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'A Pretty Cool Job'

Dec 16, 2022
Written By: Randy Cleves

Now in his fifth season as the assistant equipment manager for the Griffins, Charlie Kaser loves his work.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Charlie Kaser studied environmental science at Portland State University, but he didn’t need a degree to recognize the place where he naturally felt most comfortable.

While he loved the outdoors, his heart seemed drawn to the climate-controlled indoors, where ice is manufactured for the likes of Penguins, Ducks, Sharks, Panthers, and Coyotes as they compete with Hurricanes, Flames, Lightning, and the Wild.

Hockey was his hallowed ground.

“I always remember going to the rink when I was younger,” he said. “I think the first steps I can remember were on the ice. In fact, it seems like I have more memories at the rink than outside of the rink. Hockey has always been part of our family.”

Born in Kansas City where his father, Bob Kaser, was the radio voice of the IHL’s Blades, he believes the sport had been ingrained into his psyche by the time the family moved to Grand Rapids in 2000 so his dad could do play-by-play for the Griffins.

“As a kid, I remember laying in bed, listening to my dad on the radio,” Kaser said. “I loved that he was calling hockey, but the cool part was that he was on the radio. He could be many miles away and I could still hear his voice. I’d listen to the radio that was plugged in by the bed and once he signed off after the game, I knew that it was my cue to fall asleep.”

Given the opportunity to skate at Van Andel Arena, both Charlie and his younger brother Sam were destined to play hockey, even though it was evident fairly early that NHL stardom would elude them.

“I think I was pretty young when I realized that I would only be playing for fun,” he said. “I don’t know if I can trace it to any specific moment, but there was a point when I realized that playing hockey for a living was probably over for me.”

Charlie and his brother enjoyed hanging around the rink, even serving as stick boys for longtime Griffins equipment manager Brad “Dogg” Thompson. Helping with water bottles, towels and other items of hockey paraphernalia allowed them to stay close to their father as well as the sport.

If their father felt any guilt about being on the road so often away from his family, Charlie is quick to dispel that thought.

“My brother and I have had so many conversations that our dad shouldn’t look at it that way at all,” he said. “We had such a unique experience growing up because not many kids can say they got to spend their days at the hockey rink, often skating in a 10,000-seat building all to ourselves. Not many kids get to go around saying that.”

Even when the possibility of playing the sport professionally faded, both boys kept skating. While Sam was a member of the 2017 Aquinas College men’s team that won an American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) national championship, Charlie played club hockey at Portland State until a couple of concussions ended the fun.

“It was pay-to-play and I didn’t feel like paying to have my head knocked around anymore,” he said. “I figured I should probably take care of myself a little more. So I stopped and focused more on school,” said Charlie, who had headed west to find his future.

Instead, his career came to him. In August 2018, he got a call from Thompson, who was losing his assistant after Andrew Stegehuis accepted the position of head equipment manager for the AHL’s Rochester Americans.

Was Charlie interested in taking the job?

“I figured I could always finish school later,” he said. “I never felt that I needed a college degree to feel fulfilled in life, but it was a hard decision based on all of the out-of-state tuition that my parents had invested. Still, I knew that I had wanted to end up in hockey ever since I had been a stick boy during high school.”

Kaser had been in Syracuse when the Griffins won their first Calder Cup in 2013 and the excitement had always stuck with him.

“To see everyone’s efforts culminate in a championship is something you never forget,” he said. “To be on the ice and to be in the team photo with the Cup is very special, especially when you think about all the sacrifices that everyone made to get to that point.”

Now in his fifth season as the team’s assistant equipment manager, Kaser knows he made the right decision. His life has been consumed with hockey sticks, skates, socks, helmets, pads, and tape – but he would not have it any other way.

“Everything and anything is what we do,” Kaser said. “It’s doing everything from sewing jerseys to doing the laundry after the game or practice. It’s preparing the dressing room so it’s nice every day, so it looks clean, presentable, and welcoming. We’re making sure everything looks the same every day – nothing out of place and nothing that we cannot find.

“We want the guys to feel comfortable to do what they’re paid to do, and that’s playing hockey.”

And the job of the equipment staff is not just about gear.

“Our job is to make the players’ lives as easy as possible. We want them to come in, put on their equipment, go out on the ice and do what they need to do, then take off their equipment and go home. If we can put them at ease because we’re already on top of things, we’ve done our jobs.

“You can hand some guys a set of gloves and you won’t hear from them for two months until they need another pair. Other guys need a lot of fixing; they ask for a lot more little things. We’re always there for whatever they need. We never want them to feel like they can’t ask. We strive to be approachable so they feel like they can come to us for whatever they need.”

Sometimes all they want is to talk. Sometimes, there’s a psychological angle to the work. “You have to deal with so many different personalities through the course of a season that so much of the job is learning things outside of the equipment aspect,” Kaser said.

“Dogg always says, ‘We may not be able to make them better hockey players but we can make sure that they’re better human beings just by being polite and treating people with respect. He’s taught me to be there for anybody – no matter if it’s a player, coach, or staff. Be ready and be on your toes, even if all they want to do is talk.”

Kaser contends that he could not ask for a better teacher than Thompson, who has mentored assistants who have graduated to the NHL. Vegas Golden Knights head equipment manager Chris Davidson-Adams recently worked his 1,500th professional game while Jim Heintzelman, assistant equipment manager with the Chicago Blackhawks, was recently honored for his 1,000th NHL game.

“Dogg welcomed me with open arms and showed me the ropes,” Kaser said. “Even now, after five years, he’s still teaching me so much about this job – how to do things the correct way, how to act around the players, management, or whoever else. He’s given me all the tools I need.”

Kaser credits Thompson with creating a positive environment.

“We may have the most fun of any staff in the league, but we still get our jobs done. We’re still ready to go when guys need us. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned. Take your job seriously but you’re never going to get through a full season unless you have fun.”

The hardest part of being an assistant equipment manager is the schedule.

“You have a lot of late nights and early mornings, so you don’t get a lot of sleep throughout the season,” Kaser said. “You learn to run on the adrenalin and coffee or whatever gets you going. After a while you get used to it a little, but some mornings are worse than others.”

Sometimes it means trying to function with barely an hour of sleep.

“We might have a Friday night game and the team that we’re playing on Saturday will be busing in late from Milwaukee, so I have to be here at 3 or 4 in the morning to help load them in,” he said. “I’ll manage to get a couple of hours of sleep and then come back to the arena to get all of our stuff set up in the morning.

“Often we’re pulling into the arena at three in the morning and you still have an hour or more of work to do. Those are the times when you’d like to go home and get some sleep, but we still have a job to do.”

Kaser leans on help from several locker room attendants. Shaine McKenna and Kyle Stauffer are helpers on the home side while Tim Glasscock and Shane Mooney have become veterans in working with the visiting teams.

From the beginning, Kaser was astounded by the amount of detail – just the sheer number of bags and various equipment that is required, and the stuff is not cheap. Player skates might cost $800 while extra sticks can run the team $150-200.

Kaser learned pretty early that he needed a checklist.

“On my first bus trip, I ended up forgetting our skate sharpener, which is surprising because it’s one of our bigger pieces of equipment,” he said. “I’m not sure how it happened, but I was still learning. Fortunately, the other team had an extra sharpener that we could use. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but I haven’t forgotten it since and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it again – knock on wood.”

Kaser has come a long way. This past fall, he was chosen to accompany Red Wings equipment manager Paul Boyer on road trips to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington, and Toronto.

“It was pretty cool to go to PPG Paints Arena and watch Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin play. And it was special to go to a sold-out United Center and feel that atmosphere while watching Jonathan Toews. It was surreal to be a part of Hockey Night in Canada in Toronto. And my girlfriend was able to come to the game in Washington and say hi while I was on the bench during warmups.

“Even though they were only exhibition games, the experience gave me goosebumps. To work in those historic buildings and see future Hall of Famers like Alexander Ovechkin is something I’ll always remember.”

Kaser is grateful that he has found his calling.

“There’s not a lot of people who get to do what we do,” he said. “Sure, there’s a lot of work and the hours might not be the best, but you have to take a step back and realize we get to be a part of a journey that not many people get to experience.

“As hard as the lifestyle can appear, I get to work in a hockey rink. I don’t have to work behind a desk – nothing against people that work at a desk – but the opportunity to travel to so many great places and create great memories with the players, coaches, and staff is unique and special.

“We could be doing a lot worse things but we get to watch hockey for a living. It’s something that I hope I can do for a long time in my life. Someday I hope to bring my kids into it and give them the same childhood that I enjoyed growing up so they can have cool stories when they’re older.

“I can honestly say it’s a pretty cool job to have.”