Hockey managers know how to move
If you don't notice Pete Rogers and Ray Thill during a game, it's probably a good thing. Their business is making sure nothing stands in the way of 25 world-class athletes doing their best on the world's biggest stage.
Equipment managers for NHL teams have a renaissance skill set -- everything from replacing skate blades and sewing to stocking toiletries like hair gel for the athletes to use. Rogers works for the Nashville Predators, and Thill for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Now, as equipment managers for the U.S. men's hockey team in Sochi, they'll be responsible for keeping 25 guys comfortable an ocean away from home, in facilities they hadn't seen before landing in Russia.
Before the Games, the two had been working from a drawing that showed where the U.S. locker room and storage areas were located at the Olympics. Ideally, from an equipment manager's perspective, the setup would include plenty of space and no need to move anything. Ideally.
"We know that's not going to happen," Thill said. "Russia's gonna get all that stuff -- they're the home team. Obviously, they're going to get the nicest locker room, they're gonna get the nicest setup, they're gonna get the most storage space, and we've just gotta work with what we get."
Still, when Ryan Kesler walks into the U.S. locker room, the layout of the items in his stall will likely look identical to the one he left in his home arena 5,955 miles away, thanks to Rogers and Thill. They want the players to feel as comfortable as possible, and since they don't work with all 25 members of the U.S. team on a regular basis, they've turned to the people who do know them best: NHL team equipment managers.
Fans, coaches and the U.S. selection committee may see players in terms of speed, intensity, goals and assists. An equipment manager sees something else. He knows if one player likes a certain brand of tape for his stick, or prefers a certain brand of energy drink.
If somebody forgot a skate, or something like that ... that would be a nightmare. I hope that all the stuff makes it in their bags.Ray Thill, equipment manager for Tampa Bay Lightning and Team USA
Dave Williams has been with the Buffalo Sabres for nine years. He can describe Team USA member Ryan Miller's routine as a starting goaltender from the moment he gets to the rink on game day. Williams knows Miller likes to start each game with four sticks already taped, and that he uses white tape, 1-inch thick and cut to 30 inches, for the stick's blade. He likes to wear a certain set of sneakers and a ball cap when he uses a tennis ball for warm-ups for the game. He plays each game with a brand-new stick, and will sand the stick himself, even before he changes out of his game-day suit. Miller often works on his hockey equipment, so he always travels with a Sweet-Stick, which is a kind of sharpening tool for his skates, and a needle and thread.
"[They're] kind of like his, for lack of a better term, comfort food," Williams said.
Williams has been working with Rogers and Thill since December to make sure Miller has everything he needs for Sochi, even before it was confirmed he was on the team. Williams packed Miller's inventory of hockey items, which included four taped sticks, an additional 8-10 new sticks, his helmet (newly crafted for the Olympics), clothing, a tennis ball for warm-ups, skate blades, tape and goaltending pads.
Similar preparations were handled by equipment managers throughout the NHL. Rogers and Thill did their homework for every guy on Team USA's roster, with Rogers taking players on the NHL's Western Conference teams and Thill the East.
"Basically, we're asking each equipment manager to make their players as comfortable as they can," Rogers said before leaving for the Games. "These are all their star players, and they want to take care of that star player."
That sentiment crossed international boundaries. Rogers, for example, packed for the Predators' Shea Weber. Though Weber plays for Canada, the manager wanted the Predators' star to be comfortable.
"I want to give Shea Weber whatever I think he needs, or whatever he thinks he needs, to be the best," Rogers said.
Rogers even inquired about the coffee situation for Team USA in Sochi, since he remembered from the 2006 Olympics that guys weren't keen on the coffee in Italy. He's also invested in the coffee situation, thanks to his normal working hours. An NHL equipment manager can easily put in 15-hour days, sometimes wrapping up responsibilities as late as 1:30 a.m. or even spending the night at the rink.
Piece by piece, Rogers and Thill have helped coordinate what they hope will be a smooth transition to the Olympic facilities for the players and coaching staff.
"If somebody forgot a skate, or something like that ... that would be a nightmare," Thill said. "I hope that all the stuff makes it in their bags." Russia's shipping laws would cause the managers to scramble to get something shipped during the Olympics if it didn't make it to Sochi with a player, Rogers said.
Another nightmare scenario would be a player breaking a skate blade during a game. The Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers has helped standardize NHL locker rooms so that an equipment manager can count on things like tools for hockey sticks, heat, fans and laundry service being available, even for an away game. No such guarantee in Sochi, where blades still break.
"We don't have the typical tools that we would need to fix things very quick," Rogers said.
But Thill said the players are pros at adjusting. "They're really good guys -- they're not going to complain about anything," he said. He's worked with some of them at previous international competitions. In fact, between Rogers and Thill, they've worked more than a dozen international tournaments for Team USA. But 2014 is a chance to help their country accomplish something it hasn't done since the Miracle on Ice: win Olympic gold in men's ice hockey.