Back in 1996, Ray Tufts made a major career decision. He had been with the San Francisco 49ers for 10 years, serving as a training staff assistant for his first three seasons before becoming the team’s assistant trainer. Then he took an opportunity to join the San Jose Sharks. When the team plays in Columbus on Wednesday, he’ll work his 1,000th National Hockey League game.
Along the way to the Sharks, Tufts was a member of three Super Bowl Champions and worked with future Pro Football Hall of Famers such as Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott. He was surrounded by the best in pro football and the Sharks weren’t quite the franchise they are today. However, the Sharks wanted winners in their organization, both on-and-off the ice.
Like everyone who wants to be the best in their field, Tufts was ready to make the move to be the top guy. So when the San Jose Sharks went looking for a new head athletic trainer, Tufts, with encouragement from some of the 49ers players, answered the call.
“They were very instrumental in encouraging me to go somewhere,” Tufts said. “I was an assistant for a number of years. It was time.”
Now, 13 years later, Tufts is still behind the Sharks bench. In fact, Tufts will be behind the Team USA bench at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver as well.
“Looking back, it’s just a tremendous career decision,” Tufts said about leaving the 49ers to join the Sharks. “Personally, it’s just been awesome and I still enjoy it.”
At first, Tufts wondered if he made the right move. After all, he had been working for one of the top teams in the NFL. Now, Tufts had gone to a team who had just experienced a 20-win season and was only starting to develop a foundation for future success.
“I remember being in Fresno for a preseason game against Colorado, looking up at the scoreboard and wondering what I got myself into,” Tufts said. “That whole first year, I can’t remember our record (it was 27-47-8) because I’ve tried to erase that.”
Tufts immersed himself in the game to ensure he was ready for the NHL and made himself into a hockey guy.
“When you come over to a new sport you’re at the mercy of the athletes, the locker room is controlled by the attitude. Everything is with the athletes,” Tufts said. “For me it was being accepted. I knew injuries, I knew prevention, I knew rehabilitation. I knew I could take care of these guys, but they have to let the dog out to sniff you to make sure that you really know what you are doing.
“I tried to immerse myself as much as possible with watching hockey,” he added. “Back then, it was VHS tapes and every day while working out, I would put a game on and try to learn more about it, try and read up on every team we were playing. Learning the roster, learning the names, learning the countries where the guys were from. It’s just a matter of time before you either get it or you don’t. Working in any locker room, either you get it or you don’t.”
A major adjustment was the difficulties presented because of the hockey’s intense schedule, especially playing on the road.
“The thing you have to appreciate is the travel,” Tufts said. “It’s the number of games, you go from 16 in the NFL to 82. Then you have the preseason and playoffs and with that you have to prepare everything on the road just like you’re home. You don’t have your team doctor with you. You have to rely on the home team’s doctor. You have to stock trunks that have to be readily accessible and have enough of everything.
“It’s almost like being a Boy Scout and being prepared because the last thing you want is to have their (the players) confidence and then show up on the road and forget something that’s important to them, or have an injury and not have the right things.”
With San Jose, Tufts provided the organization with first-hand knowledge of what a championship organization needed and in turn he has been provided what he needs.
“The management and ownership groups (here) give you all the tools you need,” Tufts said.
Keeping the players ready, yet keeping them from becoming even more injured because of their strong desire not to miss a game when they feel they can play, is a delicate balance.
“Health is paramount,” Tufts said. “If the players aren’t healthy, they aren’t participating. You have to make decisions based on the longevity of their careers.”
Tufts may never set foot on the ice, but make no mistake about it, he’s a difference maker for the team.
“There are games when I look out there and a guy scores a goal and silently I’m thinking ‘That’s a trainers’ goal,’” Tufts said. “There won’t be anything in the press. There won’t be a slap on the back. It’s just a quiet feeling when you get a guy back healthy and everybody is happy he’s playing. When he scores, that’s a plus for me. That competitive edge is there every game.”
Tufts came to the Sharks along with Equipment Manager Mike Aldrich (Tufts will beat Aldrich to the 1,000-game mark by one game). The two have enjoyed working in unison.
“It’s almost like Mike and I always had a silent pact that we would do everything we could to make our franchise better and to make our athletes better,” Tufts said.
Tufts became an athletic trainer at the right time in the 1980s. He was part of new thinking and methods.
“Sports medicine wasn’t known (at the time), athletic training was basically in books,” Tufts said.
Everyone needs encouragement to get started in a field and Tufts was lucky to get that from his parents, Bob and Jo.
“I can remember coming home and saying, ‘I really like this sports medicine stuff, traveling with teams and taking care of their bumps and bruises,’” Tufts said. “So being good parents they probably said, ‘We’ll give the kid enough rope until he hangs himself and then he can figure out what he can do.’
“I don’t think the three of us ever figured that I could make a living doing this. They were supportive, to say the least. (At Sacramento State, where Tufts went to college) they would come and see me, come to games. The same thing with pro sports and then even getting used to hockey over the years. Now they plan their trips around the games and come visit and stay with me and my wife Michelle and it’s been great.”
So what directed Tufts, at the time a young, aspiring musician playing weddings and bat mitzvahs, to the world of professional sports? It was a family friend who helped point him in the right direction.
“I was a freshman in high school and at the end of that year a senior, who was a family friend, was the ‘athletic trainer’ for the school,” Tufts said. “He handed me off to a high school advisor, a counselor-type that changed my coursework from metal shop and basket weaving to human science, biology and chemistry.
“Looking back now,” he added, “I knew what I wanted to do and was fortunate to just have opportunities with people, coursework, and education along the way.”
People pointed Tufts in the right direction during his high school years. He also got guidance when he found out about an opportunity with the 49ers.
“I went to Shasta Community College and I spent two years there under a guy that had a contact with the 49ers,” Tufts said. “So, as a young 18-year-old, he took me to visit the 49ers training camp. I wrote a letter asking to be an intern and help them during training camp. They sent a nice polite note back saying we have graduate students and this isn’t for kids. So, I did two years at the community college and my second year I got a call. I was working at a steel mill with my dad and the 49ers called and said they were interested in having me come.”
Tufts was a training camp assistant from 1987-90. The 49ers trained at Sierra Community College in Rocklin, which was close to Sacramento and Sacramento State. In 1991, Tufts got his wish: having a full-time job with a professional sports team, the 49ers.
“I was one of the really lucky ones,” Tufts said. “They offered me a job when I graduated. Out of 10-12 students that were athletic trainers, (many) were going on to get their master’s and I was the only one out of the fold that went right in to pro sports. It was great for to me to go right into a huge experience.”
Tufts broke in towards the end of the 49ers dynasty. He learned a lot from star players who had one thing in mind: being the best they could be.
“The people that raised me in the locker room were incredible,” Tufts said. “When you go in, you don’t think about it. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Lott. Guys that just walked you through the process. I learned to be as smart as you can, have confidence when you work with players, stay up on things, know how to work with players and with management. I was lucky to have such a great experience and the team was so successful, year in and year out. It made you look like you were a genius.”
The years have gone by, but the relationships are still strong.
“Harris (Barton) is local. Ronnie is local. Joe calls once a year and leaves a message and then we talk and check in. He’s still very interested in what I do. He was one of the guys that I talked to in the NFL when I got the call from the Sharks. Joe, Ronnie, Harris and Steve Bono were all hockey fans and they were very instrumental in encouraging me that I needed to go somewhere.”
And the Sharks are glad that Tufts decided to venture south of the 49ers Santa Clara complex to handle their needs.
San Jose sent forwards Jamie McGinn and Logan Couture
back to Worcester on Monday.
The Sharks will visit Columbus on Wednesday in a 4 p.m. game. The blackout will be lifted for NHL Center Ice subscribers and as always, there will be coverage on 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com