(Sample story from “Tales from the Bus Leagues”)
For those of you who have read my first book, I may be repeating myself a bit here. In, “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey,” I spoke briefly about Kenneth “Gunner” Garrett, the legendary minor league trainer. Considering this, I hemmed and hawed about including Gunner’s story in this book until realizing that not including Gunner in a funny book about minor league hockey would be criminal and sacrilegious. Anyone who has had the pleasure of encountering the cantankerous old codger can attest.
The first time I met Gunner, I was sleep-deprived, hung over and in a furious rush. I had just driven 22 hours straight, through the night from Augusta, Ga., to Amarillo, Texas, and I was about to make another four-hour trek to Odessa for my first game as a member of the Amarillo Gorillas of the CHL. When I walked into the Amarillo Civic Center, one of the first things that caught my eye, before I ducked into the dressing room, was a large black banner with a helmet, two crossed hockey sticks and the name “Gunner” embroidered in large bold letters. Immediately, I figured it was a memorial to a former player who died.
After being redirected several times amid a mad rush of players getting ready for the road trip, I stood nose to nose with the Amarillo team trainer. The man in front of me seemed to have all the prerequisites of a minor league trainer:
He reached out his hand and said: “You must be Janine McMuffin. I’m Gunner, the team trainer. Welcome to paradise.”
I grabbed Gunner’s hand firmly and shook it: “Nice to meet you, Gunner, but my name is Jamie.”
Gunner glared at me, cocking his head to the side: “You look more like a Janine to me. What position do you play?”
“I’m a defenceman,” I replied.
“Oh ya? Well you don’t look like much,” he scoffed while looking me up and down.
“I could say the same about you, but I bet you’ve already been told that,” I jabbed back.
Gunner immediately dropped his grumpy façade and let out a low, bellowing laugh: “You might just be all right, son. Now grab your frickin’ gear and come pick out some sticks.”
“Hey, Gunner,” I asked. “What’s with that morbid banner out front?”
“Son, you wouldn’t believe it if I told ya. Those bozos thought I was dead and had a banner made up for me,” he replied, referring to an incident that occurred during the 2005 season when Gunner was the trainer for the Austin Ice Bats.
Gunner suffered what was thought to be a fatal heart attack at the rink in Austin. He was rushed to hospital and word spread that he had died. Not knowing that he was actually alive, ownership had a large banner made up that was to be hung from the rafters during the next night’s game in memory of Gunner. When word came out that he was indeed alive, the banner was given to him as a keepsake and reminder of the close call.
Gunner was a very interesting character, to say the least. He represented a unique perspective. He was straight out of the old guard. It was almost like having Don Cherry walking around your dressing room in a skin-tight Stanfield’s hockey underwear jumpsuit, throwing chirps around at all the players and talking about how it was back in the good ol’ days.
Gunner’s training and equipment managing career spanned 48 years, from 1961 when he started out with the EHL’s Johnston Jets right up to his last season with us in Amarillo in 2009. Early in his career, Gunner suited up for 22 games with the New Haven Blades of the EHL over five seasons. Back then, teams usually only carried one goalie and the trainer served as the backup. During that span, Gunner even recorded back-to-back shutouts.
Being plugged into the pro hockey culture for so long meant that Gunner, like all of the players he loved to razz, was a creature of habit. And, like all of the players, Gunner’s superstitions and routines were as head- scratching and face-scrunching as anything you’ve ever heard of. For example, some people say that they love hockey so much they basically live at the rink. In Gunner’s case, he actually did live at the rink. In our stick room—a long stretch of open space located under the north-end bleachers—there was an old, fluffy couch with a grungy old blanket and pillow. This was Gunner’s bed. A coffee maker, mini-fridge and hot plate served as Gunner’s kitchen.
One morning before practice, I got to the rink early in order to prep some new sticks. When I walked into the stick room and flipped on the lights, Gunner nearly bit my head off. “Turn that fuckin’ light off before I wrap your nose around the back of your head,” he barked while throwing a pillow at me.
Another routine that Gunner had was to wander around before games, chirping players and engaging in playful banter. He especially loved to drift in and out of the medical trainer’s room to cut guys up who were getting treatment. He would spit out lines like: “What’s going on, son? You tear some heartilage?” or, “What’s wrong with him, doc? He tear his motivator cuff?”
Chirping is a major part of the camaraderie in the hockey culture and Gunner was an avid practitioner. It was how he showed his affection for someone. If he was ripping on you, you knew he liked you. If he didn’t rip on you, you knew he wasn’t a fan.
One of Gunner’s funnier peccadilloes was how adamant he was about certain things and how lax he was about others. For example, Gunner was the only trainer I’ve ever met who didn’t give a shit about the sticks. He literally left the stick room door open all the time. This was unheard of. Usually that room is locked up tighter than Fort Knox.
Players would file in and out of there with bundles of sticks under their arms and he wouldn’t even look up from his newspaper. On the flip side, Gunner would fight you to the death and piss on your dead carcass if he ever caught you stealing the 20-year-old, raggedy, used undershirts and long underwear he kept under lock and key in a cabinet beside his desk. It was the weirdest thing. Those raggedy Stanfield’s undershirts were from his days tending the end of the bench for the P.E.I. Senators during the early ‘90s, and he guarded them like it was his daughter on prom night.
One of the reasons Gunner might have been so anal about the long underwear and undershirts might have been the fact that it was all he ever wore. Throughout the entire season, I only saw Gunner in two outfits: One was a matching set of navy blue long underwear and long-sleeved undershirt; the other an Amarillo Gorillas nylon tracksuit (which he wore on the bench during games). You might hear me say this and think, “Well, Jamie, Gunner couldn’t have worn that stuff when you went out to restaurants on the road or at fancy team parties,” and I’m here to tell you that he certainly did. I still remember the day when one of the guys gave it to Gunner for wearing his tight long johns into an Olive Garden on the road one day: “Geez, Gunner, have some decency. No one should have to see you walking around wearing that. I can see the complete outline of your junk for chrissakes!”
A funny little thing about Gunner was that he absolutely loved ice cream drumsticks. After every game on the road, before bussing out to the next dusty town location, we would stop at a truck stop to gas up. During the pit stop, I would always grab Gunner a drumstick. It was great to see his eyes light up when I’d hand it over to him. He was a like a little kid.
Gunner also loved Christmas. It was the only time I’d ever see him be cheery. He took a lot of pride in putting up decorations and making sure the radio was on a 24/7 Christmas station. He even had his girlfriend make Christmas cookies, which he’d put on display on his desk and promptly slap anyone’s hand who tried to sneak in for a quick grab-and-dash.
One day, I told Gunner that he gave my best friend from home, Jordan Reid (who grew up in P.E.I.), his first job as stick boy for the P.E.I. Senators (the AHL affiliate for the Ottawa Senators during the early ‘90s).
Gunner snapped back at me: “No I didn’t!”
I said: “Gunner, I haven’t even told you his name yet.”
Well, what is it?” he angrily replied.
“Jordan Reid,” I said.
“Ohhhhhhhh, I know little Jordie! He’s Tom Reid’s kid. What a great family. Why didn’t you say that’s who it was?” he said, with a jolly bounce in his voice.
Confused, I replied: “Ummm, I did, Gunner.”
On bus trips, Gunner always sat in the tour guide seat right beside the bus driver. He’d even sleep sitting in that thing.
One trip, the heater on the bus broke as we were driving through the Colorado Rockies and the windshield was beginning to get caked in ice. Gunner sat beside the bus driver all night with a heat gun pointed on the windshield, creating a visible window of one-foot by one-foot.
On another trip up to Fort Collins, Colorado, Gunner had a pretty serious scare. Just before dawn, Gunner woke up in hysterics. He didn’t know who he was, where he was or what the paper items (money) were in his pocket. Gunner was taken to hospital and it was determined he had suffered a mild stroke. Hours later, against stern advice from the doctors, the stubborn old bastard was at the rink, sharpening skates and tossing around chirps.
It’s nearly impossible to keep hockey players on the shelf if there is any way that they can play. Grumpy old hockey trainers are no different.