Skip to main content

Calder Cup Champions -'13 '17

Official site of the Grand Rapids Griffins

Driving Force

Head athletic trainer Josh Chapman is determined to help Griffins players reach their full potential.

Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Sam Iannamico

When Griffins athletic trainer Josh Chapman looks at where he is today, there is one person beyond all others who has been his guiding force.

Karen Chapman was a single mom, working as a night-shift nurse in the emergency department of Yale-New Haven Hospital, a 1,541-bed facility that traces its history back to 1826, when it became only the fourth voluntary hospital in the nation. She worked long hours – from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. – while also doing her best to raise her two boys, Josh and his younger brother Jason.

He still remembers his first hockey game, an experience that left the kind of indelible impression that would set the course for his career.

The young family attended a minor league game featuring The Beast of New Haven, a curiously named team that played in the American Hockey League for only two seasons (1997-98 and 1998-99) and featured a grotesque logo inspired by the ghoulish gargoyles found throughout the buildings at Yale University.

“My mom bought tickets and it just happened that our seats were right by the tunnel,” Chapman recalled. “Naturally I was curious and I saw the players coming out and I connected with Craig Ferguson, who was the captain of the team. He gave me a fist bump which I thought was one of the coolest things.”

Chapman had little exposure to hockey before that night, so he found himself mesmerized.

“From the first game I saw, I was absolutely hooked… the bright, white ice… the sounds and smells of the arena,” he said. “I kept begging my mom for season tickets and eventually she caved and we ended up getting season tickets right by that tunnel. I was always that kid, leaning over the railing. ‘Can I get a high-five? Can I get a stick?’

“Eventually, I met Craig Ferguson in the elevator after a game. He was walking to his car and we were going to ours and I was starstruck. He started recognizing me and brought me a stick after a game. It was a cool connection to have.”

Chapman would later convince his mother to take him to the equipment store and buy him skates and a stick, and then sign him up for youth hockey. It was a significant step for a kid from Miami who had said goodbye to Florida when his parents divorced and he moved with his mom and brother to Camden, Conn.

“I didn’t really know much about hockey before The Beast got me into the sport,” he said. “I started late – I was about 8 when I started playing youth hockey – so I was a little behind kids who were my age, but I loved it so much. I was playing street hockey all the time, so I learned the game and kept playing up until high school. I knew I wasn’t going to play pro hockey, but I was having fun because I loved the game.”

Chapman even got his mom to invest some of her money to help him with strength and conditioning before his last year of high school. “I was always that small, scrawny kid, but I finally had enough and committed myself to a summer of offseason training and I really made some strides.

“My senior year I was one of the last kids cut. Obviously, it was hard to swallow. I had waited too late to start training and investing in becoming a good hockey player. But I think the experience served me well because it taught me an important lesson. If you really want something, you have to be committed and you’ve got to put in the extra work. You can’t wait until it’s too late.”

He found further inspiration when his mom was nominated for Yale-New Haven’s Nurse of the Year in 2002. “Because she was a night shift nurse, mainly in ER, she dealt with the traumas and all the serious stuff that would come in,” he said. “Hearing stories of her helping others and how she was able to make an impact in a person’s time of need was really an inspiration to me. To see her get nominated and then hear about the impact she had on her fellow nurses and colleagues inspired me to go into medicine.

“I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, so I was initially thinking about physical therapy. I knew I wanted to be in a position where I could help people but still stay in athletics.”

He enrolled at Merrimack College, a private school in North Andover, Mass. which is just north of Boston.

“I was intrigued because Merrimack had a Division I hockey team, so I would be able to combine my two passions,” he said. “I was lucky to be placed as a student athletic trainer with the hockey team and I loved it. I was essentially there every day, working with the players doing rehab and getting treatment. It sparked my interest and got me thinking this could be a really cool career move.”

His plans were upended near the end of his freshman year.

“My mom came home from a typical day, and then she usually slept through the afternoon,” he recalled. “I was coming back for Easter break and when I got home, she was still on the couch, a little disoriented and her speech was off.”

Chapman took his mom to the hospital, where they learned she had suffered an aneurysm. She underwent major surgery, which was followed by a week in the hospital for her recovery, but sadly she never improved. She died on April 29, 2011. She was 54.

“It threw my life upside down,” he said. “Going back to Merrimack for my sophomore year was emotionally one of the hardest decisions I ever made.”

He found strength in a conversation that he had with his mother shortly before she died.

“She said, ‘No matter what happens, find what you love and do it to the best of your ability.’ After she passed, those words really resonated and she remains a driving force for me to this day,” he said. “I saw her work ethic and the dedication she had for her job. She never complained. I saw the sacrifices she made. She taught us to treat people the way you want to be treated and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

His brother wanted to attend a college down south after finishing high school, so Chapman decided to transfer to the University of Tampa while his brother enrolled at St. Leo University, a Division II school located about 30 minutes northeast of Tampa.

In Tampa, Chapman worked with the basketball team as well as other scholarship athletes at the school. Meanwhile, he made landing an internship with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning his singular focus. He wrote a letter to Tom Mulligan, the head athletic trainer for the Lightning, in hopes of getting his foot in the door.

While the NHL team had a relationship with the University of South Florida, it had no ties to the University of Tampa.

“One day, one of my professors got a call from the team saying that I could shadow during the team’s development camp, a week-long event where prospects worked on skill development,” he said. “I thought it would be my only chance to collect as much information as possible, so I was really attentive, wanting to learn, asking all these questions, just trying to get a feel of what the job would be like.”

Chapman had a blast. “I learned so much in that short time,” he said. “When the fall semester came around, I got another call about an internship that had opened up with the Lightning for the fall semester. I couldn’t believe it.

“I was so excited, so I jumped on the opportunity on top of all the schoolwork I had. I totally immersed myself in the experience. It truly opened up my eyes that athletic trainers can make such a big impact within the framework of a sports team. That was the moment when I decided that I planned on doing this for my entire career.”

He stayed with the Lightning for more than a year after completing his internship with Tampa’s medical staff. He got to know everyone from Hockey Hall of Fame player Martin St. Louis to the team’s current captain, Steven Stamkos. “It was a great experience working with NHL players because you see how they approach things. It’s their job and their careers that are on the line, so they are very on top of taking care of their bodies. They are very proactive. They want to take care of issues before they become a big problem.”

Following his graduation in 2014, Chapman became a certified athletic trainer. He was employed by CORA Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Centers, a job that included overseeing the sports programs at Tampa Catholic High School. He eventually landed an assistant athletic trainer position with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League. “I had minimal knowledge of soccer, but it gave me the opportunity to focus on the treatment and rehab of the players while learning what I could about the sport.”

Chapman could hardly believe his good fortune when he was able to parlay that experience into a job with the Orlando Solar Bears hockey team. He spent three seasons as the head athletic trainer for the ECHL club, managing all medical and training operations for the organization before he landed his current position with the Griffins.

“Even though I was reluctant to give up the warm weather in Florida, I knew working in the Red Wings organization, an Original Six team, was an opportunity too good to miss,” he said. “I also knew Grand Rapids was a good city with a reputation for putting good teams on the ice.”

The move fit perfectly with his plan to propose to his girlfriend, Madaline, whose family was in Chicago. The job with the Griffins would bring them closer to her family.

Of course, not everything works out as planned.

Chapman’s first season in Grand Rapids was curtailed by the consequences of the coronavirus. As an athletic trainer, he usually is prepared for the unexpected, but pandemics normally would be considered beyond the scope of most in his field. “I’m not an epidemiologist, so dealing with a coronavirus is not exactly my strong point,” he said.

Chapman and assistant athletic trainer Anthony Polazzo suddenly found themselves at the center of a crisis.

“We were watching the news and saw that the virus could affect a wide spectrum of people,” he said. “Even though athletes are younger and in great physical condition, they can still be at risk. We did our best to educate the players so they could make informed decisions. A lot of times, we were learning on the fly because the information was changing daily. It was a challenge to stay on top of things so we could answer any questions they might have.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, Chapman thought that COVID-19 might be little more than an inconvenience.

“When we got the word that the AHL was shutting down, that was when it hit. ‘Ok, this is something real.’ We started to hear that the borders were beginning to close, so guys quickly decided to head back to Europe or Canada or wherever they came from,” Chapman said. “It was like a whirlwind. Everything happened so quickly and so fast that we didn’t even get closure on the [2019-20] season.”

Going into summer and fall of 2020, Chapman and the rest of the Griffins found themselves in a world of unknowns. “There were conversations and rumors, but we knew the league was putting together protocols for a safe return to play,” said Chapman, who got married on July 12, 2020. “What we didn’t know was when we were going to be back playing.”

When the AHL announced it would start an abbreviated season in early February 2021, Chapman and Polazzo were ready to spring into action.

“There was a level of excitement but also some nerves about how we were going to safely operate,” he said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a normal season with normal operations. It was going to be something very different. We knew there would need to be greater attention to detail and that our day-to-day life was going to need to be well-thought-out and well-planned.”

The state of Michigan, for example, required that all athletes be tested six times a week. “We did testing every morning, using a combination of lab and point-of-care testing,” Chapman said. “The point-of-care tests took about 10 minutes to read, which allowed us the time to isolate any player that might be symptomatic or show a potential positive test result.”

Once players were inside the building, Chapman and Polazzo had to enforce a mask-wearing policy. “No one likes wearing a mask but everyone understood it was for everyone’s protection,” Chapman said. “We also worked with the coaching staff and equipment managers to space out the players throughout the locker rooms to allow for social distancing. Meetings were either virtual or with strict time measures in place to limit player’s potential exposure. There was a lot more planning involved. It was quite the challenge.”

With the hockey team operating in a “bubble,” the onus of enforcement fell on everyone inside the protected area. Besides masks and social distancing, players were encouraged to practice frequent hand-washing and hand sanitizer use. Nutrition was all grab-and-go. Everything from meals to showers to time in the weight room was regulated.

“We even limited our hotel stays to reduce our potential exposure, which meant we ended up busing on the day of games,” he said. “Instead of traveling in one bus, we used two. [Griffins coach] Ben Simon and I sat down before every road trip and came up with a seating chart in an effort to give everyone the space they needed to protect themselves.

“It impacted everything from the time that players walked in the door until they left the building, but everyone bought in because they were grateful to be back playing. Certainly, there were times when they needed to be reminded, but they understood that it was a serious virus and the protocols were in place for their well-being as well as their teammates.”

Chapman said the circumstances called for a full team effort. He is grateful that the organization only encountered a couple of isolated cases of covid exposure. The few games that were postponed were usually because of cases on the opposing team.

If he was surprised by anything, it was not that the Griffins had a couple of positive tests but that they had so few.

“Going into the season, we knew it was not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ As quickly as the coronavirus was spreading, it was bound to happen,” Chapman said. “Obviously, our goal was to eliminate the possibility of COVID and have no cases, but we had to be prepared to deal with it when it happened.”

In recognition of their work during the pandemic, the head athletic trainers from all 31 AHL clubs were selected as winners of the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award for 2020-21 for their extraordinary efforts. In presenting the “Man of the Year” Award, the AHL also acknowledged the work of the assistant athletic trainers, equipment managers, team doctors, and medical staffs whose tireless efforts contributed to a successful season, albeit an abbreviated one.

“It was a great honor to be recognized and acknowledged, but I feel that all of the other people behind the scenes deserved to share the award with me,” Chapman said. “They collectively made me look good. It was truly a team award.”

As the summer turned to fall and the coronavirus’ new delta variant was posing a new threat, Chapman was hopeful that the 2021-22 AHL season would more closely resemble seasons of the past.

“Playing in empty arenas was so different,” he said. “Last season made all of us on the team appreciate the things we once enjoyed, whether it was the little daily interactions or just hanging out in the locker room. We all missed the comfort of that team environment and we missed the energy of the fans when we have a full building. I’m looking forward to having Van Andel Arena packed and hearing the crowd again.

“I’m going to be happy if I don’t have to swab 30 noses every day, but most of all we’re just hoping for things to return to normal.”

Get tickets, live scores, stats, highlights, player interviews & more!