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Doug Ward | correspondent
Jan 5, 2007, 6:39 PM EST

Mike Aldrich spends half his professional life on the road, but he still hasn’t mastered the art of packing light. As equipment manager of the San Jose Sharks, Aldrich’s livelihood depends on being prepared for anything, so he loads up an estimated 5,000 pounds of equipment for a typical road trip.
“We travel with 13 trunks, two stick bags and about 26 or so player bags,” Aldrich says. “There are a lot of auxiliary pieces as well.”

Now in his 11th season with the Sharks, Aldrich, 42, is on the bench for every game, attends every practice, and accompanies the team on every road trip. If it sounds like a dream job, it’s a good thing, because NHL equipment managers don’t always get enough sleep to have any other kind of dreams.

On a typical game day at home, Aldrich arrives at the rink at 6:30 a.m. and doesn’t leave until midnight. If it’s a practice day, he shows up around 6 a.m. and leaves at 6 p.m.

“They are extreme hours, for sure,” Aldrich says. “We get here way before the players, and on a game day, we don’t like to leave the rink. We like to stay to make sure everything is right on cue. When the players walk in the door, the only thing they should have to worry about is hockey. They don’t have to worry about all the small stuff because we do that during the day.”

Although Aldrich’s job has enabled him to see the country, road trips are no vacation.

“On a game day on the road,” Aldrich says, “I get to the rink around 8 in the morning. Most of the time, you pack up right after the game and head to the next city that same night. You could be going on a one-hour flight or three-hour flight, so it keeps you up until early in the morning.”

Back-to-back road games can be every bit as challenging for a hockey team’s support staff as they are for its players. Consider the back-to-back games the Sharks recently played in Phoenix and Dallas. After a Saturday night game in Phoenix, the Sharks took the ice in Dallas roughly 20 hours later. In order to make it come off without a hitch, Aldrich and his staff became the hockey equivalent of roadies, packing up the Sharks’ gear after their Saturday game in Phoenix, and loading it, first onto a truck, and then onto a plane. The team then flew directly to Dallas, but when the Sharks’ charter landed in the small hours of the morning and buses took players and coaches to the team hotel, the equipment staff went directly to American Airlines Center to set up for the next night’s game.

“We landed in Dallas around 2 a.m. and got to the rink around 2:30 or so,” Aldrich says. “We do put in crazy hours. For me, the reason I’m still in this is because I love hockey.”

Being around and watching hockey is one of the great perks of Aldrich’s job, but a good equipment manager is much more than a spectator. He can have an influence on a game, however minor, by solving equipment snafus expeditiously.

“I love hockey and I love watching the games,” Aldrich says, “but I’m there for a reason. I’m not there just to sit back and enjoy. I’ve got to be observant, and when something does happen with a player’s equipment, you have to all the tools in the tool box to make sure you get that player back on the ice as fast as you can.”

Spend as much time around a hockey team as Aldrich does and, invariably, you become part of it.

“You feel like you are part of the team’s success, and you also feel like you are part of the failure when the team doesn’t win,” Aldrich says. “So you are constantly evaluating your position on the team to make sure you are doing all the right things. You have to be prepared just like a player is.”

Aldrich not only prepares like a player, he thinks like one, too.

“I have the same dreams and aspirations as the players, and every coach and GM and everyone else behind the scenes: I want to win the Stanley Cup.”

Aldrich’s career in hockey, which has spanned the better part of two decades, began serendipitously. He was working at Michigan Tech University when a family friend who was coaching there asked if was interested in filling an opening in the equipment room.

“It was an increase in pay,” Aldrich says, “so I took it on a whim, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. After a short amount of time, I fell in love with my job and really loved being around sports. Before long, I realized I wanted to work in the NHL someday.”

After four years at the Houghton, Mich., school, Aldrich took a job with the Kansas City Blades of the International Hockey League.

“I worked for Doug Soetaert for three years in K.C. and it was a great experience,” he says. “Then I got the big call, so to speak, from the Sharks.”

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