by Wayne Karl
June 6, 2006
(TORONTO) -- You may not know his name or exactly what he does, but chances are you recognize the face. Indeed, Brian Papineau is quite likely one of the most recognizable non-player faces in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, and it's not because of media interest afforded the likes of general manager John Ferguson or president and CEO Richard Peddie.
There aren't many interview requests for guys like Papineau, head equipment manager for the Leafs. His celebrity comes mostly from being in the right place at the right time.
On May 1, 1993, when the Leafs' Nikolai Borschevsky scored in overtime in Detroit to eliminate the Red Wings in game 7 of the Norris Division semi-finals, TV cameras captured a jubilant Papineau jumping on the Leafs bench, squirting a water bottle like it was a magnum of Dom Perignon.
This famous and oft-replayed highlight couldn't have been a more right place, right time for the then 28-year-old Papineau.
|Papineau has loved every minute of his job with the Leafs. |
These days, watch any Leafs telecast and you're bound to see Papineau, now 40, on the Leaf bench standing at the ready to fetch a stick, run skates to the dressing room for sharpening or hand a player some freshly dried gloves.
Though there haven't been enough moments like 1993, the affable but quiet "Pappy' says he has loved every minute of the nearly 20 years since he joined the profession full-time in 1986 as equipment manager for the Leafs' farm club, the Newmarket Saints.
Equipment manager is a position that requires long hours and offers little glory. Like roadies for a rock band, equipment and training staff are usually the first to come and the last to leave, their work critical to success but rarely recognized as such.
Papineau's brethren among NHL equipment managers and trainers make a point of recognizing their own once a year, and on June 13, Papineau will be honoured for reaching the 1,500-game milestone during the group's annual meeting in Ft. Lauderdale.
"Years ago, Gunner Garrett (former equipment manager in St. Catharines and Toronto) said to me, "Son, some day you and I will be in the NHL.' And I just thought "Yeah, right.' I was just happy to be where I was."
Papineau knows full well he is lucky. In his profession, working for the Leafs is an absolute plumb job - even with the 15-hour days on game days. He has two assistants working with him, Scott McKay and Bobby Hastings.
"It's like working for the Yankees in baseball," he says. "All the tradition, the history of the team, the fan following, the passion that everyone shares. I feel very fortunate to have this position. There's nothing better."
A lot has happened over the course of Papineau's time behind the Leaf bench, from the people who have come and gone to the technological advancements in equipment.
When Papineau came to Toronto, the GM who hired him was Gord Stellick, and the coach was John Brophy.
"He was a good kid, worked hard, kept his nose clean and his mouth shut," says Stellick, now a Toronto media personality. "He was genuinely good at what he did and he quickly earned the respect of the players - not an easy thing to do."
Papineau has worked with some all-time Leaf greats, including Doug Gilmour, Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph and, of course, Mats Sundin. His first year in Toronto, in fact, was Borje Salming's last season in blue and white.
Hockey players are famous for being particular with their gear - some of them downright quirky. Papineau lists recent Leafs Gary Roberts and Alex Mogilny as some of the players who pay close attention.
Ed Belfour, in particular, is something of a legend when it comes to having specific instructions, especially for his skates. So precise must the sharpening job on Belfour's blades be that the goalie had to teach Papineau how to do it - three times.
It's just one of the ways his job has changed over the years.
"I remember having only one pair of gloves for each player, not too many knee braces and the equipment could fit into a small bag.
"Today, the equipment is bigger, guys carry two or three pairs of gloves and it seems like a third of the team wears knee braces. The sticks, skates, helmets - everything is better."
Working in the hockey hotbed of Toronto also means Papineau must manage a steady stream of visits from equipment manufacturers. Every company wants their brand on the ice in Toronto.
"It's great that they're around because they can help with problems that come up," he says. "But sometimes there's too many of them and it's hard to manage. The competition is fierce."
"He is in the toughest position of any equipment manager in the NHL," says Brad Janson, a long-time pro services rep now with TPS Hockey. "At any time, he could have 6 or 7 reps knocking on his door to get in and talk to his players.
"He does (the job) better than anyone I've seen in this business."
It's not all work and no play for Papineau, however. He's got two budding hockey stars at home in Oakville, Ont. - his 8-year-old daughter Abby, a forward, and son Alex, 7, a goalie. Both play AA rep hockey. Four-year-old Amy is just learning to skate.
"Hockey is our life," he says.
This statement holds true for no one more than the person Papineau credits most for his tenure with the Leafs - his wife Shelley.
"I couldn't do my job if it wasn't for her. For what she does at home, because I'm at the rink so much... you have to have a good person at home to take care of the family.
"She's been so important to me reaching my milestone."
Aside from some off-season rest, Papineau is also busy getting to know his new boss, head coach Paul Maurice.
"It'll be exciting," he says. "I enjoyed all my years with Pat Quinn, so having a new coach is an adjustment and something I'm looking forward to."
And with more hard work and a little luck, Papineau and Maurice might celebrate another milestone down the road - and maybe even a Stanley Cup championship.
Wayne Karl is a freelance writer in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com