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A life in training: Worley celebrates 1,500 games in the caring business

Philadephia native sometimes has to break tough news, but his fun-loving persona still makes him magnetic

by Dan Myers @MNWildScribe /

As John Worley's collegiate athletics career was coming to a close, he wanted nothing more than to find a way to stay in the world of sports.

After 1,500 games -- and counting -- as an athletic trainer in the National Hockey League, Worley seems to have found his calling. Worley celebrated the milestone in a game against the New Jersey Devils in St. Paul on Feb. 15.

A football and lacrosse player growing up, his inspiration to pursue a career in athletics came from his father, Richard, who was the first one to plant the idea in his head.

"I was fortunate enough to be an athlete into college, but also realized that I was not going to be a professional athlete," Worley said.

After graduating from West Chester University in Philadelphia, Worley met what he called "an up-and-coming" star in the area in terms physical therapy and athletic training, Pat Croce.

Video: John Worley: Pro Game No. 1,500

"That really opened up my doors into sports medicine," Worley said, "and even more so into professional ice hockey."

Croce founded Sports Physical Therapists in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s and grew the company to a chain of 40 centers in 11 states, selling it almost a decade later for many millions of dollars.

In the meantime, he also served as a physical therapist and the Flyers' physical conditioning and rehabilitation coach. That was Worley's "in" to the NHL.

"He's the one who opened my eyes and really gave me the opportunity to, I guess you would say, be his right-hand man," Worley said. "Things got busier and busier [with his centers] and I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time."

Beginning in 1993, Worley served as head athletic trainer of the Flyers, a position he held for 11 seasons. During that time, he worked with the likes of Rod Brind'Amour, Joel Otto and the Legion of Doom, Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg. 

His first NHL coach was Terry Murray, and his first game came at home, in the old Philadelphia Spectrum.

It was an incredibly surreal moment for a kid from the Philly suburbs.

"Stanley Cup parades were in my youth," Worley said. "To grow up in that atmosphere and to be in the city where we had a Stanley Cup champion, and then to have the ability to go and work for an organization that you grew up watching, build championships ... there were days I had to pinch myself that I wasn't a fan in the Spectrum, but now I was in the working environment."

But the 2004 NHL lockout that eliminated an entire season also drove Worley into private practice in Philadelphia, a schedule he grew to enjoy. Returning to professional hockey became the furthest thing from his mind. He enjoyed the extra time with his wife, Tracey, and their daughters, Taylor and Morgan.

Video: Shoutouts for John Worley's 1500 games

In 2009, he was afforded the opportunity to re-join the pro hockey ranks when Don Fuller, then the head athletic trainer for the Wild, gave him a call. Chuck Fletcher had just been named general manager, and the club was reorganizing its training staff.

Worley -- who had formed a close friendship with Otto, an Elk River native, when the two were with the Flyers -- had spent his summers in Minnesota for several years. The outdoors and the summer lifestyle were a draw for him and his family, so he agreed to join the team as its assistant athletic trainer.

"The opportunity to get back into this job setting was very interesting to us," Worley said. "But on a personal level [with Otto], our families had sort of grown up together. We had been coming here since the mid-to-late '90s, so we knew Minnesota from the summer standpoint."

Along the way, Worley has never once missed a game with the Wild. In 2016, Fuller retired, and Worley was promoted to the head trainer position, where he stands today.

One of the most outgoing personalities in the dressing room, Worley has no problem quickly forming solid relationships with both players and coaches.

Wild forward Zach Parise, who joined the club in 2012, went through perhaps the most trying times of his hockey career in 2016 and in 2017, when a nagging back injury forced him to miss significant time on the ice, and live a life in constant pain at home. 

Parise laid in the back of his truck on his way to his microdiscectomy operation in September of 2017 because he was in so much pain. 

Afterward, when the long road back to the ice began, it was Worley who helped him through some of his most difficult times.

"There are some days where you don't want to grind through what you have to do, but he's always a fun guy to see in the training room because he's so happy," Parise said. "We have some good non-hockey talks, and he's a really good guy. He's knowledgable, he's fun to be around and I think that's an important characteristic for someone like him to have, especially in this setting where it can sort of feel a little bit like Groundhog Day."

When Luke Kunin tore his ACL last March, it was Worley who helped him leave the ice. He was there almost every step of the way before surgery a month later and helped guide Kunin through a summer of grueling rehab in an effort to get back to full strength.

"Just an unbelievable person, unbelievable at his job, and like everyone says, he makes it fun to come to the rink," Kunin said. "I had never been through something like that; when I was in a tough spot, he was there keeping it light and keeping my head in the right spot. He was huge in that whole process."

That process is what Worley says is the highlight of his job. Seeing professional athletes at some of their lowest points, helping them through the tough times and then seeing them return to their peaks is what keeps him coming to the rink every day. 

Parise leads the Wild in both goals and scoring this season, while Kunin has been an impactful rookie who has already far outpaced his numbers from last year. 

"That's the pinnacle of what you're looking for," Worley said. "You're taking a game away from a person, something that they absolutely love. You've disrupted their life, so with that being said, you are the bearer of bad news in that way, but then you begin that recovery process with them. That's the good news. And that's the culture you need to create.

"Returning to play is what it's all about. That's the highest reward for any of us."

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