Helping team stay sharp only a small part of this bench job

When the players coming over the boards aren’t at their sharpest, it can negatively impact results, so those hired to hone a team better know their craft.

Hockey coaches? No, equipment managers.

Young people want a hairstylist that will deliver consistent cuts and send them out into the world with confidence. They’ll go to great lengths to return to one that they like, and those that play hockey feel the same about the person sharpening their skates.

“You get some kids who are pretty picky,” says Kate Bockenstedt, in her sixth season as equipment manager at Minnesota. “Pretty low maintenance team this year, but in the past, you’ve got kids who are getting their skates sharpened like every day, which is ridiculous. Once they find their person, they stick with them. I still got kids who come back for skate sharpenings and stuff.”

Of course, the position involves a lot more than just skate sharpening. The job title is equipment manager; hockey players wear a lot of equipment, and when anything breaks, malfunctions, or needs tweaking, the equipment person is expected to know what to do.

“We had a couple of issues when [Brittony] Chartier was on the team, the bolts on her goalie pads would let loose or the lace had broken or something during the game, because they tie in on the bottom,” Bockenstedt says. “You can’t take that off during the game to fix that, so you’re trying to quick fix that up as best you can with zip ties. A lot of MacGyver goes into this position for that kind of stuff, for the quick fixes. That was probably the fastest-acting one for the biggest project. You do a lot of skate sharpenings during the period, but that’s usually the extent of it.”

As with the pit crew for an auto-racing team, when repairs are required, they are typically needed in a hurry.

“It’s how quickly you can fix it,” Bockenstedt says. “When we were in Mankato one year, Gigi’s [Marvin] blade on her skate broke during the warmups, and it’s different on the road. Like here, I have my big sharpener with a cross grinder, just wipe it all out and start from scratch on a sharpening, but there, you don’t. You have your portable sharpener. So I had to quick flip the whole blade out and sharpen it from flat, which took awhile, but got her on the ice. She didn’t miss anything.”

A common theme across college athletics is that life on the road is always a bit more challenging.

“Rivets will occasionally fall out, but if you’re on the road, every team will provide you with that kind of equipment. It’s not as easy on the road, but you can do it.”

The travel itself presents another obstacle.

“We travel fairly light compared to say an NHL team, but we still have so much extra gear,” Bockenstedt says. “It’s a full set of player equipment, anything, so if something breaks, we can fix it.”

“The kids carry their own gear — the hockey players. We assign freshmen and sophomores the extra baggage. Basically, I just got to put it in the hall; they get it to where it needs to go, which makes my job a lot easier.”

While one might think a star rookie could balk at the prospect of toting everything from equipment bags to portable skate sharpeners around, Bockenstedt says that tradition is on her side.

“Natalie Darwitz carried all this stuff when she was a freshman. Everybody carries their own stuff. Once you get to be an upperclassman, you don’t have to do it anymore.”

Plus, players have grown up having to drag loads of equipment to rinks around the country.

“Once I got into college, you’re more pampered, I guess you could say,” Andrea Nichols says.

Nichols, a two-year captain during her playing days at Minnesota and now in her second season as the equipment manager at Bemidji State, has experienced only the Division I side of the college hockey experience, while Bockenstedt played her college hockey at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

“At the Division III level, you don’t have a lot of support from a support staff,” Bockenstedt says. “I was the player-manager. I did all of the skate sharpening at Concordia when I was there. I sell leftover sticks to D-III teams, because they don’t have the money to buy stuff like we can. I played 10-plus years ago, but back then, you got six wood sticks or you got two shafts, six blades; when those are gone, you’re done. D-III, you had to buy your own skates. Here, you get everything. You don’t have to worry about any of that stuff. You get skates, sticks, gear, apparel; D-III, you don’t get any apparel. You buy it. You get it as a team. Here, they got all that stuff, and they’re set up pretty well.”

Of course, all of the pampering at D-I means work for someone, usually the equipment manager.

“It’s a lot of before and after,” Bockenstedt says. “I’m here way before everybody else is, just set up the locker room, put out jerseys, socks, tape, skate sharpening. We do laundry here for our team. Visiting teams get laundry done after games. We have to stick around to do that. I actually have a student who does a lot of the post laundry, but otherwise, I’d be sticking around until really late doing that stuff.”

Even with that assistance, the hours worked can add up.

“You come to the rink at 8 a.m., and you don’t leave until two or three hours after the game is over,” Nichols says. “It’s a long day. I don’t consider what we do work, because it’s fun. You’re watching hockey and playing with hockey stuff.”

The schedule relaxes a bit when at home on days without a game.

“For me, I put in an eight-hour day every day during the week,” Nichols says. “If we travel Thursday through Sunday, just depending on where we go depends on how many hours you’re putting in. But an average weekday is eight hours just like normal. If you have some things that you want to get done for the weekend, you can stay and work on it, but it’s not too bad during the week.”

The job goes beyond preparing the team for the next game or practice.

“A lot of people don’t see a lot of things that they do,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson says. Beyond the daily preparation, he says that equipment managers spend a lot of time working with the sales representatives for the vendors, ordering equipment and resolving any problems.

“If you’ve got a good equipment person, life is a lot easier on the players, and certainly easier on the coaches, because then your players are happy,” Johnson says.

He says the championship photos on the ice are one of the equipment managers’ few opportunities to get recognition for all of the hard work.

“They want to do a good job and want to take care of the players,” Johnson says. “Whatever they can do to make the player’s life easier, most of them are going to do that.”

Both Nichols and Bockenstedt say that it helps to have played.

“It can get a little technical as far as stick flexes, what length you should use, curves, all that stuff,” Bockenstedt says. “I understand what they’re asking for, and I can put some input for them, too. We always have freshmen coming in — there’s always one kid using a stick that is way too stiff for her.”

“It definitely is a lot easier to relate to the players,” Nichols says. “I was very particular about certain things, including my skates and how they were sharpened, so I get it. I understand if something doesn’t feel quite right, you have to have patience with that. Being an athlete at that level at one time, I completely understand. There’s been a few athletes that I’ve had to pull aside and say, ‘Okay, you’re going to have to say goodbye. These shoulder pads aren’t going to cut it anymore.'”

So how does one wind up with the title of equipment manager?

“All through growing up, I was interested in doing hands-on stuff and working in that kind of sense,” Nichols says. “I was always interested in cutting my own stick and doing all that kind of stuff that especially girls don’t really know how to do.”

Her exposure grew while at Minnesota.

“I was interested in spending some time with our equipment manager, Bonnie Olein at the time and then Kate when Kate came in, just to kind of see the behind the scenes kind of thing,” Nichols says.

She and Bockenstedt each worked at a sporting goods store before securing their college hockey positions. Nichols says her current job can get a little crazy, particularly when opening the gate to the bench for players coming off and on the ice.

“There’s sticks flying and people pushing into the boards and stuff, and it’s like, ‘Get the door open! Get the door open!’ It’s definitely a different perspective. I’d rather be standing up on the bench seeing everything, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. In a way, it’s kind of fun because you’re right there with the athletes to pat them on the back or whatever. That interaction is kind of fun. But I definitely don’t like getting hit in the head with a stick.”