As he sat there on a red leather couch in the middle of the coach’s office in the wee hours of the night with a cold Stella in hand, Pat Dolan’s day was winding down. Or had it just begun? The distinction of the two is rarely clear these days.
Wherever the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel goes, rolling storage trunks full of equipment must follow, and Dolan is the only man responsible for all of it.
Often times those in this profession go the whole season with complete anonymity, recognizable only to those behind closed doors.
Beginning in September, for the better part of eight months, Dolan is the first one in at the crack of dawn and the last one out long after the final horn has sounded. When you’re responsible for 26 players and any other needs of the coaches and athletic managers, you need to be prepared for anything. Though it’s been a learning process, this is something that Dolan has down to a science.
“What do I like about my job?” Dolan said while starting only the first of the day’s many laundry loads. “I like working with a close-knit group and being able to help the young men achieve their goals of playing at the next level.”
When Dolan first started working at Total Hockey pro shop after graduating from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, he wasn’t quite sure where his degree was going to take him. After connecting with an equipment manager from the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild, an opportunity arose to interview with the Chicago Steel. Just two weeks after nailing his first real professional interview, Dolan was en route to the Windy city to venture into a job he was only semi-prepared for.
The USHL is the top junior ice hockey league in the United States. The league is strictly amateur, which allows players to move on and compete in NCAA college hockey. The teams are located primarily throughout the Midwest, consisting of players who are between 16 and 20 years of age. Specifically, the Chicago Steel has been in the league since 1996 and located in Chicago since 2000. The team plays all of its home games at the Edge Ice Arena, located in Bensenville, Illinois.
A hockey team at this level, and beyond, practices virtually every day – even on game days, where they will hold short morning skates. Equipment is cleaned, repaired, prepped and laid out early, then afterwards done all over again in time for puck drop.
A day in the life of an equipment manager is definitely grinding and often times tediously repetitive – making that line between one day to the next fairly blurry.
Wednesday, 7:30 a.m. Game Day
After getting a workout in with some of the staff, Dolan enters the locker room to prepare the team for game day. The team is four points out of a playoff spot and desperate for a win tonight against a dead-last Youngstown, Ohio team. The visiting team had arrived late the night before leaving their soiled equipment in the Steel’s training room.
That’s one thing no matter how long you’ve been around the game, there’s nothing that one can do to come accustomed to the distinct stench of damp hockey gear. That’s why several loads of laundry are done throughout the day, which includes towels, jerseys, socks, under garments and the players’ laundry bags.
“One thing about hockey equipment is the smell,” Dolan said. “Best I can do is try to stay on top of it, by [doing] guess what? More laundry.”
Dolan starts sharpening skates. This is a specialized skill that is much appreciated by the players. Skate sharpening is in fact a personalized task – each player has his own specifications. The most common figures can range from 3/8 in., 1/2 in., and 5/8 in. whether you’re looking for more grip, speed or cutting from the blade of the skate. Once Dolan finishes sharpening skates they’re set back up in the players’ stall. He’ll do a few more pairs before game time according to needs.
While there is a lot to do on any given day at the rink, there’s also a lot of hurry up and wait going on. During this time Dolan straightens up the locker room from the previous practice and prepares the game jerseys in order to get the room ready for the players’ arrival in just a few short hours. Tonight the Steel are dawning their red jerseys. Getting the room game ready means setting it up in a particular way, so lunch is ordered for Dolan and the coaching staff before embarking on that task.
Back at the red leather couch – the most comfortable place to sit in the coach’s office – the staff looks at video of previous games and potential lines for tonight’s matchup. With the team facing elimination from the playoff race, it’s not uncommon for Dolan and the others to start thinking about what the end of the season means – especially for Dolan, who is at the end of only his first season.
“After 60-some games, I can’t believe it’s over,” Dolan said. “It’s not about the pay, just doing something I love.”
Downtime is over when Dolan has been called upon for another project, sewing up holes he has found in some of the hockey gloves. In the higher levels the equipment staff is armed with industrial strength sewing machines and other tools, but in the minors you make do with the budget you have. What does that mean for Dolan? Good old-fashioned thread and a needle, hand-sewn, patchwork.
“Any sewing expert would say I’m doing this wrong,” Dolan said. “But at the end of the day, it just has to work for these guys.”
For the players out of high school, they have the ability to arrive a little earlier. The players take the opportunity to give Dolan a hard time. Dolan takes this opportunity to also connect with the veterans as well as fix any skate sharpening and equipment issues. The equipment staff is essentially a part of the team; with day in and day out interaction the camaraderie is unparalleled. Just like the rest of the fellas, they’re reduced to inside-hockey jokes and shorthand
“Some would call it inappropriate, some would call it hilarious,” Dolan said when referring to working with high school athletes’ everyday.
While becoming their friend isn’t in the job description, playing some sort of a role as far as morale goes is definitely important in this stage of a developing career.
“I take pride in getting the team what they need,” Dolan said. “Hockey players are quite superstitious and having peace of mind regarding their equipment/routine helps to eliminate distractions so they can focus on winning hockey games and reaching their personal goals.”
With only 30 minutes before the rest of the team arrives for a 7:30 game, Dolan starts rolling in the fresh game-day jerseys. He starts by hanging the pants and other gear, laying the red game-day socks on the bench. Each jersey is then placed in the stall according to the lineup that night, facing forward, so the crest on the front is the first thing you see. Every stall looks the same. Having a room set like that day after day sets a tone of professionalism and first impression of what it means to play for this team.
By this time the players have all arrived and most of the work is done. The only thing left is bench setup and to be on hand for any player requests before hitting the ice.
“We count on him for so much,” said Steel forward Brendon Kearney. “There’s a specific way every guy likes his stuff done, and Dolan just does it.”
Pregame meetings have ended and the team is gearing up for warm-ups with a bit of dry land stretching and a team favorite game of Trash ball.
Youngstown gets on the board first with a power play goal. After tying it up in the second period, it was unclear how the rest of the game would go. It is an even battle through 40 minutes. The back 20 minutes however made it pretty obvious who would be victorious in the end. Chicago would score four unanswered goals to come out on top 5-2.
The celebration for the staff doesn’t last too long, as Dolan is already underway with postgame work. Most importantly laundry is immediately collected and the first of many loads is started. Tomorrow will be a practice day for the team, so Dolan cleans up the room and prepares it as much as possible for the next day.
With the second load of laundry packed into the industrial style washers, Dolan glances around for any last minute task that might need to be done. The lights down and the fans on, Dolan secures the locker room and heads back to the coach’s office.
“I like to leave the big fans on. It really helps keep the air moving and dry out the room,” Dolan said. “Anything you can do to stay on top of things for the morning.”
Back in the coach’s office a big sigh of relief comes from Dolan who’s sunk down on the red leather couch. The work is done, for now. In all reality the work of an equipment manager is never done. That’s the personal cost of being a part of the team.
“It’ll take some time to get used to everything and there’s definitely more for me to learn,” Dolan said. “But I’m hopeful to move up to the professional or collegiate ranks someday.”
For now another long day in the minors has been put in the books. Tomorrow is a practice day followed by two back-to-back games Friday and Saturday. But Dolan knows the next day, Sunday, he’ll finally get a break.