By Adam Kimelman
The Times of Trenton
PHILADELPHIA – The relationship between trainer and athlete is one of the most sacred in sports.
Especially when it comes to professional athletes, whose livelihood depends on the men and women who tape them, stretch them and help them rehabilitate from injuries.
There must be a significant comfort level, a two-way flow of trust between player and trainer. The trainer has to understand how the player thinks, feels and expresses just how much pain they might be feeling; the player has to have confidence that the person taking care of them is making the right decisions, especially when tens of millions of dollars could be at stake.
“There’s so much on the line,” said Flyers winger Sami Kapanen. “You need to be able to trust what he’s doing and that he’s capable of helping you out.”
No pressure, right?
Steve Lipinski balances those issues every day in his role as assistant trainer for the Flyers.
In his first year in the NHL after spending 5 1/2 seasons as the head trainer for the Trenton Titans, Lipinski hasn’t had much time to relax. The Flyers lead the league in man-games lost to injury, and that doesn’t include the daily bumps and bruises accumulated over the course of an NHL season.
But the extra work is something the 33-year-old former Yardville resident is enjoying.
“With the amount of hours, it has to be fun,” he said. “It gets tiring at times, like any job, but the work itself I love. Working with the players is fun.”
The married of father of a son, Lucas, and with another child due later in the spring, Lipinski majored in sports medicine at Rutgers University after starting as a bio-tech major. He graduated in 1996 with a degree in exercise science, and was certified as an athletic trainer soon after.
He took a job with HealthSouth, which supplies high schools, colleges and professional teams with trainers in exchange for advertising. His first assignment was at Hillsborough High School, where he worked as a fill-in for a trainer away on maternity leave.
When his time there ended, he was set to work for the New Jersey Rock and Rollers of Roller Hockey International. But when the trainer for the New Jersey Red Dogs of the Arena Football League backed out, Lipinski was shifted there.
After a year with the Red Dogs, he took a job with another first-year squad, the Chesapeake (Md.) Icebreakers of the ECHL.
He learned the tenuous nature of the minor leagues early on.
“At the end of that second season, we knew the (Chesapeake) owner was going to sell or shut down,” he said. “I heard Trenton was coming in (to the ECHL). Being HealthSouth, I sent my resume in, met with the GM (Brian McKenna) and interviewed for that one and fortunately I got that job.” That good fortune led to a life-altering experience. During his time with the Titans (1999-2004), he was named to a pair of ECHL All-Star Games, and was with the team in 2000-01 for its first trip to the Kelly Cup finals.
While the Titans were his third first-year organization in four years, it was the first time he felt like he was working for a real professional team.
“The level of professionalism, working with Brian McKenna, (former GM) Rich Lisk, everyone there was really just top-notch,” he said. “You could tell off the bat that this was going to be a good set-up.”
And Lipinski helped with that set-up in more ways than one.
“He did all sorts of painting of the walls, put down mats in the bathroom, he did all sorts of carpentry stuff, building shelves and stuff,” said former Titans coach Mike Haviland, who worked with Lipinski the team’s first two seasons as an assistant coach, and until December 2004 as head coach, before Lipinski left for the Flyers. “He took his job an extra step there. He wasn’t afraid to work.”
Lipinski shrugged it off as something that goes with working in the minor leagues.
“You have limited resources in the minors and you want to make things as professional as you can,” he said. “I have a handy side to me so I was more than willing to do a few extra things to make things better, whether it was in the training room or the locker room or for the coaches. It was a family atmosphere so you’re happy to help people out.”
The players and coaches he worked with definitely appreciated his extra touch.
“The first thing that comes to mind with him is professionalism, his attention to detail,” said Haviland, in his first year coaching the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League. “He’s probably one of the most professional guys I’ve ever worked with.”
Titans veteran Scott Bertoli echoed those sentiments.
“He was a guy that I could always trust and respect, and what he presented me with was the right (medical decision), especially when it was a serious injury,” he said. “He’s earned that respect from me and other players because he works hard.”
He also knows how to have a good time.
“He used to bring his guitar on the road and the guys used to rib him on it,” said Haviland. “The guys gave it to him early on, but the guys realized he was pretty good.”
Good enough that he and former Titans public relations director Joe Zydlo formed a two-man band, Kosmic Kow.
He also used the Titans’ affiliation with the Flyers and Phantoms to his advantage, spending four seasons (2000-03) at Flyers preseason camps. He parlayed that into a job with the Flyers in December 2004, but his start was delayed due to the lockout, and in the interim he hooked on with the Philadelphia Soul.
“It was sad to have to go but it was something that had to happen,” Lipinski said of leaving halfway through what turned out to be a championship season for the Titans.
When the lockout ended last July, he moved into his office with the Flyers and started working through a whole new set of challenges.
First, he had a new group of players to learn about and trust to earn. And he also had to adjust from being the man in charge to being an assistant.
He reports both have gone as smoothly as possible.
“I like being the person who did everything,” he said. “But at the same time, working with (head trainer) Jimmy McCrossin, his expertise and experience are second to none. It’s just a pleasure to be working under him.”
McCrossin, in his eighth season with the Flyers, has enjoyed working with his new assistant.
“I think he’s very thorough and I think that’s a great trait in our profession,” McCrossin said.
Getting used to new players wasn’t as easy, but it’s coming along.
“With anything, it’s time,” Lipinski said. “It’s working very hard and proving to them that you’re worthwhile for their care.”
Having a team with so many injured players, then, has worked out in his favor, as players have gotten to know him — and trust him — that much faster.
“I think we reached that comfort level early on,” said Kapanen, who has spent more time than most in the training room due to season-long shoulder and knee injuries. “He’s more than capable of doing his job and I think he’s real important to this team.”