The Shadow of the Bear (a seasonal repost)

High up in the hills of North Carolina there lives a bear. This bear only comes out for about two weeks, twice a year, and Alex and I were fortunate enough to see it’s shadow.

It was a glorious fall day in Highlands, NC. We woke up to leaves of orange, red, yellow and green. The cold in the air from the evening prior was just starting to warm. Wisps of steam floated off the water of a small lake east of town. We drove up a dirt and gravel road to a place called Sunset Rock. It wasn’t sunset so we had the place to ourselves. We looked out over all of Highlands and beyond. No bears here, which was a good thing.

A rusty old bridge over the Chattooga river was our next destination. We followed Horse Cove Road out of Highlands to yet another dirt and gravel mountain road. About a mile in, there were signs that said “Road Not Maintained by County” and “Hazardous Roads Ahead.” We own an SUV with 4-wheel-drive, but we had, for some dumb reason, taken our comfy sedan on this trip (probably because of the comfy part). But Alex was far from comfortable at this point and uttered some concern: “Uh, you think this is safe?” she asked. “We’ll find out,” I answered, hoping I’d be wise enough to know when the terrain was impassible for a sedan. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, this road was only wide enough for one car, but a two-way road.

We spent the next four miles going around potholes, praying a car would not come the other direction, and gasping at the drop-offs that alternated on either side of us. Of course, Alex had to get a picture. So we stopped in the middle of the road, she got out, and I rolled down the window to listen for any sign of danger… like the sound of a banjo, or worse yet dueling banjos. After all, we were in Deliverance country (the movie with Burt Reynolds).

Finally, we descended onto an actual paved road, though still only wide enough for one car. The bridge appeared soon after, and we pulled into a tiny turnout. We hiked down one side of the bridge to get a better view and take some pictures. The water was clear and there were rocks underneath that had been worn into smooth shapes by the fast-running current. Giant boulders were scattered around like a giant himself had left his toys out. I thought I heard the faint twang of a banjo floating in the wind, but it was probably my imagination.

We made our way out and into the small town of Cashiers, NC. We found a place with a lake and mountain view and took a canoe ride on the water that reflected the fall trees. The brush near the shore at one point was so thick you couldn’t see through it. As I maneuvered the canoe near the brush so Alex could take a photo of the beauty surrounding us, we heard some rustling in the woods. Alex almost dropped her camera in the water. Then voices… only hikers, no bears.

On the way back to Highlands, we looked at the time. It was 5:00pm. Legend had it, that the bear would appear between 5:30 and 6pm in late October for a few short weeks. We were a little earlier than late October, but we thought “what the hell.” We found the spot and waited. Around 5:35 a small black dot appeared in the distance. At 5:45 it was a big black blob. By 6pm a fully formed black bear appeared in the distance. We were witnessing the shadow of the bear! A truly unique phenomenon where sun meets mountain and casts a gigantic shadow across black bear country, in the perfect form of a black bear.

A perfect way to end a perfect day…. Well almost. As we headed back to Highlands, Alex said: “this day went so well, I think we should buy a lottery ticket.” She must have been reading the real estate brochures we had picked up in town, because we’d have to win the lottery to buy a nice house with a view here… and I’d have to trade my guitar for a banjo.

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Mixed Nuts, Swingers and Acapulco Facelifts

We hadn’t been in our Atlanta neighborhood long when we heard rumor of a couple who liked to swing- and not on the community playground swing set.

Now, coming from LA we didn’t pass judgement. After all, LA is the land of mixed nuts… but not in a bad way, you know, like the Premium ones with everything from peanuts to pistachios and pecans?

Well out there in the land of mixed nuts, we had lived across the street from a lady who used to be an “entertainer” at a place called The Classic Cat. This was early burlesque-type stuff, which I assume was pretty risqué back in the day.

She would invite us to parties with all her old Classic Cat friends: a little man from Acapulco who used to dance with her, who’s stage-name was “Mr. Perpetual Motion”; a bunch of people who looked alike since they’d all gotten facelifts from the same Acapulco doctor (probably a cousin of Mr. Perpetual Motion’s); and a lady who married her dog- you heard me, she married her dog- and she had pictures from the ceremony to prove it.

So the Atlanta swingers were not that big of a deal to us, but boy did they get a lot of airtime in the casual conversations of our new suburban Atlanta neighborhood. It always seemed to start with “have you heard…” or “have you met…” Well, we hadn’t met, but that was about to change: they were hosting a neighborhood party.

It was probably the best turnout for a neighborhood party ever. I think people were expecting to discover some kind of sex dungeon or something, but it was pretty much like any other house on the street with nice and neat conservative décor. Though, I would surmise that the folks at this party had never had a stage-name (and if they did, it was definitely not as provocative as Mr. Perpetual Motion), if they’d been to Acapulco, it wasn’t for facelifts, and many were on their second or third marriages… to other humans, albeit with age differences that could have been in dog years.

My wife Alex has a knack for getting people to open up, so I wasn’t surprised when she told me later about sitting down with the lady of the house (no pun intended). It was getting late and the lady and Alex were discussing how to politely shut down your own party. The lady said she wasn’t any good at it, and would normally just let it go until it met its own end, but she’d had an experience that she didn’t want to relive.

She quietly pointed to the drunkest man in the room, “see that man there? One night we had a small group over and after we thought everyone had left, my husband went to sleep. I stayed up to clean a little and I found that man in the whirlpool in his underwear. Of course, I had to take him home, but we couldn’t find his clothes. So I got him into my brand new car and brought him home.” “What did his wife say?” “Well, she’s not here at this party, so I can imagine it didn’t go over well.”

After Alex told me the story about the man she now referred to as “soggy underpants”, I felt bad for the lady. I mean, maybe they were just an innocent couple who liked to throw parties, and one guy in his soggy underpants later, they were labeled swingers.

Well, they could always move to LA where they would be just another normal peanut among the various mixed nuts.

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The Screaming E

Easton was a family-started and family-run business until the patriarch Jim Easton got too old to run the place like he wanted. This happened about three years into my dream job and Easton was sold to a private equity group: notorious bean-counters, who care nothing about the integrity, personality, history or vibe of a place.

The first real sign of trouble was the call I got from my good friend and Easton Hockey President, Ned Goldsmith, who told me he was moving on. “Fired?” I asked incredulously. I mean, this guy had taken the company into the stratosphere with his carbon sticks. “Transitioning,” Ned said, in his best C-suite verbiage. “How about us reps?” I asked him, expecting the worst. “You’re probably the last thing on their mind for the moment,” he replied.

And he was right… about the ‘for the moment part’ anyway. A few months later my boss, our sales manager, was let go. Then the bean-counters introduced a new logo that they thought would redefine Easton for a younger generation- they called it the Screaming E. It was an E that had been torn apart (kind of like what they were doing to the company itself). I was officially nervous.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta news media started rumbling about a disagreement between the multiple owners of my home team, the Atlanta Thrashers. This group also owned the struggling Atlanta Hawks basketball team and the arena that both teams played in. The ownership group was called The Atlanta Spirit, but the only spirit they had was for themselves and their respective lawyers, not for Atlanta.

This was the second NHL franchise in this city. The first was a failed experiment in southern hockey that drew okay crowds, but more for the fights than the hockey, especially when the team missed multiple playoffs. The irony was that Atlanta GM Cliff Fletcher was left in charge of the club when they moved to Calgary and won a Stanley Cup there some 10 years later with the Calgary Flames.

The Thrashers weren’t the only team in trouble at that time. One of my other teams, the Florida Panthers, were drawing abysmal crowds and rumored to be on the block. And the Phoenix Coyotes were reluctantly being run by the NHL after the club had gone bankrupt.

One night, after the Thrashers left and my job was officially over, I had a dream. In that dream, the Phoenix Coyotes were brought to Atlanta and renamed the Atlanta Phoenix! Rising from the ashes of the Flames. Harkening back to the rebuilding of the city after it was torched in the Civil War.

If I only knew a few billionaires, maybe I could have persuaded one of them. Hey Bruno Mars, you there yet?!

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The Brother of a Legend

The pro teams I called on had a practice rink and game rink. The Panther’s practice rink looked like any old ice rink on the surface. I walked in through the front and was greeted by a surly teenage kid. I told him I was with Easton and he perked up. He led me across the rubber flooring, past the snack bar and skate rental counter, past a dingy, cracked sheet of ice with a handful of tiny figure skaters putting more cracks in it with their toe-picks, past their mom’s huddled nearby, and past a velvet rope to a totally separate sheet of crystal-clear ice (okay, maybe the rope was chain link, but still– a world apart).

I entered a modern facility with a huge exercise room, fancy locker room, hot-tubs, offices, even a boardroom. The ice was flat and cold, as it should be, but not as it always is in your average local rinks. Besides the toe-picks, a local rink I once played at had a dip behind one of the goals. It was so bad, you felt like you were skating uphill when you came around the net with the puck. They found out later there was a natural spring under that rink.

The Panthers practice rink was so cold, any natural spring would’ve frozen under there– I was seeing my breath as I talked to some of the guys before they went on the ice. About midway through practice I went outside to warm up and the bright Florida sun just about blinded me. I reached for my sunglasses, but they were so foggy from the temperature change they were useless. A guy approached me and said hello. I squinted as I shook his hand. “Hey, I’m Chelly,” the guy said. “Kirk,” I said back, still not used to the nickname thing. “You the Easton rep?” he said, looking at the logo on my jacket. “I am,” I answered. “I would love to get a gig like yours,” he said. “I’m doing some training with the young guys at camp here, but it’s just part-time.” Still without sunglasses, my eyes were barely adjusted to the light. “You look kind of familiar,” I said. “I’m Chris Chelios’ brother.”

Chris Chelios was a US hockey legend. A guy who got cut from Junior B teams in Canada, but never gave up, and eventually played for Stanley Cups and Olympic Medals. Trouble seemed to follow him a little off the ice, but he was one of those rare tough-guy goal-scorers. And he was still a current player then, in his mid-40’s. I was a bit confused as to why his brother wasn’t doing my job already. I mean, brother of a legend, ex-hockey player himself, what more could you want? But as I said, this job was harder to get statistically than making the NHL, and even with his pedigree, Chelios’ brother didn’t make the NHL.

So I told him to send me his resume. He went and grabbed one from his car—a paper resume that almost looked like it was typed on an old typewriter. This was circa 2009: I wasn’t real sure what I was supposed to do with the piece of paper he handed me, but I thanked him and told him I’d keep an eye out as I browsed over it.

“I see you’ve got a lot of coaching on here… and you played for Penticton? I hear that’s rough?” I commented. He laughed, “I got between a guy and his girlfriend out there once at a bar. I hit the floor so fast, I’m still not sure if it was him or her that hit me.” Even though he’d never made it to the pros, Chelios’ brother fit the modest tough-guy mold that is prevalent in the NHL.

Every NHL team has a couple of tough guys on the roster. They keep the opposing teams honest and always looking over their shoulders. These guys are thought of as average players, but are usually better than they themselves even think. They start to believe the myth that they can’t score, that they have hands of stone, that they’re not smart players…. But at one time in their youthful glory, most of these guys were scoring goals and doing more than playing the enforcer. I hoped for Chelios’ brother that he would find some of that youthful glory again in some form or another.

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Florida Ice

My first trip to see the Florida Panthers was in late summer– just when the guys started showing up for camp. I had a dilemma when packing, since I was going to Florida in late summer where shorts and flip-flops were the preferred sartorial choice. Pro hockey practice rinks were usually extra cold to keep the ice hard for all the skates they had to endure. This required more Nanook of the North clothing than Endless Summer, so I packed for two seasons.

After a nice shower at my hotel, I made my way down to breakfast. I glanced around as I ate, and tried to guess the players from team staff and other guests. There was an overly pumped-up guy with a Panthers logo on his tight shirt who almost took down the waitress when he bumped into her. Definitely not a player. Too showy, too buff, and too clumsy. Most players don’t draw much attention to themselves off ice, are generally more long-muscled and sinewy, and not banging into waitresses (unless they want to bang into waitresses). This guy was a trainer, I guessed correctly.

Teams employed all kinds of people; many were ex-athletes themselves. These trainers looked like dumb muscle-heads, but probably had a degree in nutrition or kinesiology or something similar. They were assigned to make these guys, already at the top of their physical prowess, even stronger, and keep them that way through a grueling season. They did everything from excluding sodas from team diets to creating routines for pre and post skates.

Their initiatives went beyond just working out bodies; the good ones worked out minds as well. Minds of young men who had everything at their fingertips. Some turned into Rod Brind’Amours, a guy who I saw working out and stretching more than any other player, and who played until he was almost 40. Others turned into Ryan Malones, a guy who had natural physical attributes and skills, good looks and a good career, but who was caught doing coke in his early 30’s and never really came back.

Some of the young unknown players started coming down for breakfast. A backward baseball cap here, one-strap flip flops there, disheveled hair, stubbled faces, T-shirts and shorts…. These guys looked more like a fraternity after-party than prospective million-dollar hockey players.

The established players drove to the rink in their expensive, but usually not too flashy vehicles, from homes in gated golf communities nearby. Hockey players love their golf, and if they lose too early in the playoffs, it’s often said that they just want to get an early start to the golf season.

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Saying No to The Hall of Fame

Have you ever watched a good athlete do something as simple as tie their shoe? There’s a certain grace and fluidity that your average Joe just doesn’t have. Pro athletes take that up a notch. It’s like they have an extra sense. Michael Jordan used to say when he was playing, he didn’t even have to think- it was that natural.

Mike Green wasn’t Michael Jordan, or Bobby Orr for that matter, but he was on path to be the next Paul Coffey. Like Green, Coffey played defense with the added moves and instincts of a forward. Some 30 years later, Coffey’s stick—the Sherwood Feather-Lite—with his signature deep curve, is still popular among the beer-league crowd who watched him play in his heyday. And that stick is most certainly in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Mike Green wouldn’t give the Hockey Hall of Fame his Easton stick the first time they asked. He was breaking records that season, but apparently not sticks- he’d been using the same one for a few months and claimed it was the only good one he had left, and that Easton couldn’t seem to make him another one like it. Imagine me, his rep, reading that in the newspaper the next day. “Well at least he didn’t call you out by name,” my wife said, trying to stay positive.

The first time I saw Mike Green he was on the ice. The Capitals practice rink is on the top floor of a mall in Arlington Virginia. You can approach it via elevators within the mall, or drive up to the top and park. It is one of the nicest practice rinks that I have worked in, and constantly drew large crowds of fans who wanted to watch their heroes up-close and personal, free-of-charge.

Brock Myles, the Capitals head equipment manager, had actually stopped what he was doing for a minute and was watching Green carry the puck. Green was relatively new to the team at the time. The guy was average-sized with skinny legs, but had a looseness to his style; kind of like he was just out there playing pond hockey. “This kid’s going to be good,” Brock said with a knowing smile. “You’d better treat him well Kirky.”

For the next couple years, Green used a potpourri of equipment brands but only Easton sticks. I was happy that he was loyal to our stick, but I was determined to get him into some skates, pants, helmet, gloves.

He actually liked his gloves almost threadbare in the palms, which at a certain point is against NHL rules. I went so far as to ask Easton if we could make him a pair of gloves and have someone wear them for awhile to really break them in before he got them. The plant thought I’d lost my mind and wouldn’t agree to it.

So I had our softest gloves made for him and brought them in myself one day. I sat in the locker stall next to Mike and had him try them on. Suddenly, there was a camera and boom mic in our faces. Only later did I learn they were shooting the HBO special 24/7 that day. I’m not sure if it was that distraction or what, but he never took to the gloves.

We had skates made for him—he wanted white ones for some reason. Maybe to match his white Lamborghini? He tried on our helmet, got fitted in our pants, but I could only really keep him in our stick… for the time being.

Mike Green was extremely particular about his stick. It was a stock Joe Sakic curve. Nothing too unusual. He liked the Stealth model that we had stopped making for the retail market (Easton put out new models every year or so to keep the brand fresh). A handful of pros still used the model though, so our pro plant was happy to build them custom. The problem was that Mike felt his new sticks were coming in slightly different than the ones he started with as an NHL’er.

Well he was technically right, but you’d have the extra sense of say… a pro athlete, to tell the difference. The thickness of his sticks had increased by less than the width of a sheet of paper. We showed him with a precision measuring device, but he still didn’t like the new ones. “They just feel off,” was how he put it, and they probably were; more so than we wanted to admit.

We had recently been forced to find a new source for our carbon fiber. See hockey players weren’t the only ones using this incredibly light yet durable material. The military had been using this stuff for years. And now that the Bush administration thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the US military had first dibs on all the best carbon. But try explaining that to a young kid like Mike, who had a contract big enough to pay for a fighter jet.

We decided not to tell him about our carbon sourcing issues. I mean, how bad could it get? We’d be out of Iraq soon enough, and then we’d have all the best carbon fiber again, right? But here was Mike, holding onto his last “good” Easton stick, and basically telling us and the Hall of Fame to go to H E double-hockey-sticks!

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Hollywood Ice

The Tampa Bay Lightning were a team in transition when I called on them. They had a new coach and a new owner. The coach was John Tortorella who rarely smiled and lived up to his tough persona. He wasn’t just tough on his players: he was tough on just about anyone that had anything to do with his team- me included.

The team usually practiced in their game rink which made it a little less conducive to one-on-one time with players anyway, but Tortorella had me stuck in a hallway with my only access to players when they walked past on the way to the ice, or back, as they made their way off. It was like, “Hey Steven Stamkos, I know you just got off the ice and are sweating profusely and you’re being paid handsomely to use a Bauer stick, but have you tried the new Easton?”

So my boss told me he had an idea, and he was coming to Tampa himself to help me out. He was friends with the new owner— Oren Koules, who produced “Two and a Half Men” among other things, and was bringing a bit of Hollywood to Tampa. My boss figured it wouldn’t hurt to introduce us.

I got in the elevator at the Marriott Waterside, just across from the game rink, and a beautiful young woman smiled at me as I entered. I made a joke and she laughed. Exiting the elevator, I saw my boss who introduced me to his friend Oren. I was about to tell them how, for a married guy who wasn’t getting any younger I still had it, when up walks said woman from the elevator. “This is my wife,” Oren announced, as I realized how badly my little story could have gone over.

Oren seemed like a good guy who wanted to create some excitement in the somewhat sleepy downtown of Tampa at the time. We stood on the outer deck of the game rink and he pointed to all the empty lots he had grand designs for. We watched the game from the owner’s box and we talked about his and my junior hockey pasts, and his son’s junior hockey future, and how our paths probably crossed in the LA men’s leagues. His wife, the pretty young woman from the elevator, talked about the LA food and art scene and made me miss my old home town.

The next morning before practice, I found myself in the actual locker room. Coach Tortorella walked in and almost berated me, until he saw I was with the new owner. “Torts, these are my old hockey buddies,” Oren nodded towards me and my boss.

From that day on, I was treated well in Tampa. No more lurking around in hallways. And I think Coach Tortorella even gave me a smile once or twice.

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A Ferrari and a BMW Combined

Alex Ovechkin was one of the most outgoing of the Russians. He always said hello with a crooked smile and asked about me and my equipment. He was known to dress a bit garishly, when not in the NHL mandated travel suit and tie, and caught some flak from his mates because of it: His white apres-ski boots and fur coat ensemble were a highlight.

Beyond the big personality, he was a considerate guy. I witnessed this a few times. I was there late after practice one day helping assemble some of our new helmets with shields and team logos, and someone comes in and says “Ovy bought lunch.” We walked into the team lounge area, with couches and TV’s and Ping-Pong tables, and there was a spread of Sushi and Asian foods that could feed three teams. Apparently, he gave his black Amex card to someone and told them to get something good to eat.

Another time, I walk into practice early, and Ovy is being measured in the hall by a small Frenchman. This was his suit guy. Yes, the guy would fly in to tailor Ovy. I didn’t get a price, but I imagine it was high. With the little fellow down around Ovy’s crotch area, a low-level assistant coach walked by: “Get a room,” the assistant coach joked. Ovy laughed and called him over. “You want a suit?” he asks. The lower-level assistants weren’t paid too much, and did the job more for the experience and the love of the game. The guy probably only had a couple of Men’s Warehouse specials.

“No, I’m okay,” said the assistant, looking at the garishly colored pin-striped number that Ovy was being fitted for. “You need a suit!” Ovy declared. “Okay, okay, as long as it’s not in that ugly pin-stripe,” joked the assistant.

Just like the suit maker, when Ovechkin asked us to make some custom sticks for him, we tailored them to his specific taste, and we hand-delivered them. For most players we’d make two sample sticks, and not always hand-deliver. For Ovechkin we did six, and two of us hand-delivered them.

My plant boss, Mac, and I arrived the evening before and sat down to dinner. We had steak and a bottle of good wine as a kind of pre-celebration. “Do you realize how big this is?” said Mac. “If we can get Ovechkin to like our stick enough that he drops his contract with CCM…. Huge.” This was potentially so big, we didn’t even have to share a room.

That night, from the towel-dimmed light of my hotel room desk, I emailed the Capitals equipment manager Brock, just to reconfirm that the eagle had landed and we would see them in the morning.

We got a few looks, lugging the six sticks across the hotel lobby in the bulky long bag out to our cab. The driver reached down to help with the bag, but Mac held it tight. “This stays with me,” he said, fearful the cabbie might slam a trunk on them. Mac put the stick bag through the middle of the cab and we made our way to the rink.

Once there, we waited impatiently for the players to roll in. We were just inside the rope, where autograph-seekers stood to get a quick look at their heroes. Suddenly, people started shouting; “Ovy, Ovy!” He smiled at us before going over to engage with his fans.

Walking back toward the locker room, he brought us with him. “So, what do you got?” he said. Mac opened the bag and proudly pulled out the black, silver and blue Easton S17 sticks. “Now, the colors can obviously be changed to whatever you want,” said Mac, knowing we were in red, white and blue territory here. “I’m not worried about that,” said Ovechkin. “I just want to see how they play.” As he twirled the blade in the air and took it to the ground to feel the flex on the shaft, there was a slight cracking sound. He looked up at us with a raised eyebrow. “Just the materials settling,” Mac quickly affirmed.

A half-hour later, Mac and I stood along the boards and watched as Ovechkin got on the ice with our stick. After some warm-ups, the team got into a passing and shooting drill: A line of players in each corner; one corner guy skates around past the blue line and comes back in to catch a pass from the opposite corner guy and shoots on the goalie.

Ovechkin’s turn and he swoops around, grabs a quick pass from the corner, flicks his wrists to take a snapshot… and breaks the Plexiglass behind the goaltender’s head. Mac and I looked at each other and high-fived. We couldn’t believe it. I mean, the power our stick had in Ovy’s hands was out of this world. The shot was from almost 60 feet away. And a snapshot to boot!

For the next 15 minutes or so, we watched as Ovy tried to control the puck better. He bobbled a few passes, but hey, he bobbled passes with his CCM stick too—it was his shot that was his money-maker. A few minutes later, he put the Easton stick down and grabbed one of his old CCM’s…. And that was it.

“We made him a Ferrari and he wanted a BMW,” Mac analogized later over beers. “Well, can we soften it up a little, make him a hybrid of the two?” I asked. “Even if we did Kirky, you usually only get one chance with these guys.”

And he was right. The only thing I got out of the whole ordeal was an Ovechkin custom sample stick for myself, and a story to tell.

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Tips, Bribes & Spiffs ~ Chapter 10

My schedule during the hockey season had me calling on at least one team a week. That meant flying to DC, Raleigh, Tampa or Fort Lauderdale when I wasn’t driving to see the Atlanta Thrashers.

My first trip to Raleigh, to see the Carolina Hurricanes, I walked into a hurricane. Fortunately, I had the Montreal rep with me who used to cover the team. He could take some of the brunt, and decode some of the hidden messages.

The head equipment manager was a guy named Wally with a big handlebar mustache. He and his sidekick, Skip, a nice old guy with a thick Boston accent, walked us back to a locked room the size of a small garage. It was chock full of hockey sticks, gloves, skates, etc. Wally waived his arms around the room: “This is all the shit that we bought from you guys last year that never got used for some reason or another.” “Mostly call-ups,” Skip chimed in.

Call-ups were the young guys playing in the minors who were on the verge, and were called up to either practice or play with their parent NHL club. In the minors they were all forced to use one brand of equipment, by contract, but once they hit the Bigs, they could use what they liked. “These kids all want a dozen Easton’s or whatever– we buy ‘em– then 9 times out of 10 they’re sent back down, and we’re stuck with sticks that no one else is going to use.” And he was generally right. Every player has a specific curve type, flex stiffness, shaft shape, grip material, etc. Some are copies of others, but even then, we print their names and jersey numbers on the sticks, so they are, in effect, their personal sticks.

Later that night over beers in the hotel lobby, my colleague tried to put me at ease. “Don’t worry about it Kirky, those two say the same thing every year. This is too expensive, this breaks, blah, blah, blah. Then you try to track some of the items to help them out, and there’s no record anywhere. Skip doesn’t even use email. Everything’s done by phone with him, so he has no record of what’s what. I don’t know how they function, but they do. Hell, they won a Stanley Cup. Those two have rings!” “Really?” I asked. “Yeah, everyone with the winning club gets rings.”

Later that season Wally and Skip informed me that they were no longer buying custom sticks for call-ups until the guys had proven themselves and been there for more than a month. I called my boss from the Carolina Ale House at the Raleigh airport to break the news. “I guess we didn’t pay them enough last year,” he said. “Pay who?” I asked. “The equipment managers. We give them a check after every season. A tip if you will.” “Well, what did you give them?” “$5,000,” said my boss.

I almost choked on my supposedly-smoked, probably straight from the freezer, $14 BBQ sandwich. So, not only are we bribing the players, we’re bribing the equipment managers, I thought. “What about the third guy, does he get tipped?” I asked. “We give the check to the head guy, and let him disburse it as he pleases.” There was always a third guy, and the Hurricanes third guy was not real pleasant toward me: Maybe I just figured out why- not a big enough tip…. I finished my overpriced airport meal and rushed to get on yet another flight.

When gifts become bribes

The Tools of Travel ~ Chapter 9

The life of a pro sports rep, like any outside sales rep, or pro hockey player for that matter, is on the road. You learn quickly the things that make life easier, like the wrench trick for better water pressure, or the noisemaker for better sleep.

Some other travel-tricks in my repertoire included: throwing a towel over a lamp shade as a MacGyvered dimmer switch (careful not to leave the light on too long, lest you start a fire); clothespins for keeping curtains closed (a money-clip will also do in a pinch); and some kind of tape—hockey, duct, anything. Tape can be used in many situations: keeping a bag shut when the zipper breaks; MacGyvered band-aide; or covering those annoying lights from hotel room alarms, and turned off TV’s, and internet routers that emit pulses of green, red and white light like you’ve time-travelled to a 1970’s Italian disco.

There is a blinking light in hotel rooms now that I think is installed with the fire alarm. It’s in the ceiling and makes a flash like a lightning strike every 10 seconds or so. The first time I saw it was in Tampa, following a visit with the Tampa Bay Lightning, appropriately enough.

I was trying to soothe over an issue with Vinny Prospal’s sticks. He happened to have the ugliest curve in hockey: a mostly straight blade with a 1-inch crook at the tip. We were near his locker, talking it out, when I dropped my pen. As I reached down to grab it, Vinny said, “what the hell are you doing man?” I shrugged, not knowing what he was talking about. He was motioning toward the floor where I had one foot on the giant team logo, a thunderbolt, stitched into the carpet. “We don’t stand on the team logo,” he said with a serious tone.

That night I went to bed annoyed at myself for standing on the logo, but also the players for being so superstitious, and the team for making it nearly impossible not to stand on it. The damn thing-  a large circle around a thunderbolt- covered a good 70% of the locker room floor. My dreams were interspersed with lightning bolts flashing intermittently with the crook of Vinny’s stick blade coming at my face.

I rolled over half-awake and bleary eyed and saw a real flash above my head in the room. This was not a dream! I popped up out of bed like a crazy person, and saw the light again, this time realizing it was part of the fire alarm system. But there was no alarm going off, this was just the device repeatedly reminding everyone it was armed. I’d hate to see or hear it actually go off.

Good thing I had my travel tools. A little black hockey tape later… problem solved. And the tape’s probably still there to this day. You’re welcome, whoever stays in that room, or any other Marriott rooms I fixed in the 5 cities I covered.

black-cloth-hockey-tape