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On the Road Again... And Again

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

One day, the Kings are in Buffalo. The next day, it’s Boston. Two days later, it’s Ottawa. Magically, they appear on TV screens, as if instantly moving through time and space.

It’s only when one pauses for reflection does the whole process seem somewhat miraculous. How do the players, coaches and staff get around? Who feeds them? Who keeps them on schedule, makes sure that 45 people are moving, cohesively, as one?

Not surprisingly, it’s a guy with grayish hair. Marshall Dickerson’s official title is director of team operations. That’s a somewhat fancy way of saying he’s the team’s go-to guy.

Where’s lunch? When does the bus leave? What time does practice start tomorrow? Dickerson’s job description can loosely (and accurately) be described as ``shepherd,'' but whatever you call him, he’s the key cog in terms of making road trips run smoothly.

On a basic level, Dickerson’s job is simple. His task is to make the players’ lives, at least on the road, run on auto-pilot, so that their concentration is solely on hockey.

``There's a constant stream of information going out to the team, the players, so that they're always aware of all the information that they need,'' said Dickerson, in his fifth year with the team. ``As the Los Angeles Kings, we want to set a standard of how we do things.''

Officially, Dickerson is charged with handling many of the Kings' day-to-day needs. That can include organizing travel -- plane, train or bus, or some combination thereof – hotels, team meals and practice scheduling.

Dickerson must know, in each city, that the bus will be there to pick up the team and, more importantly, that when it pulls away, everyone is aboard. In many ways, Dickerson is like a stay-at-home defenseman. If things are going smoothly, he’s not noticed.

``Part of my job is that when there are situations, to correct them, so that no one even knows there was a problem,''
Dickerson said.

``There have been times in the past when we get out of the arena, and we're on the way to the airport, and everything looks normal but the plane has really gotten there five minutes before we did, because they got delayed somewhere.

I've been on the phone at the front of the bus saying, `We're almost there, we're almost there, you have to be ready.' Then we get there and get on, and (the staff) doesn't even notice that everybody has been scrambling behind the scenes.''

Dickerson's foray into sports was as the president of a group that essentially served as an organizing body for college roller-hockey teams. Through that group, Dickerson made some contacts with the Kings and San Jose Sharks.

When Dickerson moved to San Jose, to finish his education at San Jose State, he took an unpaid internship in the Sharks' community-development department. That led to a paid internship, which led to a stint in media relations.

``People say they want to work in sports, but, where?'' Dickerson said. ``You have to find your niche. Somebody in business told me once that it's like saying, `I want to work for Proctor and Gamble because I like soap.' It took me a while to figure it out. I could have done a million different things that didn't interest me, but it's finding your fit.''

In 2002, when current Kings general manager Dean Lombardi served as GM of the Sharks, Dickerson took the job of team services coordinator. Dickerson stayed there until 2006, when Lombardi joined the Kings and recruited Dickerson to join him.

How, exactly, does one get established in a job such as the one Dickerson holds?

The idea of taking control of a professional team, and essentially being in charge of its day-to-day welfare, sounds rather daunting. How, for instance, would someone new to the job have any idea how to schedule practice ice in Calgary?

Dickerson said that, at the start, he relied on colleagues such as Detroit's David Kolb, who is now an amateur scout, to help him learn the ropes.  “He answered a lot of my questions and was a huge help to me when I started.”  Dickerson quickly learned that his
offseason, his down time -- to the extent it exists at all -- is brief.

When the NHL announces the next season’s schedule, usually in late June, Dickerson goes to work. He meets with team management, particularly coach Terry Murray, to set up a day-by-day plan for more than six months’ worth of hockey.

Which hotel does Murray prefer in Tampa Bay? With two days between road games, will the Kings fly directly to the next city or stay overnight? It’s important, and perhaps tedious, work, and it often takes the better part of six weeks to complete.

By early August, Dickerson hopes to have his season plan nearly completed. He confirms his scheduling with plane and bus companies, making only minor tweaks as he learns of practice-rink availability on the road.

Still, some things can never be anticipated.

During Dickerson’s time with the Kings, the team was once delayed flying out of Buffalo, because weather prevented the team plane from arriving at the airport. Another time, Dickerson had to call cabs for players because the team bus broke down outside the hotel in Philadelphia.

Staff members still swap stories about the time when the team plane, intended for LAX, was instead diverted to Long Beach Airport because of fog. Dickerson scrambled to find transportation to get players and staff members back to LAX to get their cars.

``As soon as I was able to get on my cell phone, I was able to call the bus driver who drives for us in Anaheim,’’ Dickerson said. ``One of them just happened to still be in his bus, because he had just dropped off a visiting team a little bit before. So he came down and picked us up and drove us back to the (L.A. terminal). We had to wait for the (plane) stairs, because the airport was closed. We had to wait 30-45 minutes for them to call somebody to drive the truck over, just so we could unload.

``I was trying to tell them to pull the emergency chute, so we could get down, but they wouldn't do it because they said due to regulations. I was trying to think of anything I could to get out of the plane, because we were just stuck on the plane. Now, you can't really relax until we land. There's always something, that you might not even think could happen, that can happen.’’

``You always have to have a backup plan, whether it's getting more food in the locker room or calling the hotel so that we can come back if necessary. If anything, the biggest fear is feeling like you're forgetting something. To this day, I still have a simple checklist, that I made 10 years ago, that I go through every trip, every day, and just double-check that you did not overlook something.’’

Dickerson looks around for wood to knock when he says that never, during his time with the Kings or Sharks, has a bus failed to show up to transport players and staff.

It’s not easy, only being able to relax when things go absolutely perfect, but when things are going well, Dickerson isn’t noticed and the team is happy, and that’s what he prefers.

``The players know that that's what we strive for, on our side of it with the attention to detail, to allow them to just play hockey,’’ Dickerson said. “It’s about the team -- the players. That’s the consistency we strive for, the standard we set, as the Los Angeles Kings organization.”

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