Monthly Archives: April 2013

Behind the scenes of the Fighting Saints; with Doug Jorgenson.

Dubuque Fighting Saints

Dubuque Fighting Saints

My family had Minnesota Wild season tickets… I would go down to the glass to watch warm-ups and started catching myself looking to see what types of equipment the different players were using.  At the Professional level they can mix and match brands of equipment.  For example they could use Easton gloves and sticks and have a Bauer helmet, pants, and skates.  I noticed the connection the players had with the equipment guys during warm ups and that those guys helped them with everything they needed throughout the game.  Watching the Head Equipment Manager – Tony DaCosta and his assistants – Rick Bronwell and Matt Benz made me want to be them.

That’s what Doug Jorgenson had to say when I asked him what got him interested in being an equipment manager.  Doug currently does the job for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, the top-team in the United States Hockey League, who just swept the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the first round of the 2013 Clark Cup Playoffs.  He goes on to say, “I love helping others and was never really great at sports where I could see myself making a career out of it, but still wanted to be part of a team.  So being an equipment manager, you get the best of both worlds.

Cleaning the skate sharpener.

Cleaning the skate sharpener.

Jorgenson has a degree in Sports Management from the University of Minnesota, where he was the assistant equipment manager, under Lee Greseth, for the Men’s Ice Hockey team.  Being one of the best collegiate hockey teams in the country, there was a ton of competition for the job… but through persistence and not listening to the word “no”, he was able to get the position just prior to starting his Sophomore year.

Sparks flying as Doug sharpens another skate.

Sparks flying as Doug sharpens another skate.

So, what exactly DOES an equipment manager do?  Well, Buffalo Sabres assistant equipment manager George Babcock says “nobody knows what we do unless we don’t do it.”  Doug feels that sentiment is perfectly accurate, because nearly all their work is done behind the scenes.  It’s their responsibility for each player to be safe each time they’re on the ice.  Hockey is a hell of a fast game, and if your equipment malfunctions, you run the risk of being seriously injured, or seriously injuring someone else.  First to the rink every day, and last to leave… that’s what it takes – nothing can be overlooked.  “When we go on the road and everyone’s in their hotel rooms, I’m out finding a laundry mat or fixing or sharpening skates.  There is a lot of responsibility that goes with the job but I think that’s what makes me take pride in what I do – you know you’re helping the team succeed and the players and coaches see the work you put in for them.  If I forget a jersey or socks, we’re going to look pretty goofy out there.

Spare helmets and gloves.

Spare helmets and gloves.

Laundry and sharpening skates is a large part of the job, but there’s also a lot of ordering of equipment and taking care of a budget.  There’s a lot of sewing and small repairs to various types of equipment as well, along with polishing helmets and making sure the locker room looks good.  There is some downtime, but when the time comes to fix a skate or custom-fit some protective equipment, you need to get it done right away.  “In some ways it’s really different [playing in an opponent’s barn] because you don’t have the comfort that you’re used to when using your own equipment… but for the most part I have everything with me on the road so if something does happen I can fix it.  Also, some places you go there is very little space or you’re stuck in a hallway, so that really makes you work in tight spaces and not have the luxury to the space we have here in Dubuque.

The "mystery machine".

The “mystery machine”.

Me:  So what happens when the pressure mounts?  Can you describe a “crisis situation” that you recently encountered?

Doug:  We had a series in Muskegon, Michigan… playing the Lumberjacks in one of our first games this season.  During the first period with 16 minutes left, Matt Benning (#5) came to me just before a shift and said his left skate didn’t feel right.  I told him I’d look at it once the shift was over, and by then he couldn’t even put pressure on the skate.  Apparently all the rivets had popped out, and the back two copper rivets in his heel had both broken off.  At the next whistle I ran across the ice with him to the locker room to get it back together.  When something like this happens you need to get the player back as soon as possible because he is a major part of our defense.  Luckily I had the riveter out already because I fixed a rivet before the game – but I’d forgotten my box, and all my tools, on the bench!  I ended up being able to pull all the rivets the rest of the way out and then put two new copper rivets in the back which are more secure.  But wet skates don’t like to hold rivets very well because the insole of the boot is moist and not stiff.  Normally a 25 minute job, I ended up putting all new rivets in and coppers under 4 minutes and had him back on the ice.  It’s all about speed; you don’t want them to miss shifts.

Skates waiting to be sharpened.

Skates waiting to be sharpened.

Knowing that many NHL’ers are extremely picky about their sticks, skate blades, etc, I had to ask Doug who on the Fighting Saints is the most particular about their gear.  He said that every guy is particular or  superstitious about their gear because that’s just the nature of the game.  Some guys won’t need skates worked on all week until game day, and other guys get them done every other day.  He goes on to say, “Shane Sooth, our captain, is the least particular out of anyone on the team.  You could give him a wood stick and a pair of old skates that may not even be his size, and he would still go out there every day and play like everyone else.  It just all depends on player preference.

Spare sticks.

Spare sticks.

One can argue that relationships are what life is all about, and I would agree with that on a large scale.  That’s precisely why Doug loves what he does.  “I love the connection I have with the players and the Coaching staff.  I get to know everyone on a pretty serious level, and you build that connection, and trust, to where they know they can come to you with anything – even if it’s not a part of hockey.”  He goes on to say, “I will do anything in my power to help any of our players or coaching staff out no matter what time of day.  I love being a part of the team, and going to battle each night with these guys and seeing them develop throughout the year and work for one another… it’s pretty special.  Everyone wants to be a champion at the end of the season, so you put in as much effort as possible to make sure that happens.  I love what I do, and wouldn’t trade it for the world, even though you run on very low sleep.”

Fighting Saints equipment duffel bag.

Fighting Saints equipment duffel bag.

I took the liberty of asking some of the players about Doug’s role on the team as well.  Center Evan Janssen said, “Dougie is a beauty, and an unbelievable guy to have around.  He takes great care of us.  Anything we need done, he’s on it right away.  On average he probably sharpens close to 60 pairs of skates throughout the course of a week“.  Forward Jarrid Privitera states that “He’s at the rink before any of us even wake up; he’s always working to benefit our team and make sure all our equipment is the way we need it in order to perform at our best.  You can always count on Dougie to brighten up the mood and make the boys laugh.  And come game time, he’s always aware of what’s going on the ice, so if we break a stick, he’s ready with our other one when we need it.

Watching the guys practice.

Watching the guys practice.

Mike Szmatula says “He loves his job and the team.  He’s always laughing and making us laugh… he is as important as any player, and we all love him.”  John Stevens echoed the same things as the other players, but also added that “Doug brings a great attitude to the rink, and that makes you excited to come in every day.

Nathan Gerbe’s smallest fan; Ryder Kopacz.

Ryder Kopacz is a three-foot-four, 4 year old hockey player with unmatched drive, and passion for the game.  Little Ryder’s favorite team is the Buffalo Sabres, and his favorite player just happens to be the Sabres the five-foot-five, 25 year old left winger, Nathan Gerbe.

Sabres Nathan Gerbe (5'5

Sabres Nathan Gerbe (5’5″) battling for position against Zdeno Chara (6’9″). (Image courtesy of slidingsideways on flickr).

Ryder was born with that is called “fibular hemimelia” in his right leg… which basically means that the outside bone of the lower leg stops growing.  Just before his first birthday he had an operation where part of his lower leg was amputated so he could wear a prosthetic leg.  He motors around great on it, walking and running… but when it comes to trying to skate, there were some issues.  His mother made a video and put it on YouTube, which became popular, and an anonymous donor came forward to create a custom skating leg just for Ryder.  That is where his incredible journey begins.

Please watch the following video that the Buffalo Sabres put up on their YouTube account that documents the entire thing.  It’s a great video, and something that the world needs more of.

Jonathan Toews making kids (and adults) smile.

Jonathan Toews

Jonathan Toews

Jonathan Toews, 24-year old captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, recently went to the Children’s Hospital of Chicago to give some kids (ok, and some fully grown adults) a great day.  You see this a lot with professional athletes and teams doing various things for groups, charities, organizations, and what have you.  When I saw the video below, via the Blackhawks website, I noticed something:  Toews is enjoying himself, and he wants to be there.  He’s there just as a regular person, just trying to brighten someone’s day.  True class.  Doesn’t matter who you are, if you like or hate the Blackhawks, or if you even like or hate hockey itself; you can’t hate Jonathan Toews.

View the video of Jonathan Toews visiting the Children’s Hospital of Chicago here.

USHL Hockey is a dream come true.

 
Just after a faceoff.

Just after a faceoff.

Last week I caught up with Fighting Saints center Evan Janssen.  The 5’11”, recently-turned 20-year-old center has 20 points and a +7 rating for Dubuque this year.  The Fighting Saints are the best team in the United States Hockey League this season – with a 42-10-7 record, 93 points, a division title, and soon the playoffs will be starting.

On the bench, preparing for his next shift.

On the bench, preparing for his next shift.

I asked Evan what he attributes the Saints’ success to this season.  “We have an unbelievable coaching staff.  They properly prepare us every week and keep us focused.  We also have a great group of guys. Everyone has a team first attitude which is a huge key to our success.  We’ve got a very unselfish team“.    Which definitely shows, with 15 skaters having at least 20 points.  And get this… everyone on the team has a positive +/- rating.

Evan digging for the puck during a game.

Evan digging for the puck during a game.

Evan played for the Green Bay United during the 2010-11 season (where he tallied up 74 points in 25 games), and for the Alaska Avalanche (NAHL) during the 2011-2012 season (where he finished with 48 points in 59 games).  I asked him how playing for the Saints differs than his previous teams.  He replied “The Fighting Saints organization is run in a very professional manner.  We get treated very well here.  It’s the real deal.  Alaska was a lot of fun but our team had a very small budget.  Our locker room was a mobile home that was placed out back behind the rink; we didn’t even have any running water inside of it.  Our average attendance per game was around 200 people where as here in Dubuque its around 2,700.  It was a blue-collar life style up there.  Aside from the that, the hockey in Dubuque is definitely a step up from Alaska.  It’s a faster, more skilled game and everyone has great hockey sense here.

Evan Janssen hustling after a puck in practice.

Evan hustling after a puck in practice.

Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Evan started skating at just 3 years old.  “Our neighbors built a rink in their backyard every year.  Throughout our elementary school years, we were out on the rink every night until are parents made us come in“.  A very familiar story to anyone who played sports as a kid.

Listening intently to the coaches.

Listening intently to the coaches.

Being a Green Bay Native, and playing for GB United, I asked if he would have perhaps rather played for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL.  “It was pretty cool to see that my hard work over the years was starting to pay off.  It had always been a dream of mine to play in the USHL since I grew up watching the Gamblers.  But I love Dubuque. I  love playing here, and I wouldn’t want it any other way“.  After his time on the Fighting Saints, Evan hopes to play Division 1 college hockey; which is the primary goal of the United States Hockey League.

John Stevens (left) and Evan Janssen.

Dubuque Fighting Saints John Stevens (left) and Evan Janssen.