(Adam Gavriel contributed to the writing of this story)
On a racing team there is of course the driver and then he or she answers to the pit boss for their instruction, but the most critical person to any of their success is the head mechanic that builds the car and keeps it running.
Hockey is not all that different.
A hockey team is, of course comprised of players and a coach, but for ANY team, the backbone of that organization is the team Athletic Trainer.
In the NHL, the New York Rangers have one who is recognized among the best in the business in Jim Ramsey. In the AHL, the Connecticut Whale has an Athletic Trainer who is also recognized to be among the best in the business. His name is Damien Hess.
This fall, Hess will begin his eighth season as the Head Athletic Trainer for the Rangers’ top affiliate after joining the team during the NHL lockout season in 2004-05.
The 35-year old Hess started his career by earning a degree in Athletic Training, graduating with honors from West Chester University in 1998. Hess was fortunate enough to obtain an internship with the New York Giants while working on his undergrad degree and his passion to be the best he could be in his chosen career of professional sports was born.
“That was my first experience with professional athletes, and it really inspired me to want to work in pro sports,” Hess said. “At the time, I did not have a preference on which sport. As it happens, I had a chance to work both minor league baseball and hockey while working in Atlantic City, so I could have gone either way. I was fortunate enough to continue to work in hockey, leading me here to Hartford.”
After completing his undergrad studies, Hess moved on to the University of Virginia where he obtained a Master’s degree a year later also in Athletic Training. While attending UVA, Hess had a tremendous opportunity to work with the school’s wresting and soccer teams. That experience helped shape him in knowing how to get a team ready for the tasks at hand unlike his internship and also shapes what he does to this day.
“Although quite different, soccer and ice hockey are also similar in some respects. There is a lot of emphasis on core strength/stability as well as hip and groin flexibility and strength. Having the opportunity to work with one of the better college soccer programs was somewhat similar to my work now;” Hess said. “Many of the players that went to UVA later went on to play for their national teams and professional clubs. In a sense, I was able to work with them in their early years and help teach them the proper things to do from training and conditioning standpoints. It gave me the base of knowledge that I still use to this day with our players. I have since added and updated the things I do with/for players, but the base of knowledge is still the same.”
After finishing college, in August of 2000, Hess “…applied for a one-year fellowship with the (United States Olympic Committee). The position was specifically for new graduates to give them work experience with elite level athletes. (The USOC) hired me and assigned me to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. I worked with all the athletes that came through the training center ranging from high school hopefuls right up through athletes already on the team. It was a great experience to see the hard work and dedication that these amazing athletes put into training for their particular sport. For me, taking care of those athletes and knowing they could trust me gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities that I have carried with me to my current position with the CT Whale.”
Hess traveled with the Short Track Speed-Skating team to two World Cup events. While simultaneously working with the US teams training at Lake Placid, Hess was also part of the medical staff that covered the Winter Goodwill Games that were also held in Lake Placid in 2000.
That terrific experience put Hess on a path that sent him to Atlantic City, NJ where he spent the next four years working for NovaCare Rehabilitation. He simultaneously became the Athletic Trainer for the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies of the ECHL (2001-04) and the Atlantic City Surf of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (2000-04).
In 2003, Hess was behind the bench in his capacity as the Athletic Trainer when the Boardwalk Bullies won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Championship.
The York, PA native then went from the Boardwalk in Atlantic City to the Riverwalk in Hartford.
“I was with the Boardwalk Bullies in AC,” Hess recalled. “Our first GM was a former NYR employee and he put me in contact with Rammer, who invited me to help with training camp in 2002. There I met Tim Macre, who was the ATC in Hartford at the time and is now the head ATC with the Buffalo Sabres. Anyway, when he left Hartford after the 2003-04 season, he recommended me to (then Hartford Wolf Pack General Manager) Jim Schoenfeld. And, now here I am going on my eighth year with the organization.”
In those eight years, Hess, who now lives in Canton, CT with his wife, Storey and his son Alex, has developed quite a relationship with Ramsey, who has been the Head Athletic Trainer for Team Canada’s Olympic team since 2002.
“I am very fortunate to be able to work with and learn from Rammer. He has been in the NHL for a very long time, and is widely regarded as one of the best in the business.” Hess says proudly. “In my seven seasons, I have really learned a lot about what characteristics a person needs to work in the NHL. Our relationship has evolved over my time with the organization. When I first started, Rammer was always there to answer questions and give me pointers so that we were on the same page as to how we manage the players. As time has gone on, I feel like his trust in me has increased to the point that I can handle injuries and rehab progressions with players, Whale players and Rangers alike, without him checking up on me. I have made an effort to watch him and learn how he treats players, and I try to do things the same way. This allows the players to feel comfortable no matter whom they come to, particularly in training camp or the other times I am in NY to help.”
Hess finds himself now living out his dream in Hartford with the Whale, but for Hess the dream still has another chapter in it.
“My ultimate goal professionally is to work as a Head Athletic Trainer in the NHL. When I was doing my undergraduate work at West Chester University, I had the opportunity to do that internship with the New York Giants. Now that I have been working in pro hockey for ten years, I want to focus on being the best Athletic Trainer I can and hopefully one day I will have the privilege of working in the NHL.”
But for now, a typical game day for Hess starts bright and early and can end really late.
“I usually arrive at the rink around 7:45 AM for our morning skate.” Hess says. “Our first players usually arrive around 8:15 AM, so I have about 30 minutes to prepare for the day. That includes setting up the training room if I have something specific that I will do with a player. I make sure that everything is ready and set because once the players get there, my focus needs to be solely on what they need to be able to get on the ice for a 10:00 AM morning skate. Often that means treatments for injuries, taping, stretching, and massage to help loosen sore and tight bodies. At some point in the morning before the skate, I will meet with the coaching staff to update them on any changes in players’ injury status. Once that’s done, I will work with injured players who aren’t skating that day. Usually, the players are finished and out of the rink by 12:30’ish, so then I’ll spend the next three hours or so doing the administrative aspects of my job. I’m responsible for completing injury paperwork, setting up medical appointments as needed, dealing with Worker’s Comp matters, making sure invoices get paid, ordering supplies, etc.”
For Hess, early evenings are just the start of a long and hectic second part of his day.
“The players will begin arriving back at the rink for the game around 3:30 – 4:00. From then until the team meeting at 5:30, it is the same routine as the morning skate (treatments, taping, stretching, massage, etc.). Around 5:30, it’s a quick bite to eat so that I have the energy I need for the game.”
After he’s had his dinner, that’s when the intensity and the pressure on Hess amps up.
“From 5:45 PM through pre-game warm-ups, I focus solely on getting the players ready for the game. During the game, I’ll stand on the bench area behind the players watching very closely, particularly our players. I am looking for any signs of injury or problems that the equipment staff or I need to address immediately. Once the game ends, it’s back to the training room and doing another round of player treatments for those who need them before they head home for the night. By the time I’m done getting the room set up for the next day, it’s usually around 11:00.”
During the game, should there be an actual injury; Hess’ job is not all that different from an Emergency Medical Technician.
“For every game there is a two-person crew consisting of one EMT and one Paramedic. When a player is injured on the ice, it is my job to be the first responder and make an initial assessment as to how significant the injury is. It’s no different than the assessment that the EMT or Paramedic is going to do when they first arrive on the scene of an accident. If I determine that we need to take a player off the ice, I signal to our entire team to initiate our emergency action plan. This includes our team physicians at the game and the EMS crew covering the ice. Once they are on the ice with me, we work as a team to get the injured player off the ice and to the appropriate medical facility for care. This is really the only area where my job is similar to that of an EMT. I still have to take care of all the other aspects of my job before, during, and after games. The EMS crew is there to support me in this one aspect of my job.”
Injuries are a part of any sport. With hockey being one of the highest levels of contact in terms of shear speed of impact, the size and weight of the players, with an Athletic Trainer of Hess’ level of expertise and experience a lot of these young people, especially the very young ones that are under Hess’ watchful eye though have not dealt with what they face in the AHL before. Keeping them in a good frame of mind is also an important part of Hess’ job.
“Because I work very closely with the players on a daily basis, it is imperative that I am able to read them,” He said. “In order to do that, I get to know them as a person as well as a hockey player. This allows me to know how to handle injuries or situations with each player. Is it something that I need to discuss with the coaching staff or can I handle it with the player? There has to be a certain level of trust between the player and me in order for them to open up to me about the things I can help them with, whether it is an injury or a personal issue. At the same, time, there has to be just as much trust between me and the coaching staff/management about how I manage players.”
“Everyone has their job to do on the team,” The Whale’s Athletic Trainer said. “And mine is to care for the medical well-being of the players and staff. In order for me to do that properly, I must relay information about the players to coaches/management but do it in a way not to lose that trust. I have found that keeping everyone informed, even if it is a small issue, makes it easier to deal with rather than waiting until the problem is big to address it.”
“I spend a lot of time with the players; I get to know how they work and even how they think to some extent. When a player is injured, especially a significant injury that will require lost time, dealing with the psychological aspect of the injury is just as important as dealing with the physical aspect. A player’s mindset on his injury can affect the outcome, so keeping them calm and rational is an important factor in treating them. This can sometimes be the most difficult part of treating an injured athlete.”
The Whale’s current head coach, Ken Gernander was also the Wolf Pack’s captain for ten years. Hess got to know the team’s on-ice Commander-In-Chief during his last active season on the ice and their relationship has grown ever since.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we had enough time to develop our player-athletic trainer relationship the way I have with other players since who have been here for a few years.” Hess stated but then added, “Ken and I have had six years to develop our relationship as coach-athletic trainer, and I think we have a good working relationship. When he first started as an assistant coach, we were both relatively new in our given roles so it allowed us to learn together about how each of us work. He came to understand my abilities and learned to trust the decisions I make regarding the players. I have learned what he expects of his staff and the players. As he transitioned into the head coaching position, our relationship has progressed to the point that I am able to give him precise information about a player and he knows how to use that information to get the most out of them. Like any relationship, we have become very familiar with each other and how each other operate.”
Hess is quite a personality. He’s media-friendly within the bounds that he’s allowed to be and he has a remarkably close relationship with the players he’s caring for. In fact, post-game, Hess’ training room is the most popular hangout for the players in the locker room.
“I think there are a few reasons why players like to keep their injuries quiet. One is privacy. They are in an unfortunate position to be very public figures, and everyone always asks them questions such as, “What happened?” and “When will you be back?” The training room is one place where they can feel comfortable saying what they need to say without worrying whether the wrong person will hear. They know that I am there to help make them better and would not risk that trust or their health.”
That bond extends into the summer as well and sometimes even beyond the player’s year’s with the team.
Sure, some of it can be chalked up to the whole “Doctor/patient” dynamic…some of it even might stray into something a little father/son-esque. However, given the nature of who Damien Hess is; his level of commitment to the well-being of those he’s been charged to care for, and the relationship that’s so clearly evident to anyone who spends any time around this team when the cameras and fans are all the rest are on to the next thing, the vast majority of the reason they’re in there is because of who Damien Hess is, a good all-around person… They may not give you a championship ring for that, but it does get you something even more valuable…a life filled to overflowing with friends and colleagues that respect what you do.
Damien Hess has all of that and he has a bright future as one of the best Athletic Trainers in the business.