Back in 1996, the San Jose Sharks made a call-up from their minor league affiliate in Kansas City when they promoted Mike Aldrich from his equipment manager position in the International Hockey League to the one with the big club. Thirteen years, and almost 1,000 games later, Aldrich is still bringing his professionalism and dedication every day for the Sharks.
For Aldrich, a proud native of Hancock, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the time has flown by. He began working for the local college, Michigan Tech, moved on to the Kansas City Blades and is now an NHL fixture.
“When people tell you that it goes by fast, you’d better believe them because it goes by extremely fast,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich has enjoyed the camaraderie he’s experienced over the years, especially with Head Athletic Trainer Ray Tufts.
“To do it in the same organization and not only the same organization, but a great organization, is one thing,” Aldrich said. “For Ray and I being good friends and great working partners, is even a bigger thrill for me.”
Tufts will actually beat Aldrich to the 1,000-game mark by one game and both reach the mark on the next road trip, but it’s a game Aldrich had no problem missing.
“We’re one game off because of a game after Christmas in Calgary when I stayed and watched Jason (one of his two sons) play a tournament game in Calgary years ago,” Aldrich said. “It was my first missed game ever and one missed game that I’ll never regret because it was a big thrill for me to stay up there and watch him captain his team. We got to stay and see him play a game against Shattuck-St. Mary's, where he played against Sidney Crosby and a bunch of other guys that are all-stars in the NHL, so it was pretty cool.”
Aldrich’s role has him not just ordering skates and making sure players have enough sticks. He oversees a budget befitting a professional sports franchise and wears a lot of different hats.
“Being head equipment manager in the NHL, you are so hands on with the business side of things,” Aldrich said. “You’re dealing with big budgets. Before you always answered to the head coach, now you are answering even more directly to the general manager, business operations people, the accounting office and people like that. You have a lot more responsibility that I wasn’t accustomed to dealing with early on in my career. You still have to be extremely hands on with the players, but maybe in different ways.”
When Aldrich entered the NHL, the simple wood sticks and some aluminum shafts with wood blades ruled the day. Now, sticks are composite one-piece models and are now ten-fold from what they were 13 years ago.
“Sticks are the obvious difference (regarding equipment from 13 years ago), with the carbon influence and the cost of them,” Aldrich said.
Many things have changed over time, but the game is still the game and the players are what make the game special.
“The players really haven’t changed that much although they’re a lot bigger,” Aldrich said. “Their attitudes and personalities haven’t changed, but every player is big now and they’re athletes. Not to say they weren’t in the past, but their conditioning regime is so much different. The amount of time they spend at the rink is a lot different, too. There are so many off ice things that they have to be committed to that they spend a lot more time at the rink as well.”
Aldrich’s staff includes Assistant Equipment Manager Rick Bronwell and Equipment Assistant and Equipment Transportation handler Roy Sneesby. If people knew their time commitment to the sport, they would be shocked.
“I don’t think most people realize the hours that we put in,” Aldrich said. “A lot of people don’t realize how hands-on you have to be with the players, how much a part of their life you really are on a day-to-day basis.”
Being an NHL equipment manager is not an 8-5 job. When the team is on the road, playing three times in four nights -- as just occurred in Atlanta, Tampa and Philadelphia -- the schedule is a bit rough.
“For us, it’s always especially rough in a back-to-back situation,” Aldrich said. “The players will be out of the dressing room postgame within 45 minutes. So, we will set a truck time and the truck is leaving no matter what at this time so the players are responsible for getting out of their gear quick and we get that truck loaded, head to the airport and load the airplane as quickly as we can. Hopefully the wheels are up within a half-hour after the team arrives. We try to get there before the team arrives.
“As soon as we land, we unload the airplane,” Aldrich added. “We can be wheels up before midnight. We’ll usually have at least an hour flight, so we’re landing between 1 and 1:30 in the morning. By the time you get to the rink it’s probably close to 2 in the morning. We’ve got a good hour and a half, hour and 45 minutes of offloading and set-up and then we will be right back at the rink at seven, pending a morning skate. Even if there isn’t, most likely there will be somebody coming down so we always plan to be up and out of the hotel by 7:30 so we are at the rink at 8 o’clock to do it all over again.”
Plus, the equipment crew is not always setting up shop in a different NHL arena for road practices.
“I don’t think people realize that the majority of the time when you’re on the road, you don’t practice at a big NHL building,” Aldrich said. “In Tampa, we had to practice offsite and that equipment doesn’t get there magically. We’ve got to haul this gear and set it up at a practice rink and then haul it back to the game rink and then be set up for the morning. I don’t think people realize how much moving we do on non-game days.”
There are a few benefits to being on the road, even with the longer hours.
“I often think that the days may be a little longer because you’re flying, but I actually feel that the routine itself is maybe a little easier because once the team leaves, we’ve got our little routine that we do in the dressing room to get ready for the games,” Aldrich said. “We don’t have to worry about laundering jerseys and underwear bags (because of help from the host club) and you get a little bit of a break from the desk side of the job.”
While the general assumption is a manager like Aldrich definitely gets his hand dirty doing the grunt work, he has to play the part of a white collar businessman as well.
“I don’t think people realize how professional the business is because they see us down on the bench for three hours every game night,” Aldrich said. “You have to communicate well with management, with the front office, with the players and plus you have to get along as a group. We are together all the time. So on that level I don’t think people realize it’s a professional business.”
For Aldrich, the best part of his job is simply being around the type of people that make hockey the game it is. While the players are always changing, the constant flux doesn’t stop him from building lifetime friendships.
“There have been a large group of guys that you always look back and say, ‘Man am I ever glad I worked for them,’ because normally you learn something from them,” said Aldrich of past Sharks such as Tony Granato, Adam Graves, Gary Suter and Mike Ricci. “Those guys are the class of the class, the epitome of a pro. They are great people, fun to be around, people that you will always stay in touch with. There have been plenty of them. “Outside of the players, there have been people like (current Sharks Vice President and Assistant General Manager) Wayne Thomas. I’ve been lucky to have great coaches like Todd (McLellan) and Ronnie (Wilson),” Aldrich added. “I consider those guys friends. Darryl Sutter definitely is a family friend and somebody I will always stay in touch with. There are lots of assistant coaches like Richie Preston, Todd Richards, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler. The people and winning are the things that keep you in this. Hockey people are good people.”
Part of the reason Aldrich appreciates the game so much is that he grew up in such a tight hockey community and maybe an even tighter hockey family. The sport means so much to the community of Hancock, Mich. and one conversation with Aldrich lets anyone know how proud he is of where he came from.
“I grew up in a big time hockey community. My dad was a rec player and I grew up a hockey player,” Aldrich said. “Even my sister messed around in hockey. We’ve been involved in the Michigan Tech program since we were very, very young.”
Aldrich’s wife, Susie, comes from a family that has the passion for hockey.
“I married into a hockey family,” Aldrich said. “My father-in-law played college hockey at Michigan Tech, my brother-in-law played college hockey and went on to play some pro hockey in Europe. So, my wife knew what she was getting into and she’s been a huge, huge supporter of what I do for a living. I mean, she’s made it a part of her life.”
And they’ve passed that love onto their children. Brad is a video coach for the Chicago Blackhawks and Jason is working on his master’s degree with an aim to stay in the sports world.
“Brad (the oldest) only played up to a certain level, but Jason was able to play college hockey (Finlandia University back in Hancock) and now he’s studying to be a strength and conditioning guy. He hopes to work in pro sports with hockey probably his first choice at this point, but he would love pro sports whether it’s football, hockey or baseball,” Aldrich said. “Brad is a smart kid who started working with the coaching staff at Notre Dame and worked his way into the NHL. He’ll have a long career.”
Aldrich is so well respected in the profession that he will serve in the same capacity for Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Before that though, he’ll be acknowledged for his 1,000th NHL game and in a nice bit of irony, it will occur back in Michigan when the Sharks face Detroit on Nov. 5.
BLACKOUT LIFTED The blackout has been lifted for the Nov. 4 game in Columbus meaning that those with the NHL Center Ice television package will be able to watch the contest.
NEXT GAME San Jose will return to home ice on Wednesday when they play hosts to the Los Angeles Kings at 7:30 p.m. in a game that will be on CSN California, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com. Tickets can be found at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office and at www.ticketmaster.com