By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Nobody thinks about the pivotal role hockey equipment can play in the outcome of a game, or for that sake, the role of the equipment manager — until something like what happened to Jaromir Jagr last Wednesday takes place.
Jagr, one of the NHL’s most prolific scorers with the New York Rangers, was disqualified from participating in a shootout against the Atlanta Thrashers for having illegally curved sticks. Referee Don Koharski, whose son, Jamie, and brother, Terry, both officiate in the ECHL, measured the curve of the blade of the stick Jagr was playing with and his backup stick and found them both to be out of the allowed limits (greater than one-half inch).
John Jennings is in his sixth season as the equipment manager for the Florida Everblades and 17th overall, and he is one of the most respected equipment managers in the league. As a one-man gang, he is responsible for all 22 players currently on Florida’s roster, and this year has had to work with as many as 26.
At this time of year, with the 72-game regular season winding down, Jennings has to be even more on his toes than usual, although he said the odds of there being a stick violation at the ECHL level are significantly less than at the NHL level.
“The way our situation is here, with all of the teams in the league using the same company (CCM), everybody’s using the same stick. So if somebody calls an illegal stick on me, I can very well call an illegal stick on them,” says Jennings, who will let the players know if a stick is illegal upon delivery. “So nobody calls it, because it’s just ridiculous. In the NHL it’s different because in the NHL they all have their own equipment contracts.”
Jennings also says due to the way CCM sticks are manufactured now, it’s more difficult for a player to alter the curve of his stick. The blades on the newer sticks will most likely break if any heat is applied to them.
If a player in the ECHL is caught with an illegal stick, whether it has to do with the curve or the actual length (no more than 63 inches from the heel to the end of the shaft and no more than 12½ inches from the heel to the end of the blade), he will be hit with a $50 fine and a minor penalty.
But unlike in the NHL, stick measurements prior to or during a shootout are not permitted, and a team may request only one stick measurement during the course of any stoppage in play. If there is no violation, the requesting team is given a bench minor addition to a $50 fine.
“Once you get down to this stretch run, guys like ‘Biggie’ (Jennings) are huge,” Everblades forward Paul Cabana says. “With goalies especially, he’s had to monitor the equipment change, and he’s going to monitor sticks because in the playoffs, when you’re up a goal late, you want to make sure everything’s OK. He’s been around long enough he knows all the measurements, and anytime we’re close we’ll get ‘Biggie’ to look at our sticks.”
Cabana’s college coach at Michigan Tech, Tim Watters, was in uniform for one of the most controversial moments in Stanley Cup Playoff history involving a stick violation. Watters was on the 1992-93 Los Angeles Kings team that lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games after having the Habs on the ropes.
L.A. was up 1-0 in the series and ahead 2-1 in the third period of Game 2 in The Forum in Montreal when Canadiens head coach Jacques Demers asked for a measurement of Marty McSorley’s stick. It was found to be illegal, giving the Canadiens a 5-on-3 power play and they scored to tie the game, then went on to win and sweep the next three games to win the Stanley Cup.
When it comes to goaltenders’ equipment there are many more rules and regulations, including the changes made at the NHL, ECHL and American Hockey League levels in relation to the size of their protective and standard gear. There was a one-inch reduction of the goalies’ leg pads to 11 inches and they are required to use smaller blocking gloves, upper-body protectors, pants and jerseys.
“Fortunately for me, our goalies (Florida Panthers prospect Phil Osaer and Carolina Hurricanes rookie prospect Kevin Nastiuk) are contract goalies, so their equipment is ordered by their parent team,” Jennings says. “It goes to the NHL first for approval then I just come back and double-check it. And if they want to do something to their equipment after that they can’t.”
But as tough as it is to be an equipment manager in the ECHL — NHL teams have upwards of four equipment managers, Jennings says they all have to stick together. So you won’t see him pointing out a violation on a visiting team just because he might suspect something while unloading their gear.
Everblades head coach Gerry Fleming understands that, and he also doesn’t worry about his team’s equipment because, like athletic trainer Todd Wisocki, he considers Jennings to be supremely competent and reliable at his job. He’ll rely on Jennings’ keen eye, but also on the observations of his some of his players as far as noticing possible violations by an opponent, then pick and choose when to call for a stick measurement or a check of the goaltenders’ pads.
“Goaltenders will be able to size up other team’s goaltenders, they may be able to see something awkward in a shot on goal, or skill guys will notice an opponent’s stick while looking down on a face-off,” Fleming says. “You just keep an eye on that, put it in the computer, and save it for when you have to use it.”
Like Demers did in Montreal.