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 Life of a Pro Sports Rep – Chapter 7

My wife had never been to a hockey game before she met me. The physicality and finesse, yin and yang of the game, was not something she fully understood… Until she met Chris Thorburn. Chris was an aw-shucks kind of guy off the ice, but all business on the ice.

I was having a hard time getting Chris into our new skates- the ones that were breaking- so I invited him over. Chris came into our home and immediately pointed upward, nudging his wife: “Isn’t that our chandelier, honey?” My wife, the decorator extraordinaire, liked this guy already. And his wife was a farm-girl, so Alex and her could talk horses and chickens, and such; which Alex loves. We had cocktails and snacks at our house and a nice dinner out– on Easton of course.

That same week I was watching a game to see who was or wasn’t using my equipment, and Alex sat down to watch. This was new. She usually wasn’t that interested. “What number is Chris?” she asked. “23,” I said, “but he hasn’t been playing too much.” Suddenly, Chris came on the ice and Alex cheered, but just as suddenly, he got into a fight with a guy on the other team. Alex was shocked. “That’s not the Chris I know,” she said. I almost had Alex hooked as a hockey fan, but alas.

It was even worse the following year when we were in Tampa for a training camp scrimmage, where players on the same team split up and play each other. Not more than five minutes in, as I was still pointing out my guys to Alex, a fight breaks out. “Is this for real?” Alex asked. “I believe so,” I said, as fist hit flesh. “They’re on the same team right?” Alex asked. “Well, technically yes, but that guy doing all the punching is trying to prove himself. He’s on the bubble as they say.” “It looks like he’s breaking whatever bubble he’s on,” Alex retorted. We didn’t stay too much longer.

Alex has a knack for seeing the wrong thing at the right time. I was trying to turn her onto the HBO show “Six Feet Under” years ago. I told her “it’s not all about dead bodies” so she sat down to watch with me. Just then they cut to not only a dead body– but one who died whilst standing up in a limo and hitting a streetlight with his face. Alex never watched that show again.

The tough-guys on each team are surprisingly funny and good-natured off-ice, but do sometimes have a warped sense of what’s important to them. Eric Boulton was a longtime Thrasher tough-guy. A bit of an anomaly to my thinking that these guys had soft hands under their gloves. Eric could catch a cold faster than a pass.

Easton came out with a new helmet my first year on the job, and Eric was one of my first takers. He said he liked how the helmet came to two points in the back. He thought he it might break some of his opponent’s knuckles. I wasn’t sure why he would be backing into a fight, but I was happy to get him into my helmet nonetheless.

The helmet came with its own unique hurdles. Our first batch had blue ink inside that ran when it got wet. We found this out when a key player, who either shaved his head or was bald, took off his helmet after a skate to address the media only to look like the next member of Blue Man Group.

The other, more important issue, was the look. Now, you would think that comfort and safety would be high on the list, but no. The first thing these guys did with our new helmet was walk it into the bathroom for a mirror-check; usually still in their skivvies before a practice, sometimes in nothing but a jock strap. They’d put on the helmet and stand in front of the mirror like a girl would a prom dress, then walk out—helmet still on– to feel the room. Even if it passed their mirror test, they still had to get approval from the other guys.

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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 Janny. 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,” Janny 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 Janny 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 Janny. 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 Janny’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 Janny 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 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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The Snake and the Stick

Along with the requisite broom, rake, or tool-kit, every house should have a hockey stick. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; the new carbon models are definitely lighter, but an old Sherwood will do just as well.

I play hockey, so I have my hockey sticks and I have my house stick. My house stick sits in the corner of the garage and gets the occasional look from my wife like “and why are we keeping one of your beat-up old sticks around again?” Until the moment it’s needed.

“There’s a snake on our deck!” Alex screamed in astonished fear. Astonished because the snake was on a second floor deck connected to the ground below by only 4 steel poles, fear because it was a 4-foot snake and she’d be afraid of a 4-inch snake. I instantly ran out of the room. “Where are you going?” yelped Alex, not sure why I’d left her in her moment of crisis. But I wasn’t leaving her, I was just getting my trusty hockey stick. Not to kill the poor thing, just to wrangle it and fling it off my deck.

I used the length of the stick as a barrier between me and the big mottled brown snake, and I used the stick blade as a kind of spatula, but the thing was fast. It quickly slithered back to the edge of the deck and used its body in a repeated ‘S’ shape to steady itself between the brick house and the deck post below. It sat there and taunted me for a minute before I got my blade under it again and dangled it around the end of my stick. I lifted the thing up, but it slid down the stick’s shaft. It was about to slide right into my face when I quickly flung it into the grass below where it sat stunned for a minute, then slinked off into the woods.

Now, this was an extreme case and probably not the preferred tool, but it worked. So the old stick still sits in the corner waiting for its next mission.

Need a mop in a pinch? Wrap a soapy rag around the blade of a hockey stick and act like it’s game 7 of the Stanley Cup.

Need to reach that last Christmas light hooked at the end of your gutter that you’re not even sure how you got hooked up there in the first place? Hello hockey stick.

Cobweb in the top corner of your room? Use a dry rag wrapped around the blade of your stick.

Fire alarm blaring when you forgot to open the flu while starting a fire? Use the butt end of the stick and knock the thing down.

The hockey stick: Not just for hockey anymore.

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