Hockey players are creatures of habit with their routines and specifications of their gear. Skates have to be sharpened just the right way; a stick has to have a certain feel to it, while gloves have to be broken in. A team of three men knows every intricacy of the Minnesota Wild and their tendencies, as they assist in the equipment management of the team year round.
Head Equipment Manager Tony DaCosta has been with the Wild organization for its entire existence. A native of Winnipeg, he had worked previously with the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes organization as an Assistant Equipment Manager. When the Head Equipment Manager job became available with the Wild, DaCosta sent in his resume on a whim and was offered the job.
Joining DaCosta are Assistant Equipment Managers Matt Benz and Rick Bronwell. Benz has been with the Wild for 12 years while Bronwell has been here three years after serving with the San Jose Sharks.
The equipment managers are the first men in and last men out during game days. When the managers arrive at 8 a.m. players’ skates, underwear, socks and such is already set up in each locker stall from the day before. As players file in the managers are working on equipment adjustments or checking on the never-ending cycle of laundry. On a game day, around 20 loads of laundry are done throughout the day, while on practice days “only” six to eight loads are usually done.
“On game day, 90 percent of the stuff is done the day before,” DaCosta said. “Our day starts at 8 a.m., guys are out of here at noon after morning skate then back here at 4 p.m. You have a few hours to yourself, you might sleep, might get lunch or workout, but you don’t leave here until 11 p.m. We aren’t done until the last player leaves.”
“We’re like doctors, we’re still on call,” Bronwell added.
On the road a member of the home team’s equipment staff will meet the Wild’s managers at the airport and help load all the equipment into a truck and then head to the rink. They will set up the visiting team’s locker room for the Wild players, who will come in the following day for morning skate. The entire process of setting up the locker room only takes around 30 minutes.
The raw numbers of the job are staggering. There are only three men who oversee the equipment needs of an entire hockey team. The managers place orders prior to the beginning of the season for a lot of the equipment, but are constantly keeping lists of what needs to be replenished. Players go through about 100 sticks per season, have their skates sharpened prior to every game, and continually change equipment throughout the season.
“Every day is different besides the fact the [players] come in with their laundry in their stalls, it’s like kids in kindergarten,” DaCosta joked. “We’re there for their needs, some guys are easier than others, but you get to know their routines.”
With only 90 equipment managers in the NHL the group is a close-knit one and fellow managers often call each other to discuss players in the event of a trade.
The day after NHL Trade Deadline Day this season, the Wild was in Los Angeles preparing to face the Kings. However, the team made a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for Jason Pominville. How does this situation affect the managing staff one might wonder?
“If you’re on the road it is [hectic],” DaCosta said about Deadline Day. “Nowadays there is Fed-Ex so you have stuff pretty quick. The managers in Buffalo will tell you what [Pominville] will come with.”
Equipment managers call their counterparts for scouting reports on incoming players in the event of a trade. DaCosta, Bronwell and Benz were prepared for Pominville’s arrival in LA and already had a sense of his equipment habits.
Whenever the Wild travels on the road they carry an extra hockey bag of gear. They will sew a name plate and number onto new jersey for the arriving player and order new equipment through Fed-Ex. After Pominville’s first game with the Wild in LA, the team flew to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets where newly ordered gloves and other equipment was awaiting him.
Intermission between periods during NHL games lasts 18 minutes. While fans are usually ordering food or drinks or relaxing, there is no more hectic time for the equipment staff.
During the intermission, DaCosta will be sharpening skates while Bronwell and Benz either assist him or will be working on any other player needs.
“[In between periods] is where the excitement comes in,” Bronwell said. “You have 18 minutes. Let’s say Tony has three skates to sharpen with three different hulls. That means he has to change the sharpening wheel each time.”
Other equipment might need repair, such as a goalie’s glove or chest protector. There is no “right” way to repair these things. The managers just do their best to make sure the equipment is serviceable and will sew things as quickly as they can.
During the game the managers are positioned along the bench paying close attention to the Wild players on the ice.
“It looks like we’ve got front row seats, but there is a lot going on and we need to be ready for anything,” Benz said. “If you take your eye off for a second you might miss giving a guy his stick that might result in an odd-man rush the other way or prevent us getting a good scoring chance.”
“You’re never watching the play either,” Bronwell added. “I’m doing sticks most of the time, I never know who scores the goal because I’m watching behind to see if a guy broke his stick. That’s a different aspect. People go, ‘Oh you’re on the bench you have a good seat,’ but you’re not really watching the game. You watch for other factors.”
During overtime in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Blackhawks an unusual incident occurred. After a collision into the boards Wild forward Mike Rupp broke his skate blade.
Always prepared the Wild equipment staff was able to react quickly to make sure Rupp was able to return to the game as soon as possible. The players travel with two pairs of skates in case of emergencies, so Rupp put his backup pair on as Bronwell put the blade back on the skates.
The Wild was on the road in Ottawa, when the equipment truck caught on fire. Fortunately no one was hurt, but a challenge still remained for DaCosta and his staff: replacing the equipment.
The managers went through each individual bag assessing the damage to each player’s equipment. For instance, in former defenseman Marek Zidlicky’s bag the only remaining thing was his mouth guard. DaCosta hurriedly made a list of what was needed and sent Benz back to Minnesota to try and get new equipment.
Looking back on the situation, the managers laughed about what happened. Players’ wives were dropping off equipment or players were looking at Play-It-Again Sports for replacement equipment. DaCosta even had to call the Hockey Lodge and have them put a hold on all the game-used goalie equipment just in case.
“There was a chance a guy could’ve used a glove that was signed or had a price tag on it the night before,” Benz said.
The turnaround from the incident was remarkable. The fire occurred at 3 p.m. the day before a 7 p.m. game in Ottawa, and within a day the managers had done enough so all the players were prepared to play.
The incident was a testament to how valuable the equipment management staff is to the Wild and the lengths they will go to make sure every single member of the team is always prepared.
“Our job is that the players don’t have to worry about or second guess something with their skates or equipment,” Benz said. “Our jobs are to make sure that all they worry about is what goes on on the ice.”
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