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'Tricky Ricky' Approaches Pro Hockey Milestone

Wild assistant equipment manager will assist in 1,500th professional game Tuesday

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

Rick Bronwell doesn't watch hockey games like you watch them. Or like a coach, a player or a broadcaster for that matter.

On a typical night at Xcel Energy Center, more than 19,000 people are jammed into the building. Perhaps two dozen -- all of them wearing player uniforms -- have a better vantage point than Bronwell, yet unlike anyone else, Bronwell has no interest in what is happening around the puck.

Watch behind the play. That's what has Bronwell's attention.

"I can't tell you who scores goals," Bronwell said. "I'm not watching that. I'm looking behind the play, looking for a slash, always scanning the ice for our players."

It's all a part of the job for Bronwell, one of the club's two assistant equipment managers, who will celebrate 1,500 games in professional hockey on Tuesday when the Wild hosts the Carolina Hurricanes. 

While laying out jerseys and repairing damaged equipment are two of the dozens of job duties, one of Bronwell's most noticeable tasks comes when a Wild player snaps a stick and flies back to the bench in search of a new one. It's Bronwell's job to identify the player, grab one of his sticks off the rack and dangle it over the boards for him to snag on the fly. 

The pressure is pretty low-key when the Wild is pressuring in the offensive zone and a player has time to return to the bench to retrieve the lumber. 

But when a defenseman shatters his stick on a slap shot and sends the other team down on a potential 2-on-1 break? You better believe the heart rate goes up a notch or two.

"It's definitely an adrenaline rush, in case you're falling asleep," Bronwell says.

Instead of waiting for goals or big saves, Bronwell is always analyzing who is on the ice, where that jersey number corresponds to its location on the stick rack (lowest to highest, lowest on the left). 

Faceoffs are another prime location for a busted twig. If the draw is anywhere close to the bench, Bronwell will instinctively pull the stick of the guy in the circle, just in case. 

"Knob side is always out. Never blade first," Bronwell said. 

It's a lesson learned the hard way. A few years back, Bronwell left the blade over the ice, an exchange that was fumbled immediately. 

The referee blew his whistle and charged Minnesota with a bench minor for throwing a stick on the ice. 

"They didn't score on the power play, which was good," Bronwell said. "I just looked up at [then Wild coach Mike Yeo] and said, 'I'm sorry.'" 

It's the only time "Tricky," as he's known inside the dressing room, has had a direct impact on an NHL game. Still, his importance to players and coaches with the Wild is nearly impossible to measure.



An early beginning

Just how does one enter the expressway in the fast-lane career of professional hockey equipment managing?

For Bronwell, it began the summer before his freshman year of high school. His father, also named Rick, worked as the concessions manager at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, home of the Kansas City Blades of the now-defunct International Hockey League. 

Every day, the senior Bronwell would run across Blades equipment manager Tim LeRoy. Equipment managing at the minor-league levels is a thankless job. It's often one man doing the tasks handled by three people in the NHL.

"You're by yourself in the minors, but there's still the same number of guys on the ice," said Wild head equipment manager Tony DaCosta. 

One day, the eldest Bronwell asked LeRoy if he was in need of a stick boy for the team, someone to shuttle sticks and fill water bottles before, during and after games. The youngest Bronwell, then 13 years old, was the perfect age for the job. It helped that he also fit into the team's budget for the position: Zero dollars.

"My dad kind of forced me into it," Bronwell said. 

For the next few years, Bronwell worked as the team's stick boy on game nights. LeRoy moved on to greener pastures and currently works as the head equipment manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

In came Mike Aldrich, who would go on to head the San Jose Sharks equipment staff. 

Once done with high school, Bronwell applied for his first promotion; moving from stick boy to "truck guy," the man responsible for driving to and from the airport to retrieve the visiting team's equipment and help set it up.

"This was a full-time job where I actually got paid, instead of just getting 100 bucks at Christmas as a gift," Bronwell said. "I took that and kind of went from there."

It was during this time that Bronwell had a revelation: This is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

"I was sitting there one night at 2 in the morning, watching the dryer spin, and I thought to myself, 'I'd like to be the guy that fixes the goalie pads and sharpens skates,'" Bronwell said. "I loved what I was doing. I enjoyed coming to work every day."


A nomadic existence

Bronwell worked six years as the Blades' truck guy until the IHL folded in 2001.

Now without a job, the Kansas City native went about continuing his career elsewhere, a trip outside his comfort zone for the first time in his life.

Bronwell began applying for jobs as a head equipment guy in the East Coast Hockey League when, two days after getting married, he caught his next break. A new team, led by coach Mike Haviland, was starting up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. 

"A lot of times, it's right place, right time. You have to have a reputation as a hard worker," Bronwell said. "Word gets around to who you are. If you bust your butt for the right people, usually it comes back around. If you treat people right, you'll get your chances, too."

Bronwell was forced to start from scratch with the expansion Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies. It was a daunting task, but one that provided him with an opportunity to run his own operation the way he wanted to do it.

The new team was set to play at the old Boardwalk Hall, right on the Atlantic Ocean and former site of the Miss America Pageant. 

"Big horseshoe-shaped, beautiful barn. Lights on the ceiling, it was a big dome," Bronwell said. "They built an awesome locker room, but the only thing in there was stalls. That was it."

Bronwell's first task was a trip to Home Depot, where he opened a credit account in the team's name. He needed to buy everything; from cabinets and tables to shelving andorganizers, to a commercial-sized washer and dryer to clean jerseys.

Bronwell paid $3,000 for a couple of pieces of equipment from the Blades, including a skate sharpener, a riveter and the glove dryers, all equipment he had worked with for years while in Kansas City.

"It was awesome," Bronwell said. "I had a blank room. It was a canvas and I got to paint it the way I wanted to. I learned a lot, too. When I was in Kansas City, things were already set up. Then when you get your own place, you can do it exactly the way you envision it."

Goal-oriented, Bronwell saw himself spending five years in the ECHL. But his stay in Atlantic City was even shorter than he imagined.



'Ravishing' Rick

At the conclusion of the first season in New Jersey, Bronwell went back to Kansas City to work in the same pro shop in which he had grown up working. His expectation was to return to his job in Atlantic City later that summer, until a conversation with an old friend changed his career track forever.

One of his buddies and a co-worker at the same pro shop, Dennis Soetaert, had just been hired as the new truck guy for the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League.

The club was in its second year as an affiliate for the Wild. 

It was Soetaert, now an assistant equipment manager with the Dallas Stars, who recommended Bronwell apply for the head job with the Aeros. With just one year of experience as a head equipment manager, coming at the ECHL level no less, Bronwell scoffed at the idea of getting the job in Houston.

Two days after applying, Bronwell got a call from Tom Lynn, then the Wild's assistant general manager Aeros' general manager, requesting he meet him in Syracuse, New York for an interview. 

"Afterward, I flew home, and later that night, I got a call with a contract offer with the Aeros," Bronwell said.

Curious about the new equipment manager for their minor league affiliate, DaCosta and the Wild's other assistant equipment manager, Matt Benz, looked Bronwell up in the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society-Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers directory.

DaCosta and Benz flipped to the page dedicated to the Atlantic City team and saw the listing: "Ravishing Rick Bronwell."

"We knew this was a guy that named himself Ravishing Rick," Benz said. "Other than that, we didn't know what to expect."

A couple weeks later, Bronwell went to the Twin Cities to accompany Benz and the team's prospects to the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. It was that 12-hour trek to Michigan where Benz got his first taste of "Ravishing" Rick. 

The road trip offered a glimpse into Bronwell the man. Now, when a laugh is heard from inside the Wild dressing room, "Tricky" is usually square in the middle of it.

"We've had a lot of laughs," Benz said. "We all know Ricky as a guy who is always on. He knows when to take it serious; he's a true professional. But he also knows when to keep it light. There's one Rick Bronwell, and nobody can duplicate him."



Welcome to The Show

Bronwell remained with the Aeros for five years, winning a Calder Cup ring with the team in his first season. Then, in 2007, he got his first crack at the NHL, working for his old friend Mike Aldrich.

By now a father of two young daughters, both of which were born in Houston, Bronwell and his wife, Heather, packed up and moved to San Jose as Rick chased his dream.

It didn't take long to realize that life in California would be a little different than it was in Houston. While he did a bulk of the work himself working solo in the AHL, Bronwell was now a member of an equipment staff. 

A first-class organization, Bronwell said he loved his time with the Sharks, but longed to eventually return to the Wild.

After three years with San Jose, Bronwell had that chance. Helping the Sharks through a playoff run, however, he turned down the opportunity at first.

"Tony called me and asked me if I was interested," Bronwell said. "I told him no. Things were good. I still had a year on my contract."

After the Sharks beat the Detroit Red Wings in the second round and advanced to a date against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2013 Western Conference Finals, circumstances changed.

Paying $2,600 a month to rent a house, Bronwell, his wife and his daughters were booted by the landlord, whose own house had been foreclosed.

"He said, 'I want to take over this house. I'm moving in in July, so you guys have to be out by June 28,'" Bronwell said. "I thought to myself, 'Forget this, I can't do this anymore.'"

With the cost of living in San Jose high, and without a roof over his family's head, Bronwell called DaCosta back and said he was ready to come to Minnesota. 

He's been here ever since.

"He made the phone calls, I talked to [Wild general manager] Chuck [Fletcher]," Bronwell said. "The rest is history."


Roll with the punches

DaCosta, Bronwell and Benz together form one of the most experienced groups in the NHL. DaCosta will celebrate 2,000 professional games next season while Benz himself is approaching 1,000 games.

In a line of work with plenty of turnover and guys moving around, the group will celebrate its seventh anniversary together later this year.

"The work they do for you, they help you to prepare for the game," said Wild captain Mikko Koivu. "But even more important are the friendships you create over the years. I think that's something you realize more and more is what you appreciate."

Aside from the personal relationships -- indeed, they see more of each other than they do their wives and kids -- are the practical, professional chemistry that comes with time.

It's a consistency and a reliability they have with each other, a trust, that each will do his job to the best of his ability.

For Bronwell, he has become a sort of Mr. Fix-It of sorts, taking pride in repairing some of the most unusual situations.

Earlier this season, the man who once dreamt of being the guy charged with fixing the goalie's equipment was tasked with doing just that. During morning skate, goaltender Devan Dubnyk had a puck become lodged inside his leg pad. 

With a few hours to work, Bronwell went about retrieving the puck and fixing the hole. Later that night, Dubnyk wore the pads without a hint of an issue.

"You have to be able to roll with whatever is thrown at you," Bronwell sald. "I like that. It feels good to be able to help people in that way."

But whether it's a tear in a jersey, a busted skate blade or something he hasn't even envisioned yet, DaCosta has a teammate in Bronwell that he can count on for just about anything.

"He's above and beyond for repairs," DaCosta said. "He can do anything, can fix anything and is willing to do anything. He's my right-hand man. He's the best."

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