on your own.

For hours, if you're so of a mind.

So, what's not to like, exactly?

"I never anticipated it being a job,'' admits DePasquale now. "I was a straight A student, good at math and the sciences. I just thought I'd be a doctor. My family just thought I'd be a doctor, too.

"But, well, sometimes life takes you off in a different direction …"

He's now one of those indispensable behind-the-scenes folk who help make the curtain on the show go up a minimum of 82 times a year.

"Those guys are very, very important to the way things run in this dressing room,'' says veteran centreman Matt Stajan. "The make sure everybody stays happy. Which isn't always easy to do.

"Our medical staff help us keep our bodies fit, our equipment staff makes sure our stuff, our tools … whatever you want to call it … are the way each individual players like it.

"Maybe on the outside they don't get a lot of attention but here in the room, we all know their importance.

"There is a trust factor, for sure. You work together to find what's good for you. Each guy's a little different when it comes to equipment."

Everybody, it seems, knows Depo. Such familiarity is only earned after two decades-plus of travelling the circuit.

"To this day,'' he muses, "(ex-Hawk) Michel Goulet, when he sees me, says: 'You were 12 when you worked for us!' And I remind him: 'Well, I wasn't 12 …'"

First visiting room worked: Hartford Whalers. First pair of skates sharpened: Denis Savard. 

So much for Mark DePasquale, MD.

The Hawks' equipment/training staff back then numbered Lou Varga, Randy Lacey and Mike Gapski. The coach when DePasquale was hired full-time, at training camp of the 1990-91 season, none other than Iron Mike Keenan.

"I actually twice worked with Mike twice - in Chicago and then later on here, of course. That first year, Mike would break things, tip over coolers. I was scared to death of Mike.

"I didn't know if he was a tyrant or I was just a kid and scared of everything. You see there's so much more to it when he and I worked with him the second time: Whether he'd chilled out or times had just changed."

Around this time, DePasquale learned to sharpen skates by feel, skating himself in those down stretches at the Stadium, then walking down the 22 steps to the dressing-room areas, testing, tinkering with the steel.

Pure trial and error.

"I think,'' he contends, "that's an advantage. A lot of our guys can't articulate exactly what they want. But if they give me a hint, having played hockey, I can figure out whether the ice is soft or their too far back on their heels. Whatever.

"There are guys who can tell the difference between Oz (assistant Corey Osmak) and my sharpening the skates and guys who wouldn't know if you'd sharpened the skates."

In short order after being hired, DePasquale taught himself to sew. 

"I remember bringing in a sewing machine to the old Stadium and the old trainer just looked at me. 'Kid,' he said, 'what do you want to do that for? Now you're going to have more on your plate.'"

Working conditions have certainly changed since the late '80s.

"To this day, I don't know I survived the early years. I never ate. At least it seemed that way. There was no food in the locker-room in those days. I came to the rink in the morning and we wouldn't eat until 3 o'clock.

"Now, there's food everywhere. They call it the Never Hungry League, right?"

The seasons flew by, DePasquale's two kids were young in the summer of 2006. The idea of being anywhere other than Chicago - after leaving from 1996 to 2000 to spearhead the Jeremy Roenick Foundation in the greater Phoenix area - seemed all but unthinkable.

He was, after all, as quintessentially Chicago as Millennium Park, the ivy at Wrigley or a pizza pie from Pizano's. DePasquale's life, his family - brother Mario, for instance, is police chief of McCook County - was all centred there.

 "I'm lucky that I didn't get a tattoo with a Hawk head when I was younger because I thought that logo was pretty cool,'' he muses now. "I'd have to keep it covered all the time now."

One life-changing day that summer off-season, the phone rang. On the other end, Darryl Sutter long-distance from Calgary.

In the early days of his coaching career in the Windy City, Sutter would car-pool with DePasquale to O'Hare Airport for road trips.

"I thought Darryl was just calling about a player, you know what kind of person he was, is he a good guy,'' says DePasquale. "Equipment guys see the true colours of people. Everybody has their moments.

"But he was beating around the bush and Darryl never really beats around the bush.

"The Flames had a good team, just had a good Cup run. And he finally got around to asking me: 'What would you think about moving to Calgary?' It really caught me off guard.

"At the time, in Chicago we were getting 4,000 people to games. It was to the point where the back of my business card had a code for two free tickets in the lower bowl. I'd give them to the airport guys, my family …

"I talked to my wife. Our kids were small. I was a Chicago guy. I'm still a Chicago guy. Hometown boy. I probably could've done the laundry in Chicago until I was 80."


A quick call to a friend, ex-Hawk Tony Amonte, then in his short two-year run here, sealed the deal.

"I said: 'What do you think?' And Tony said: 'You better get up here right now because we're going to win the Cup.'

"He believed in the team that much. He also told me to make it fast because the housing market was getting nuts."

Eleven years later, he's still here.

"My wife (Kelly), my kids, we all love Calgary. But I'm not going to lie, it was certainly tough watching Chicago lift the Stanley Cup. The second and third times were a little easier but that first one … we were actually in Chicago. That one stung.

"It wasn't about coming here for the job. I came to win a Cup. If you don't care about winning - whatever your role on a team might be - you should probably find something else to do.

"And we've had teams here good enough to do it. But so much factors into who wins and who doesn't."

An average game day for DePasquale runs from 6:30 a.m. through midnight. Players are notoriously finicky about equipment, needing everything to be just so. So patience isn't merely a virtue, it's a necessity.

"You have to adapt, like in any job. There's so much more to it now. Sets of steel, fixing stuff, things breaking. Way more than just sharpening 20 pairs skates, hanging jerseys, drinking coffee and swapping stories.

"There are days I don't stop at all. That's just the way the job has become. It's big business so everything's got to be that much better.

"My gift is my relationship with my players. I think they'd tell you that."

They do.

"Guys are really particular about their equipment,'' acknowledges Flames' captain Mark Giordano. "Depo does my skates and I can feel the difference. I really can.

"I go as far as letting him sharpen blades for me all summer and sending them home. Different guys have different feel.

"The hours they put in, the time they put in, goes unnoticed. They deserve a ton of credit. Depo's been here for a long time. I've become come really close with him and Oz. They can tell when I'm not feeling good about my sticks or good about my skates, and usually have stuff lined to fix things up before I even ask for it.

"I've always wondered how tough it is for guys who switch teams. There's got to be a different feel for the first few weeks or months.

"Getting off a plane at 3 a.m. and going right to the rink to dry our gear and make sure it's perfect … never gets mentioned. They deserve a lot more credit than they'll ever get."

Over the passing of the seasons, lasting ties are forged, tightened by shared experience. From his Hawk days, DePasquale singles out Savard, Dirk Graham, Steve Larmer and Doug Wilson as friends.

"My favourite since I came to Calgary,'' he reckons, "would probably be Kipper. He was just a different breed. I never found someone more mentally tough.

"He'd sit in my office and we'd talk. I learned life lessons from Kipper. Hey, he'd say, things go wrong, so his philosophy was: 'Be a Man.'

"That was his thing. Be a Man.

"Own up to things.

"We all make mistakes. That includes me. The other day in Winnipeg, I changed a blade for Mikael Backlund. We're in a rush, tight bench, I grabbed my steel and put it in a skate after he blew an edge. After the period he says: 'Hey, Depo. My skates don't feel right.' I took his steel out and I said: 'That's why they don't feel right.' I'd put Gio's steel in there. Gio's is much sharper.

"But I owned it. (Backlund) scored a goal that period so I told him they couldn't fine me. Everybody laughed.

"But that's the Be A Man thing. If you make a mistake, own it."

The players he's interacted with over the years are, naturally, legion. Each a different person with varying viewpoints, likes, dislikes, idiosyncrasies and, often, superstitions.

"(Anton) Babchuk was one guy I remember. He used to go in the same toilet stall before every game. And he'd be in for a while. No one was quite sure what the ritual was there.

"We're out of the playoffs and it's a great group of guys then so we're trying to figure what's going on with Babchuk."

The first step was to lock the particular bathroom stall of choice and slap an Out of Order sign on the door. That didn't work. Babchuk crawled underneath the door anyway.

"So Robyn Regehr finally ended up taking the door off and the toilet seat off, just to see what he would do.

"So he heads over to the stall and …

"He was lost. Just lost.

"Guys today still mess around. And that's what I love most about hockey - the guys, the traditions."

He's a world removed from when an infatuation began segueing into a career, since Bearcat Murray went Click! Click! Click!  across the ice at the old Stadium all those years ago, the height of cool for a teenager from Cicero Berwyn Lyons looking to become a doctor.

The original Madhouse on Madison is gone, demolished in 1995 in the name of progress, the land earmarked as a parking lot to the adjacent United Center. And Mark DePasquale long ago switched allegiance, from the Hawks-head log that would've made one swell tattoo to a Flaming C.

"There are days that are hard, and long,'' he admits. "But I will say, I'm still excited to be here, doing what I'm doing.

"Winning solves everything.

"Unfortunately, I couldn't tell you what it feels like to win a Stanley Cup. I did watch Mario Lemieux lift the Cup right in front of me at the old Stadium in 1992.

"I was sitting on the bench.

"I was so close I could almost touch it …"

In it to win it. 

"Equipment managers, trainers, everybody, we're no different than the players in one respect.

"We all say the same thing:

"Until I drink out of that Cup one day …"


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