Ian Cox insists he’s a sucker for punishment. Working long, tough hours, he does so without as much as a hint of recognition, except from within the close confines of the St. John’s IceCaps locker room.
Cox, the IceCaps’ equipment manager, is one of the chaps camped at either end of the St. John’s players bench during games, to the right and left of coaches Keith McCambridge and Mark Morrison, joined by athletic therapist Alain Chabbert and sometimes Shannon Coady, the assistant equipment guy.
To the players and coaching staff, the three are as integral to the team as Eddie Pasquale or Paul Postma.
It’s just that nobody else notices.
“I always tell people I could go down the road and work at a bank or something and get off at 4:30 every day and not think about work,” says Cox. “But it’s fun being around the guys and around the room. It’s not just about a job because you need to make money. It’s not a job to us. We love being here.”
Cox is a just-turned-30 Waverley, N.S., product, who got his big break last summer when the Manitoba Moose were relocated to St. John’s.
He had worked for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads for three years when he decided to fire off a resume to the Winnipeg Jets, hoping the fact he was from the east would help his chances of landing in St. John’s and the brand-new IceCaps.
Cox actually started as an equipment guy by accident. Enrolled in the recreation program at the Nova Scotia Community College, his instructor mentioned one day the junior A Truro Bearcats were looking for an equipment manager.
Having worked at a sports store as a youngster, Cox knew how to sharpen skates.
“That was going to be my fun money,” he said of the Truro gig.
“It kept growing from there. I was in Truro for a long time, had a full-time job and was doing the hockey on the side because I liked to do it.
“I was hardly making anything and was about to move on when all of a sudden the Mooseheads called.”
During his time in Halifax, Cox worked with Team Canada at world under-18 championship and with Team Atlantic in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
As an equipment manager, Cox oversees the ordering and maintaining of all equipment used by the IceCaps, from the helmets and sticks and gloves, down to the skate laces and tape.
He will even order the players’ running shoes and socks (not only hockey socks, but, well, socks).
Keeping a handle on the sticks could be a job in itself. A regular season will see a team go through 1,000 sticks.
A player like rookie Eric O’Dell, Cox said, will probably make a dozen sticks last the year. Paul Postma, on the other hand, will go through 60 or 70, “maybe more.”
So what’s a typical day in the life of equipment guys?
If you’re Ian Cox and Shannon Coady, it means being at the rink by 7 a.m.
Coady usually sets up the bench for practice — water, tape, coach’s board, etc. — and has the laundry done. Cox is sharpening skates and repairing equipment if need be (“guys don’t like new stuff so they get you to make the old stuff work again.”).
Then they will get the line combinations from coach Keith McCambridge and hang up practice jerseys in each player’s locker.
After practice, equipment is dried and the laundry is done, and the room is cleaned from top to bottom.
“Practice days aren’t really glorious,” Cox said. “It’s a lot of grunt work.”
If there is no game that evening, Cox and Coady will get their work done for the next day (skate sharpening, laundry, etc.) and head home about 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.
If there is a game, every single pair of skates has to be sharpened. Equipment has to be readied. And then there’s the added work of helping with the visiting name, not the least of which is doing all their laundry.
“We’re getting out 11 or 12 at night on game days, after getting to the rink at 7 in the morning,” Cox said. “You might have an hour or an hour and a half to eat and decompress a little bit.”
On the road, Cox and Coady are on their own, rarely travelling on the team’s bus.
Rather, the two load the gear into a truck and hit the road, scooting about from city to city, often rolling into town late at night or early in the morning. But there’s no rest for the weary, as the two will drive to the rink and set up the dressing room, getting back to the hotel for a quick snooze and returning to the arena for practice at 7 or 8 a.m.
“We’re kind of on our own (on the road),” Cox said. “The only time we really see the guys is when they show up for the games.”
In addition to managing the equipment, Cox will sometimes help McCambridge map out practice times for the year.
“Keith and I will sit down at the start of the year and he’ll want to practice here and here and here on the road so between Brad (Andrews, the IceCaps’ director of hockey operations) and I, depending on where we are going, we’ll call the other organizations and book ice time for those trips.
“We’re kind of half grunt and half secretary,” smiles Cox.
Alain Chabbert is a westerner who came east to work, which, of course, bucks the trend nowadays.
The 27-year-old from Winnipeg had just finished a four-year athletic therapy program at the University of Manitoba when he landed in Sydney, N.S., working for the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
“I was always really interested in the human body, and how it worked, and how we can rehab it, and of course I was really into sports,” Chabbert said. “So I figured, ‘Why not put both together as a career?’”
While attending university, Chabbert worked with Manitoba’s football team, and was also introduced to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. It was with the Moose Chabbert met Rob Milette, who was promoted to head athletic therapist when the Winnipeg Jets arrived.
In his role, Chabbert looks after the overall health of the players, from setting up dentist, eye and regular doctor appointments to more specialized physician meetings, like orthopedics or plastic surgery.
He will oversee the team’s nutrition and strength and conditioning programs, and will rehab players from the start of the injury until he gets back on the ice.
“We will rehab everything from muscle strains to ligament sprains to broken bones. We see a lot of shoulder injuries and a lot of knee injuries.”
Like the equipment guys, the athletic therapist is at the rink early every day, and Chabbert will work on aching or injured players before, during and after practice.
“A good day for me is when I actually get to watch practice because it means pretty much all the guys are on the ice,” he said.
“Otherwise I am back in the room working on guys, whether they’re working out or it’s manual treatment or whatever it may be.”
After the morning skate, Chabbert has mounds of paperwork to sort through and then has to clean up the rehab and workout areas of the locker room.
“We usually have a couple of hours between the morning skate and when the players start arriving for the game,” he said.
“Game day is like having two practice days. We have the morning skate and once the guys come back, it’s the same thing all over again — treatment before the game and then some guys are working out during the game.”
And like Cox and Coady, Chabbert calls it a day around midnight.
“But I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”