The Life of a Pro Sports Rep – Chapter 6

My second player phone call came from a guy who’s name I didn’t recognize. Frankly, when I started I didn’t recognize many of the NHL’ers names. I had quit playing hockey years ago—one of the reasons my equipment was so dated—and I was not really up on who was who anymore. “Hey Kirky, this is Sutts. I was hoping you could hook me up?…” I got off the phone a little perplexed. First off, what happened to the ‘y’ or ‘er’ nickname? I couldn’t figure out who I’d just talked to exactly, but he wanted a pink bicycle.

I looked up the Thrashers team roster and found an Andy Sutton. Big defenseman. Now why’d he want a pink bicycle? A little more research and… Oh, okay, it was the leader’s jersey color for the Italian Giro race—like the Tour de France’s yellow jersey. So no big deal, I thought, Easton has a bike division, I’ll just call them to get a bike sent over. The big deal was that this particular bike cost about $5,000 without the wheels. The wheels were another $2,000.

“Maybe he’s just testing you?” my boss said, while he checked Sutton’s stats. “I mean this guy is big, but his stats are so-so. What’s his pull in the locker room—that’s what you need to figure out.” So now we were judging the guy’s talent and his personality, I thought.

I hadn’t been in this locker room enough yet to know who had pull with the other players enough to convince them to use Easton equipment, and who was just pulling my leg to get free stuff. We ended up getting the guy his pink bicycle, then a few weeks later he was traded out of my territory to the New York Islanders. I’m sure his pink bike was the talk of the team.

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The Life of a Pro Sports Rep – Chapter 5

My first national sales meeting was at the Marriott Desert Springs—one of those oasis-like golf course properties near Palm Springs. I walked into a giant lobby with floor-to-ceiling glass windows offering views of the pools, golf course, and mountains in the distance. I got my room key from a young lady at the front desk who failed to tell me I had a roommate.

I entered the room, turned down the AC and took my pants off to cool down. Not long after, in walks Hanny. I guess he was used to seeing men in their drawers because he just introduced himself with a handshake and went about his business. He was older than me with graying temples. Maybe they roomed him with me on purpose I thought, so he could teach the rookie a lesson or two.

I was putting on my pants when I noticed him pull a wrench out of his bag and walk into the bathroom. I heard some grunts and other loud noises. I winced as I tried to imagine what was going on in there. Maybe the guy got hit with a puck in his beer-league game the night before and a tooth was still loose and he was just finishing the job? Or worse, some kind of bowel issue. A minute later, he emerged with a piece of small plastic in his hand. “What the hell’s that?” I asked. “I just upgraded our shower,” he said with a grin as he held up the showerhead flow-restrictor. Lesson one learned: Always travel with a set of pliers.

These annual meetings were a big rah-rah session where managers got up and announced Best Rep awards, and product specialists touted the next big thing. This was a tough one, since the industry had already had its big renewal with the advent of Ned’s one-piece carbon composite stick that revolutionized the sport. Everything following was just a twist on that. The pressure everyone felt to grow business, please customers and maintain a personal life was enormous. After-hours drinking was a way to release some of that pressure.

“Don’t say your room number too loudly when getting drinks, or give it out to anyone,” Hanny warned me. “Last time someone heard my room number at one of these things, I got hit with a thousand-dollar bar tab.” “Did you have to pay for that yourself?” “No, but it came off my expense budget, so I had less to spend for the year. And you need all you can get for this job.”

As I approached the bar, my manager was off in a corner arguing with someone on his phone. He hung up and nodded for me to come over. “You and Hanny getting along?” he asked. “He’s already seen me in my underwear,” I said. “What’s your room number- I’m going to fuck with him and put all the drinks on his tab.” I looked over at Hanny. What could I do? I mean this was my boss asking. “412, but I didn’t tell you that.”

The bill was easily a thousand-dollars. I laid awake later and not just from Hanny’s incessant drunken snoring in the next bed over: I was hoping I wasn’t going to get dinged for the bar tab since I checked in first.

I tried to make some noise to get Hanny to roll over, but nothing seemed to work. I had to break out the white noise maker my wife had thankfully thrown in my suitcase: One of those things, pre cellphone app, that made a constant shhhh sound. It blocked out most outside noises, but didn’t quite cover up the Husqvarna-like sawing in the bed two feet away from me.

Surprisingly, some of the players had not caught on to this device. A few months later I was having lunch with Pascal Dupuis and his teammate Chris Thorburn. Pascal was looking tired because he hadn’t slept a wink at the hotel the night before. “Where were you staying?” I asked. “The Ritz!” he said, suggesting a place like the Ritz should be quiet. I agreed, but told him about the white noise maker. “White noise?” Pascal said in his French Canadian accent. “Yeah, it’s like a constant sound.” “Kinda’ like Thorby’s snoring.” he joked about his travel roomie. “But you want it to be monotone,” I said, “with no breaks in it, otherwise, you’re sitting there waiting for the break.” “Ah, like Thorby’s farts!” joked Pascal.

I’m not sure about other sports, but in hockey these million-dollar athletes shared rooms most of the time, just like us. Money saving, yeah, team-building more so. I didn’t tell Pascal about the wrench trick—probably not a good thing for a high-profile athlete to get caught reworking the plumbing at the Ritz.

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The Life of a Pro Sports Rep – Chapter 4

Teams buy the player’s equipment for them, but the equipment managers can hold sway on some of these purchases. It also depends who the player is: if it’s a star like Alex Ovechkin, he gets whatever he wants, a 4th liner not so much. They also have to purchase the undergarments, which for one equipment manager back in the day became a problem.

The story goes that this particular equipment manager was brought into the executive offices of his team. They had a new accountant who was gung-ho on saving the team money, but obviously didn’t know much about hockey.

“There are some questionable charges on here that I’d like to discuss with you,” said the accountant. “Fire away,” said the equipment manager. “Well, I’m not quite sure how to say this, but what kind of hooker needs a $1,000 garter belt?” “Huh?” said the equipment manager. Then he realized what was going on. “No, no, no, those are multiple garter belts for the guys.” The accountant looked even more confused, so the equipment manager tried to explain: “Hockey players wear garter belts…”  “Look,” the accountant interrupted, “whatever kinky stuff you guys are into, I don’t want to know. Just keep it off the team ledger, okay.”

The equipment manager had to go all the way to the locker room and get a player’s garter belt and socks. He brought them up to the accountant’s office and put them on over his jeans to show him how a hockey garter belt held up a hockey sock.

These days, the guys tend to go more with a Velcro compression short to hold up their socks, but some still use the good old garter. So if you hear a male hockey player talking about garter belts, don’t assume they’re kinky; they might just be old-school.

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The Life of a Pro Sports Rep – Chapter 3

The move was a tough transition personally, but professionally it was well worth it. I mean, who wouldn’t want this job? Working with pro athletes, hobnobbing with celebrities, selling something I had used all my life as a hockey player (and something that didn’t have a “symptoms may include” rap-sheet as long as a book). Hell, this job was statistically harder to get than making it into the NHL. After all, there were only four equipment companies with NHL contracts and each had about five reps: that’s less spots than one NHL team’s roster.

I was hired partially because I knew Ned, mostly because of my solid sales background in the medical field, but maybe more importantly, because I wasn’t a “jock-sniffer.”

Being an ex-Junior hockey player myself, on the same track at one time as these guys that had made it, I wasn’t in awe of them or wanting their autographs or sniffing any jocks. I had my own, albeit short-lived, highlights: living in Calgary when I was an up-and-comer with the family of Hall-of-Fame general manager, Cliff Fletcher, and son Chuck, now the Minnesota Wild GM; discussing my Junior hockey career with Wayne Gretzky; sitting next to Gordie Howe at an NHL All-Star game; having Scottie Bowman watch me practice; being invited to an Olympic Training Camp in Lake Placid as a 16-year-old, and having a day in my city that year named in my honor because of it.

Still, it was a little unnerving when I got that first call from a player. The caller ID was blocked, so I didn’t pick up: “Kirk, this is Pascal Dupuis, I hear you’re my new rep. I’ve got an issue with my skates. Give me a call.” Dupuis was with the Atlanta Thrashers at the time, and one of Easton’s catalog guys. Easton only put a handful of guys on contract; meaning they would get paid a fee between say 50-150k to do promos for Easton, like appear in the catalog, and remain faithful to the brand.

So I rang him right back. “Pascal, this is Kirk with Easton.” “Kirky, thanks for returning my call.” (Everyone in hockey gets some kind of nickname, usually by just adding a ‘y’.) “Listen, these skates are breaking down real fast in the mid-lace area. Any ideas?” “Uh, let me check into it and get back to you,” I said. Being new, I really wasn’t sure what to say. I mean, back at Easton corporate, these guys talked it up like they had the best product on the market.

I called the factory for some answers and got a swearing French Canadian. “Putain, ‘zese guys want ‘ze lightest stuff, ‘zen complain when she break!” He’d obviously heard this before. “So, what should we do?” I asked. “E want more pair, I make ‘im more pair. Tell ‘ze equipment managere for now, glue ‘ze panels ‘zat come apart. Sacre bleu!”

When I told Dupuis’ equipment manager about the skates, he cussed and complained. “I used to be able to salvage a pair of skates by stitching the leather panels together. With this carbon crap, I can’t even make a proper hole to stitch through.” “Yeah, but that’s what makes these so light and safe—you take a puck or stick to the ankle with these skates, and you’re probably not on injured reserve,” I answered, thinking I was learning the spin pretty fast. “Don’t even fucking go there,” said the equipment manager.

The equipment managers were a bit of a motley crew. There was the head guy, who often had a chip on his shoulder and his assistant, who often had a bigger chip, and a third who was either too new and eager, or too old and bitter.

The equipment managers worked hard and had a tough job that was somewhat thankless. They worked practically 24/7 during the hockey season, and traveled with the team. They dealt with everything from keeping the locker room ventilated enough that it didn’t smell like my old hockey bag times thirty, to ordering head-to-toe gear for the entire team (and often securing stuff for the team’s kids and relatives on the side). The player’s relied on them to have everything they used in practices and games ready and working. In a sense, they were the gatekeepers and I had to get along with them whether I liked it or not.

Cussing and ribbing and nudity were all a part of this job. Not my own nudity– that would be weird– but much of the job was done in locker rooms before or after practice. Coming from pharma sales, the only nudity I witnessed was on the dummy they used to teach us what parts of the body were affected by the drugs we were selling (pretty much all parts, if you read the fine print). In the pharmaceutical world, we were so controlled we couldn’t even take a doctor to lunch unless it was for an educational seminar with food as an afterthought. Sharing hotel rooms was not only not done, but against company policy. And you had to be real careful what you said around other employees, especially of the opposite sex, for fear of a CEC: Career Ending Comment. Oh, and in the pharmaceutical world there were more acronyms used than at acronym convention.

The only acronym I came across regularly in the NHL, besides ‘NHL’, was NFG, which the equipment managers would write on the sides of sticks that were broken, or not wanted due to any sort of excuse, real or imagined. It took me a minute, but I realized it stood for “No Fucking Good.”

NSFW, on the other hand, was definitely not in the pro hockey lexicon.

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The Life of a Pro Sports Rep ~ Chapter 2

I almost didn’t take the job. I had recently gone through boot camp for a pharmaceutical sales position. I say boot camp because that’s what it was—an intense one-month long session, away from home. I had never worked so hard to get a job. There were pass or fail tests. There was on-camera sales role-play where you reviewed yourself and made adjustments and went at it over and over. We studied like med students. We had to know more about our drugs and what they did to the human body than the doctors we were selling to. Being outside sales reps with company cars, we even had driving lessons (for our safety, and of course the company’s bottom line) where we got to push the cars to their limits and brake fast and see how it felt to be almost out of control. They weren’t just trying to sell a drug to the public, they were trying to sell us on them: and I had drunk the cool-aide.

So I already had a job that I liked in sunny Southern California back in 2008, when Easton came knocking with an even better offer…with one big caveat. When I broke the news that the job was not in LA, my wife Alex said “where is it then, Orange County?” “Atlanta!” I tried to say as cheerfully as possible. “Well, that’ll be a long commute” she retorted. And it was. I spent the first two years going out to the southeast every other week or so, visiting teams from the Washington Capitals to the Florida Panthers, and flying home a week later.

After those two road-weary years, it was time to start thinking about really moving to Atlanta, but we had been in LA for fifteen, and we were very comfortable there. We had recently finished renovating our house after a lot of blood, sweat and tears. We had made it through the initial rough waters that most experience when moving to the expensive and expansive metropolis of LA. It’s a city of extremes: A lot to love, and just as much to hate. But like seasoned surfers, we had found our balance and we were riding a good wave.

While I was jetting back and forth between LA and Atlanta for Easton, Alex was doing some surfing of her own of the Internet kind. “Where is Alpharetta?” She asked one night while I was back in LA. “Look at these houses… Three acres, and a pond!? You can’t get a crappy condo in LA for these prices.” I’m not sure if it was the nesting instinct in her, the bargain hunter or what, but our LA home was on the market the next week.

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The Life of A Pro Sports Rep

As a pro hockey rep, I was tasked with getting as many NHL players into Easton gear as possible—by any means necessary. This was the Wild West; like the drug rep days before regulations. There were bags of cash, flat-screen TV’s, golf clubs, even boats and bicycles being thrown around as bribes. I was kind of a cross between Jerry Maguire, the guy at your local sporting good’s store, and a government official in a 3rd world country.

The first day on the job I got a call from my boss: “Kirky, bring your hockey bag, we’re skating today.” I tossed the smelly bag of old hockey equipment in my car, already warmed by the Southern California sun. In the halting traffic, I saw people of all stripes. Most looked like they were late for something they weren’t looking forward to doing anyway. I breathed in and took a bitter whiff of dried sweat and leather coming from my hockey bag. Usually, the odor was not too pleasant. On this day, I smiled as I took in that melancholic smell of games past, and realized… I was going to work.

I walked into the locker room and saw the shine of new equipment and a rack of colorful carbon fiber hockey sticks. I embarrassingly put my old wood stick to the side and dropped my tattered bag. Yes, I was still using wood in this new age of carbon fiber. I looked over at a familiar face and nodded.

Ned Goldsmith was a friend of mine from youth hockey days. He was a goalie back when goalie pads were basically giant leather mops. They absorbed ice and sweat, and nearly doubled in weight during play. Back then, Ned was as thin as a scarecrow, so this extra weight couldn’t have been good for his game. In fact, I could always score on him at will.

Ned was a thinker and a tinkerer and he decided that there had to be a better way. Growing up in the 70’s, fashion and technology were fusing right before our eyes, and Ned was smart enough to use it for more than just plumage. He hand-stitched polyester fibers over new foam-core materials for protection to create his own lightweight goalie pads. The first pair wasn’t much to look at, but it caught the attention of other goalies who were tired of being weighed down, and before you knew it, Ned had a business going.

Fast-forward to many years later, while working at Easton, Ned figured out how to make a stick out of woven carbon fibers. This became the one-piece composite stick that 99.99% of the NHL uses today. The stick that I was hired to sell, among other things. The stick that had revolutionized the game. The stick which I had yet to adopt into my own game.

For me, it was always out of my budget and hard to get used to. Sure it was light, but it was also bouncy. With my old wood stick, I was able to catch any pass and make plays from delicate to explosive. With the new carbon composite, I felt like I was playing pond hockey with someone else’s stick.

So the first thing they handed me that first day of work: three different composite sticks. “We’re testing these babies out today, Kirky. You need to tell us how each of these plays.” Fortunately, I wasn’t alone on the ice, since I spent more time trying to control the puck than comparing and contrasting sticks.

Ned was in goal. It was surreal to be shooting a puck at my old friend, with the stick he invented, and getting paid for doing it. And Ned, with his new-fangled goalie pads and a few more muscles now, actually stopping me cold more than once!

Coming off the ice, one of the other Easton employees looked at my beat-up old leather skates and shook his head. “What size skate are you?” I hadn’t bought skates in so long, I had to think about it. “I’ll set you up with some composites,” he said referring to the new carbon-based skate that was a byproduct of the stick technology.

By our next session, I had composite skates that weighed less than a pair of leather shoes, gloves that were as comfortable as ski mittens, and a brand new bag to put all the rest of my new equipment in. Needless to say, the ride to the rink was a bit less musky that day.

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Biking’s Destination

The smell of virgin blacktop baking in the sun emanates from below. Knobby rubber tires roll smoothly over the surface. Tall grasses and trees on either side blow in the summer wind. A low black construction fence borders the edges of the street and creates a racing feel as I descend the curvy path.

There’s a certain allure to a newly paved subdivision sitting empty as it awaits the bustle of the next building boom. Back when I was a kid, we would search these places out for skateboarding, or cul-de-sac parties. Now I use them for suburban biking.

Granted, biking the PVC farms of the north Atlanta suburbs is not quite the same as biking Mount Tam north of San Francisco for example. At Mount Tam, where mountain biking arguably began, you can climb a wide fire-trail miles up the backside of the mountain and appear at the top with a 360-degree view of ocean, mountains, and city beyond. You can then descend through narrow zigzags, watching the Pacific break out of the corner of your eye. At the bottom, just down the road, there’s an idyllic English-country-looking pub for beers: The Pelican Inn.

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No, the PVC farms don’t have all that, but you can find some peace while breaking a sweat, and you can still finish your ride with a beer at a great old-style pub near here: The Olde Blind Dog, which was oddly enough voted Best Irish Pub in the World recently by a Dublin-based group.

http://www.latimes.com/travel/la-trb-atlanta-irish-pub-award-20150305-story.html

They say the journey is the reward, but sometimes I’d say it’s the destination!

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Our Little Island

In our first house back in LA, we had a small kitchen with limited counter space. Alex, in her design wisdom, found the perfect butcher-block to put in the center of the kitchen. It had drawers and towel racks on either side and was on wheels so it could be moved, just in case you wanted to dance a salsa while eating your chips and salsa I guess.

With all the cooking Alex does, we really couldn’t of functioned in that little kitchen without our Coconut Island. That’s what the tag said when we bought it, and what we’ve called it ever since. Our Coconut Island saw many a margarita mixed, and bountiful bowls of guacamole guaced. It helped us prepare turkeys for turkey days, and cookies for Christmases.

Eventually we found a pot rack to hang right above the island, so you could grab just about anything you needed in that kitchen without taking more than a step or two.

We’ve upgraded since then and our new setup is ideal, but I sometimes miss the closeness we were forced to endure around our Coconut Island. We kept the piece and I took a picture of it for perspective against our new built-in kitchen island. The Coconut Island now fits inside our pantry as a kind of pantry work-space. Our new pantry is not much smaller than that old kitchen.

We haven’t named our new island. Maybe because it’s not cute and quirky, but simply a nice working space. Perhaps we could call it the Big Island, like Hawaii calls Hawaii. Mai Tai’s anyone?

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Give Me All Your Chicken!

My wife knows, when I get hungry the mood of our shopping excursions can plummet faster than a diabetic’s blood sugar level. She’s gotten pretty good at reading the cues, even packing a snack in her purse to magically appear when she senses a mood shift.

This particular day the snacks weren’t doing the trick, so she had me pull the car over to get our bearings and search Yelp for a nearby restaurant. We were in an upscale suburban Atlanta area and everything was either too nice or too McDonalds.

I was about ready to just take us home to eat, when a pearly white Mercedes SUV pulls up, and out pops two calves and a cow. No, I wasn’t hallucinating from hunger pains. This was Free Chicken Sandwich Day at Chik-fil-A! Dress like a cow, get a free chicken sandwich.

I turned to Alex to ask how we might pull this one off, and she was already on it. She was rifling through the glove box, pulling out pens and scissors and napkins. Before you knew it, she’d put together a real basic “cow.”

Now Alex is an artist, so she was embarrassed by the finished product, but I give her credit for the details. She had cut eye holes in a brown napkin. Drawn a cow face on it with cow nose and cow nostrils. She used a white napkin tucked into our shirts for a tuft-of-fur look under our necks, and she even used pieces of brown napkin around our hands for “hooves.”

Alex looked us over. “Give me your face,” she said. I obliged, and she wrote “Moo” on it. “There,” she laughed, “perfect.” I looked in the rearview mirror. “They’re gonna’ think we’re robbing the joint,” I said, “give me all your chicken!”

We pulled up to the drive-thru, so as not to get arrested. It was so busy, a kid with a handheld device was taking pre-orders. He looked into our car and we both said “moo!” The kid cracked up and called his co-worker over to have a look. “What do you think?” he asked the guy who must have been his superior. “Two free sandwiches and an A for effort,” the guy said.

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Melting Pot or Mosh Pit

We celebrated the 4th with Mexican beers and California limes in Koozies probably made in China.

It made me reflect on the multicultural mosh pit that we find ourselves in today. We’re all dancing in different ways here to the same music of life. Sometimes there’s hugging, more often pushing and shoving.

My wife is half Ukrainian and half English. I’m a Scotch-English-German-French hybrid. I’m generations removed from the other side of the pond. She’s one generation removed.

Her mom arrived at Ellis Island as a child. The eldest sister of a large Ukrainian family of World War II refugees. They were arranged to be taken in by a farming family in the Midwest. They were put up in a dirty old chicken coop and put to work on the farm. None of them spoke English. Alex’s mom, then just a scared little girl, learned enough at grade school to tell someone about their poor living conditions, and this kindhearted person helped them get into a better place.

I’d guess that without that person’s help, things may not have worked out the way they did. Alex’s mom probably would not have gone on to get a degree in microbiology from Indiana University, where she met Alex’s dad, also a microbiologist and the English half of her. Fast-forward to many years later, and I wouldn’t have ever met this beautiful American-Ukrainian-English girl who’s now my wife.

Hopefully, America can get back to being a melting pot, but in the meantime, I want to say thank you to everyone out there who finds it in them to help someone navigate the mosh pit of life as we now know it.

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