Having the right person in the right place is a key factor in building a championship hockey team. That’s true on the ice, and off as well.
There are many off-ice personnel who are important. But arguably one of the most critical staff members is the team’s head athletic trainer, the person responsible for taking care of the players.
For the past 13 seasons, Ray Tufts has been San Jose’s head athletic trainer. He’s been working with professional athletes for more than two decades. Before coming to the Sharks, Tufts was on the training staff of the San Francisco 49ers and worked with the likes of Pro Football Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
Most fans envision the trainer darting onto the ice when a player is injured, but much of Tufts work goes into preventing injuries from occurring.
“We’re in the business of keeping the players as healthy as possible without injuring or re-injuring them based on something that we do,” said Tufts, whose staff includes Assistant Athletic Trainer Wes Howard, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Mike Potenza and Massage Therapist Arnulfo Aguirre.
“There are preventive things we use in training like a hot tub or hot packs, which provide moist heat,” Tufts said. “Those are pre-participation things where you’re trying to get the tissues as warm as possible. We use massage therapy and individual stretching for guys that have specific needs.”
Before practice and on game day, Tufts and his staff work on keeping players muscles warmed up and ready for action. Following practice and games, they also work on helping players cool down their bodies to help recover.
The training staff also knows that one size doesn’t fit all – in other words, everyone has different needs.
“You have it by position and you also have, what day it is, if it’s a game day or non-game day,” Tufts said. “You have guys that might have a low back, maybe a disc that’s irritated, so he might be a guy that you want to focus (in a different direction). Those types of things that are very specific to players.”
Professional hockey players skate harder than the average recreational league player. Advances in skate technology don’t always prevent leg injuries from happening.
“There are just so many things across the board,” Tufts said. “Soft-tissue things are important when you have groin pulls and hip flexors are another common one. Those are ones you really try to prevent. When they happen, you’ve just got to go into a big rehab phase.”
Tufts and his staff carefully watch the goaltenders more than the skaters because of the way they contort their bodies to stop pucks.
“A goalie has to have a really good routine for flexibility, pre and postgame, because he has to be able to make decisions and move his body in ways that aren’t predictable,” Tufts said. “When you see a goalie that gets hurt in a game, it can be that something else more significant happened.”
The types of injuries vary by sport. While hockey players may not pull leg muscles as much as baseball players, hockey players do suffer from sport-specific injuries. Tufts said common ailments are knee and ankle ligament injuries. He added that shoulders often require medical treatment.
Tufts works with players during the offseason to prevent most injuries, but when that fails, he and his staff will help the player work through his rehabilitation.
Not only will Tufts and his staff use their expertise in these situations, they’ll also listen to the players to make sure they’re doing the right thing.
“He’s a great listener when it comes to working with the players and how they are dealing with situations,” Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson said. “They respect him and he’s earned it. He understands what elite level athletes need.”
“Injuries are evaluated every day because athletes are very subjective people,” Tufts said. “You need to get the feedback from them about how they feel. I can test the flexibility of the hamstring on the good leg compared to the injured leg and have what appears to be 100 percent range of motion, but if the player has any sense of pain or discomfort, you have to treat that. You can do an MRI and it says there’s nothing there, but you can’t discount an athlete’s pain.”
Besides his off-ice staff of Howard, Potenza and Aguirre, Tufts relies heavily on some of the best team physicians around.
For 18 years, renowned sports medicine specialist Arthur J. Ting has led the Sharks medical staff. Working under Ting are doctors who are internists, work in physical medicine, attend to dermatology problems, dentists and physiatrists who handle spine work.
“We have really good doctors that have really good ideas that are on the cutting edge,” Tufts said. “Just a few years ago, a sports hernia, which is a very difficult injury to diagnose for a physician, was something that kept players out a minimum eight weeks, maybe 12 weeks. Now we’re starting to see guys returning to play in 2-3 weeks.
“We’re very fortunate with Doug Wilson and Arthur Ting,” Tufts added. “We’re kind of an open-ended medical clinic in that we don’t make a guy see someone that he may not be comfortable seeing. If we’re not comfortable, we’ll reach out to someone locally and ask for a second opinion.”
In two-plus decades of taking care of professional athletes, Tufts has seen many injuries. One athlete ruptured his ear drum by himself and missed two months because he had balance problems. Tufts said this injury “falls under the bizarre.”
With the Sharks, Tufts has treated many lacerations. For example, Bernie Nicholls, who played with the Sharks towards the end of his career in the late 1990s, had one that almost caused him to lose his eye. Douglas Murray
was hit by an errant puck in a rookie game a few years ago and “had a horrible abrasion to his cornea. He was close to losing part of his vision.”
Of course, there’s the stereotypical hockey player with missing teeth. But that kind of trauma isn’t as bad anymore as one thinks.
“We see a lot of dental injuries, but nowadays with the advent of the health care in the dental industry, these guys have replacements and you can’t even tell anymore,” Tufts said. “We push a lot of mouth guards here. We have very good dentistry.”
The Sharks are on their longest road trip of the season. They’ve played three of their five games to date. Even though they’re on the East Coast, Tufts doesn’t have to worry about not having something to treat his players. There’s mutual respect amongst all of the trainers in the National Hockey League.
“The home team supplies you with what you need,” Tufts said. “Guys will help you out. Most facilities will have the basics covered. It gets a little rough if you need a rushed MRI in some facilities. In Canada, sometimes a person waits three months and you come into town and want one that day. It can be difficult. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just a process. We feel comfortable. We have all of our docs on call when we go on the road, so we cover anything that we need.”
Tufts, who’s also president of the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers’ Society, has a solid program in place to deal with any kind of on-ice trauma during a game at HP Pavilion.
“At HP, there’s an emergency medical plan in place,” Tufts said. “Not only an evacuation in the event there is a trauma on the ice that needs to be tended to, but we have emergency-trained physicians in the event there’s something significant. We have digital X-ray in our building, which is portable so we can handle both our team and the visitors. We have one, maybe two, ER doctors. We have a full ambulance crew at ice level. We rehearse once a year in the summer with all of our positions and the ambulance crews about how we’re going to extricate an injured player. It’s not an emergency room, and it shouldn’t be, but in the event that there is a significant injury, we want to be able to handle it for about a minute in the building and then immediately get him to a hospital to save his life.”
“He’s the best and we’re very fortunate to have him here,” Wilson said. “We trust Ray to keep our players healthy and to know when they’re ready to get back on the ice.”
The Sharks return to action on Friday night in Buffalo at 4:30 p.m. The contest will be on CSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.