As Oilers Training Camp enters its final week, much focus has been placed on the players – prospective, new, and returning – and the organization’s vision for the upcoming season. But Training Camp does more than test of on-ice performance and chemistry – it also tests the flexibility, preparation, and limits of the team’s trainers and equipment managers.
Starting in mid-September, this vital behind-the-scenes unit saw its normal clientele of 23 professional hockey players swell to 76. That’s over three teams worth of skates, sticks, shoulder pads, sprains, and – on the odd occasion – stitches. That’s 76 home, away, and practice jerseys with names and numbers spanning from (Jamie) Bates to (Bryan) Young and #1 (Devan Dubnyk) to #90 (Justin Chwedoruk).
The influx of players is something the locker room team – led by Head Medical Trainer Ken Lowe and Head Equipment Manager Barry Stafford – spend their summers preparing for.
“It’s strictly logistics and numbers,” Stafford explains. “Once we cut down by October 9th, we have 23 players and it’s a very manageable number. But we’re starting off with three teams so it’s basically a staff issue.”
“We have a bit of a system and a formula that we’ve used in the past and it’s just strictly the law of averages. We have a list and we break up who’s responsible for what so that it makes the workload a little easier, and then at the end of the day we cross-reference things.”
THE OIL COUNTRY ROOKIE TOURNAMENT
This year, another challenge was added to the already challenging pre-season schedule: the Oil Country Rookie Tournament in Camrose. With help from the Springfield Falcons staff and a handful of experienced Training Camp pinch hitters, the trainers and equipment managers packed up and deployed to the Rose City with enough gear to meet Oilers, Flames, and Canucks demands.
According to Stafford, the Rookie Tournament marked the end of a very busy summer and the beginning of the busiest time of year.
|Equipment Manager Jeff Lang modifies a shin pad for Oilers Training Camp rookie Kelly Czuy. |
“Because we had our rookie camp set up as a tournament with Vancouver and Calgary, it was a little bit of a different format,” he explains. “We had 41 players come in early and we outfitted them head to toe, including game sweaters, which is something we hadn’t done in the past.”
“And that’s just one facet. Then we had to organize as well the practice sweaters and practice socks. The visible part of the hockey players – the helmets, gloves, pants, sweaters, and socks – are basically all new. The equipment that they wear underneath, we upgrade as needed. And every player that comes to Camp – except for the Junior players, which is only a handful – has their own pattern in sticks. So it takes time and prep time to order sticks and organize who’s coming, who’s not coming, where they’re going.”
'THE BUSIEST SUMMER I'VE EVER HAD'
That preparation process begins in early summer, which leaves very little time for decompression at the end of the previous season – a new reality that affects players and staff alike.
“This summer was the busiest summer I’ve ever had,” Lowe says. “The season used to end, you’d spend a month doing inventory, and that was pretty well it until you came back a month before the season starts. But for me, from the medical perspective, you’re constantly following up on players, bringing players in to be looked at, so that aspect of my job has changed dramatically in the last couple of years.”
On the equipment side, trade shows, ordering supplies, and managing deliveries keeps Stafford and Equipment Managers Lyle “Sparky” Kulchisky and Jeff Lang working from home or at the rink until mid-August. “By the time the last week in August comes along, we’re working full days.”
|Teamwork in action: Training Camp rookie Kelly Czuy, Equipment Manager Jeff Lang, and Assistant Medical Trainer Chris Davie modify Czuy's shin pad to accommodate a knee brace. |
The players’ summer schedules – including intensive training and perhaps a move to a new team – are also factors Stafford, Lowe, and their staff must consider.
“The players are going full force all of summer usually, so we go through probably one extra pair of skates a year now just because of that,” Stafford explains. “As far as players that come during the off-season or if it’s their first year pro, we always call the players long before Training Camp starts to make personal contact.”
THE NHL NETWORK
The NHL’s tight-knit Trainers network facilitates the process of introducing a player into a new locker room and vice versa.
“When we make a trade or we pick a player up in free agency, the first person we call is the Trainer on the other team,” Stafford explains. “And we have basically an inventory of what players do and what they like as far as their equipment, their sizes, and as well as what kind of people they are, their different quirks.
“As an example, Luby (Lubomir Visnovsky), when he came to us from LA, I pretty much had him figured out long before I even met him. I knew all the equipment that he wore, I knew what kind of sticks he used, what kind of skates, and what kind of areas that I should pay a little more attention to as far as what his needs might be. Because of the way things have evolved with trainers, it is very seamless.”
Such a network is equally important on the medical side.
“In the last few years, the League has gone to a computer system, so the minute that player is traded, I can look at his file immediately,” Lowe explains. “If there’s a concern, we’ll have to take a look at it. Before, we used to do a medical on him and have to go from that.”
This year, the entire medical testing process on Day 1 of Training Camp was inputted on-line and in real time, saving Lowe and his team days worth of paperwork and filing.
“It’s a huge process to take all that information and incorporate it into the system, but this year we’ve streamlined a few of the processes – for getting signatures and sending all the information over the internet – so it’s gone a lot more quickly than it has in the past.”
Technology isn’t the only aspect of Lowe’s job that has changed in recent years.
“I think one of my cohorts in the League said that we are Health Managers now instead of Trainers because there’s so much more involved,” he says. “The players themselves are requesting more, like acupuncture or different forms of stretching. You get players who come from other teams who have had different techniques used on them, so they’re asking for them. So you have to keep up and now we bring in those specialties. It’s all about managing to make sure we have the proper people to do these types of things.”
|Head Equipment Manager Barry Stafford surveys the Oilers bench at the tail end of the 2007-08 season. Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Vancouver Canucks. |
A TIGHT TEAM
New players, new techniques, and new types of equipment mean an evolving environment throughout Training Camp, both on and off the ice. Both Lowe and Stafford say the key to staying on top of things is preparation and teamwork.
With Assistant Medical Trainer Chris Davie, Massage Therapist Stephen Lines, and Dressing Room Attendant Joey Moss joining Lowe, Stafford, Lang, and “Sparky” on the locker room team, the group draws from decades of pro-sports experience.
“The great part about what happens in the Oilers organization is that there are such quality people that work in the positions,” Stafford says. “I can’t say enough how much I value their contributions and without a team like this, I can honestly say that it wouldn’t be possible to do what we do.”
Lowe agrees wholeheartedly.
“It’s so important to be surrounded by a group of dedicated professionals who have a passion for what they do. We have a core group of medical professionals that we rely on on a regular basis, and it’s so important for us to have a good working relationship with our doctors because with our healthcare system in Canada, it can be hard to get our players seen right away, but our doctors do a great job.”As the Oilers continue to fine-tune their roster in anticipation of the season opener on October 12th, the training staff will continue to meet the demands of this high-profile, high-performing professional hockey club. And with a lot of hard work and a little luck, they’ll be busy manning the locker room until mid-June.