If you've played any competitive ice hockey at all, you know about the odors. You know about the depths to which the stenches descend and cling. You know, for instance, about butt sweat. You know about its resilience and its supernatural lingering powers.
But if you're like most of us and never reached the pro or semi-pro levels, you likely haven't had the luxury of a salaried equipment manager. Which is to say, your equipment manager was probably your mom.
Given the scope and complexity of the hockey player's game time ensemble and accoutrements—the tape and the stick and the blades and the pads and the helmet, for starters—an equipment manager is one of the most integral members of a professional hockey franchise. The Lake Erie Monsters' equipment chief Dustin Halstead tacitly agrees. And he's on board with the maternal imagery.
"I'll make a great wife someday," says Halstead from a sewing machine, where he's snipping thread on the nameplate he just affixed to the back of a new jersey for a call-up from Denver.
"And I can't smell anything anymore," he says, regarding the odors. He gives his office an empirical sniff and shrugs. "Nothing."
'Nothing' is actually the opposite of what this dank alcove smells like during the Monsters' morning skate on an otherwise dry and nippy Thursday. Cleveland's AHL team, a minor-league affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, has a game tonight. The players' morning practice is akin to an NBA shoot around. It's just so they can stretch their legs and take a few shots on goal.
But they've disrobed and re-robed and interred themselves in their ridiculous armor and have, in short order, perspired mightily through their layers. The air smells of feral rodents and entrails, of third-world organic waste, of not-so-recent death.
But it may as well be Hollister, for all Halstead seems to notice. He is stationed down here in the Q's labyrinthine basement, in what looks much more like a carpenter's workshop than anything related to professional athletics. Hockey tools and hockey hardware and hockey helmets line the shelves. The sewing machine whirs its plaintive whir as he makes adjustments to the jersey. His hands move with a slow, focused precision as he talks about his daily routine.
The major takeaway is that Halstead's job is one of these wacky-ungodly-hours-type-deals: He's been here since 6 a.m. On game days, he's at the rink until almost midnight. Today's Thursday, and the Monsters are squared away for a rare back-to-back-to-back homestand this weekend, which means he'll be more or less living here for the next 72 hours.
Halstead's a smaller guy in his late twenties, with hair somewhere between yellow and brown. He's wearing Under Armour khakis and sleek black running shoes with neon orange trim. He's got the sort of smile where his lips go down before they go back up. And in general, his clean-shaven, Christopher-Robin aspect gives him a permanent air of minor mischief.
At the crack of dawn, Halstead clocks in and makes a pot of coffee for the staff. Next, he organizes the locker room with what some might characterize as diagnose-able exactitude: The rolls of hockey tape are arranged in symmetrical 2D ziggurats within an equipment cart on the locker room's shower side. The pucks, too, are oriented upward, pyramid style. He lays out the practice jerseys, shorts and shirts for the morning skate—the laundry is always pre-folded in plastic bins in a room across from Halstead's office—and then unpacks the practice helmets and pads and skates from the massive maroon bags which he transports the day before after team practice down at their facility in Strongsville.
As a rule, Halstead ornaments players' cubbies like other mothers ornament cakes. Everything has its appointed place. The skates rest on mirrored hooks near the top. The helmet sits squarely in a nook on the left-hand side beneath which the padded shorts stiffly dangle. The jersey is front and center.
After the locker room is assembled—just so—he sprays the matching tableaus with an antibacterial mist that seems almost to embalm Halstead's preparations. What it actually does is keep the odors at bay.
And at a certain point, that's all Halstead can do: keep the odors at bay. Even with the Q's industrial laundry machines, most of the players' pads are washed without any real frequency or logic. And it's not like the NHL where every player has replica jerseys laying around if and when what they're actively wearing is sullied or torn. In short, the stenches aren't born when a hockey player sweats. They are merely activated.
Next, Halstead sets to sharpening skates. When he's done, he puts them all back on their locker room hooks in time for the morning skate and begins his roster of personal tasks and player requests which will take him through the afternoon.
Out on the ice, as the morning skate wraps up, it's not the smells that greet you as much as the sounds: the crack and snap and ping of puck impact; the champagne-bottle pop of a slap shot landing deeply in a goalie's mitt; the gastric squirt of water bottles', and the thumping of pads and bodies against the wall as the Monsters congregate like orcs; the predictable "ehs" of Canadian sobriquet; the shhhhes of decelerating skates. With eyes closed, the morning practice sounds most of all like a network of clanky pipes into which assorted trinkets have been dropped.
Afterwards, the players come to Halstead with their gripes and requests:.
"Broke another twig," says a goalie, dropping his stick in the corner.
"That double XL jock is working out great," says a passing fellow in a towel.
A lightly bearded Monster walks in, still in his skates, and says he wants to tighten the screws of his helmet himself.
Another guy stands in the doorway and professes that something has changed materially about his stick.
"What's different about it?" Halstead wants to know.
"It's not the same stick," says this aggrieved Monster. He's wet and forlorn. "I don't know, it's thinner."
"Thinner?" Halstead shakes his head.
"It's just not the same stick."
Halstead says he'll take a look at it. Hockey is an extremely superstitious sport. And because the Monsters have lost seven straight games, all the players are now scrutinizing their rituals and quirks.
"It's never the players' fault when they're losing," says Halstead. "It's always the gloves. It's always the sticks."
Typically, the players outfit their sticks themselves. There's a workshop bench in the hall next to the corridor which leads to the rink. And on top, there's a vice and some tape and a hot glue gun and scissors and a blowtorch. It's like a torture chamber.
Next to it, there's a machine - the Blademaster 4500 - which looks like a red generator out from which metallic tentacles sprout. That's the glove-dryer, and Halstead says that during game time, visitors have attested that the smell is almost unbearable...
In the afternoon, the players go eat a high—calorie meal, take a nap and then play some Call of Duty before returning to the Q. Meantime, Halstead is mending helmets, re-sharpening skates and dealing with extraneous equipment requests. Then he's got to set up the locker room once again, only this time with crisp home jerseys and game helmets. Additionally, he cranks up two enormous fans to blow away the stink, if just for a moment.
More so than most sports, the athlete-as-warrior model seems especially apt in hockey. Players wear a lot of stuff. They've got all the pads and protection of American football, but with added weaponry. They carry sticks out there. They glide around on sharpened steel.
In the moments before the game, the subterranean Q is alive with camera crews and promotions staff and media personalities.
The players have done their pre-game routines and have suited up. After seeing them kicking a soccer ball around 30 minutes ago in shorts and tees, seeing them now in their gear is startling. They seem to have tripled in height and girth. They are giants. They are Monsters.
They walk on their skates with the confidence of women who spend most of their time in heels. They've internalized their pre-game pep talk and are prepared for battle.
Halstead has enjoyed a gyro at the press dinner and looks remarkably alert, given his day thus far. He's checked the contents of his game cart that lives in the corridor to the rink and is prepared for the 3-hour game ahead. It seems the stars have aligned and the rituals have paid off, because it's 3 hours of non-stop goals for the home team.
At game's end, Halstead stands at the ready as the Monsters process out from the rink besotted with smiles and sweat. The equipment man is set to receive players' gloves as they pass, and immediately transfers them to the stems of the Blademaster 4500.
Pressurized hot air shoots up into the gloves and expands and dries the sweat. By some elaborate transference, the sweat-stink wanders and looms among these halls, a phantasm infinitely expanding. When the players have triumphantly passed, Halstead covers the gloves with a few towels, but it's no use.
"Napalm in the morning?" Says ESPN rinkside reporter Kenny Roda to his camera crew, "Try the smell of hockey after a game."
Immediately, Halstead and his assitants head to the locker room to gather the laundry and begin the clean-up, shut-down process that will take them to the midnight hour. It'll be the same cycle tomorrow and the next day.
All under a cloud of funk.