Guys like head athletic therapist Gerry Townend keep players like Alexei Kovalev at the top of their game. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
With the Stanley Cup playoffs approaching, I started thinking about the ‘unsung heroes’ who toil behind the scenes and rarely, if ever, have their contributions to team success recognized. From the director of team services to the team physicians to the assistant GMs, each member of a franchise’s hockey department is tasked with doing whatever it takes to enable the players to focus solely on winning.
When I managed the Tampa Bay Lightning, the bulk of the off-ice preparation fell to our director of team services, Phil Thibodeau. A long-time employee of the Chicago Blackhawks and then the Lightning, ‘Tibs,’ as we called him, saw his already challenging duties ramped up significantly in the post-season.
He scheduled team dinners for players, coaches, staff and management prior to the opening of the playoffs (where our “pump-up” DVD featuring every player on the team would be debuted) and arranged separate meeting rooms on the road for players as a group and coaches and staff as another to watch playoff games, play cards or just congregate together. He worked with the local constable’s office and our assistant GM, Claude Loiselle, to ensure problem-free highway access through rush-hour traffic on our way to the visiting arena – Tibs was judged on making it all work without a hitch.
Tibs also had to make sure our game-day meals and/or post-game meals (particularly if we were staying in a remote location without an active late-night restaurant district) were perfect in every detail. While I never asked Loiselle to do this, one of my former GM colleagues insisted his assistant GM meet with the chef prior to team meals during the post-season and literally “taste the sauce” for quality before serving the players. In short, during the NHL’s second season, no detail is too small.
No group provides a greater service during the playoffs than the team physicians. From the orthopedic surgeon to the general practitioner, chiropractor and eye doctor, we encouraged as many of our doctors as possible to travel with us during the post-season. The psychological, as well as what we perceived to be tactical, advantage of having our players see our own doctors on game day, during a game, or even between games was huge in our minds. Not only did our players feel more comfortable talking to the physicians and specialists they had seen back in Tampa throughout the season, but our opponents had to work that much harder to learn the nature and extent of one of our players’ injuries.
Our dedicated team physicians took time off from their busy private medical practices (at their own expense) to be with us on the road in the post-season. These highly trained professionals did not get paid or reimbursed for their losses and the only thing we provided was transportation, lodging, game access, meals and a Lightning polo shirt. Game access often consisted of watching the game while sitting on a folding chair, along with an assistant trainer, strength coach and massage therapist on a tiny television set provided by the home team in a dressing room in the bowels of the building.
So here’s to the unsung hero team physicians, such as my guys Ira Guttentag, Charles Slonim, Stan Watkins, Kevin Lee, Sam and Vince Caranante, Arnold Ramirez and the others just like them on every playoff-bound team. As fans, we salute you, and as managers, we thank you!
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2009-10 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.