Kris Stierwalt expected to be sharpening skates and repairing helmets during the 2013-14 campaign. He just couldn’t have imagined he’d be doing so on the other side of the planet.
But that’s exactly what transpired for Stierwalt one season ago. Now the Head Equipment Manager for the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League, Stierwalt held that title for Medveščak Zagreb of the Kontinental Hockey League last season, tending to the equipment needs of players skating for the first-year KHL squad.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go overseas and get to see the world and work at the same time,” Stierwalt said. “It was a great experience and a great chance to do that.”
Still not entirely sure of how his name came up in the first place, Stierwalt says that the club was looking for someone from North America, due to the fact that a good amount of the team’s roster also hailed from this side of the Atlantic. Former NHLers like Jonathan Cheechoo and Kurtis Foster were among the skaters on the team’s roster in 2013-14.
Once Stierwalt considered the pros and cons to the offer, he couldn’t find much to dislike. With the club providing a car, place to live and many other necessities, the transition to Zagreb, Croatia went quite smoothly.
And once the season started up, it became as much about the sightseeing and immersion into different cultures as it was the hockey.
“Just the distances we had to travel, some of those trips were 12 hour plane rides,” Stierwalt said. “You go into some places and it’s the most beautiful place you’ve been to. Everything over there has its history with it so you’re walking around and you think ‘Oh wow, that building is hundreds of years old.’ Just seeing how other people live, how another part of the world functions; it was just a great experience.”
But it wasn’t just the atmosphere outside the rink that made an impression. Stierwalt had to pay close attention while on the bench most nights due to the overwhelming support on the other side of the glass.
“The atmosphere just inside these arenas, it was never quiet,” Stierwalt said. “You could never hear anything on the bench because the fans literally, win, lose, no matter what was going on, they were chanting and cheering. They had drums, they had organized songs that they sung throughout the whole game; it was a whole audience thing.
“The first game you go out there, it was kind of overwhelming because it’s just so loud the entire time. Even little simple things like talking to a player, you had to really listen in because it’s almost impossible to hear on some of those benches.”
There were challenges off the benches as well, especially the fact that most KHL clubs travel don’t travel light when it comes to equipment, as opposed to the standards in North American leagues.
“Over there, you traveled with everything you needed,” Stierwalt said. “I guess you were more self-sufficient over there, so I would take everything I needed. Here, we walk into the visiting rooms and there’s all the tape provided for us, there’s all the coffee makers and towels and everything like that provided. Over there, we had to bring all that stuff with us and take it when we left. That aspect of it made it a little more difficult, but everything else was pretty much the exact same. There’s skates to sharpen, there’s laundry to do, the same things that we do every day over here.”
There was also a language barrier to deal with, but it wasn’t nearly as much of an issue at it may initially seem, especially on a team composed of mostly native English speakers.
“[The language issue] was just mainly when we were on the road and dealing with visiting teams,” Stierwalt said. “We ran into slight problems with that, but with enough pointing and hand gestures, you could usually figure something out.”
But the language of hockey is universal. After an experience that Stierwalt wouldn’t trade for anything, the head man in Milwaukee is undoubtedly better off personally and professionally, thanks to the experience.
And while things may have been different on the streets away from the arena, skates still needed sharpened inside.
“It was almost like the safe haven was a rink; that was always familiar,” Stierwalt said. “The ice was bigger, but besides that, it was the same stuff. The players need the same stuff here as they do there. The game is played the same way. The hockey aspect of it didn’t really change, the day to day stuff, from here to what I did there was pretty much the exact same… At the end of the day, it’s still hockey.”