Friday, April 15, 2011

Stuck Helps Bears Keep Eyes on the Prize

When the calendar flips to April after a long winter and an even longer American Hockey League season, it signifies that the start of the Calder Cup Playoffs is right around the corner. For longtime Hershey Bears’ trainer, Dan “Beaker” Stuck, who is entrusted with the care of the players whose every shift, good or bad, potentially turns the course of a series, it also means a lot more.

In addition to his duties with the Bears, Stuck, who has been the Bears’ trainer for the last 27 years, is also the head trainer for all of the entertainment shows at HERSHEYPARK.

Seemingly, that would cause a scheduling conflict with his Bears’ duties, due to the club going to the Calder Cup Finals in four of the past five seasons, but just like every other detail, Stuck has it covered.

“I communicate with Jim Paul, who is the entertainment manger at the park, and if by chance something pops up that needs my attention, I’ll setup my schedule so that I can go over and meet with the performers,” said Stuck. “Hopefully, it’s during an off time over here so that I can go over there and see them and make it back here before it interferes with something over here. If I’m not here, there will definitely be coverage for me.”

Stuck’s duties at HERSHEYPARK are much like his responsibilities with the Bears as he tends to whatever physical aliments need his attention, but over the years, his area of expertise has also evolved into other areas pertaining to medical treatment.

“I take care of any injuries the performers may suffer, so if they get hurt during a show or they need any assistance as far as stretching or getting something taped up, I’m there. It’s not always sports-related stuff, but it may also be something else such as personal issues that may need attention.”

“Just like a lot of the players here in the hockey club who are very young, a lot of the performers are also very young, and some of them are even high school kids getting ready to go into college,” he explained. Sometimes, I wish I’d taken some classes in psychology, because sports psychology is what I do with the hockey team where I’m like a den mother, giving the kids a little of the direction that they need, and it’s also a lot like that over at the park.”

The Bears, who have enjoyed unparalleled success since reuniting with the Capitals prior to the 2005-06 season, capturing three Calder Cup Championship in five seasons, failed to reach playoffs in their final two seasons prior to their Capital affiliation, and Stuck, who has unique insight into the matter, offers up his points of view on the reasons for the Bears’ recent success, as well as for the failures in the final years of the Colorado days.

"I don’t know whether there were more Europeans or more younger guys in the last couple years with Colorado, but maybe their motivations were different than the Washington guys. These guys that come here now, maybe we’re so close to Washington and we’ve had such huge success that I think it rubs off. After not having too much success in the minors with Colorado, I think it hurt them a little bit, but they were such a great organization up top, but maybe it just didn’t flow to us at the bottom.”

This season, the Bears were beset by a bevy of injuries, which often found Stuck in the locker room tending to an existing injury while another injury occurred on the ice. In those cases, Bears’ equipment manager, Justin Kullman, made an ice call to the wounded Bears’ player.

“This is what happens: there’s only one Beaker,” joked Stuck. "The normal thing is to have the other trainer go out to tend to an injury if I’m busy, but the advantage of having Justin go out is that he is someone the players know. We’ve had a lot of injuries this year; it was a tough year. So, if someone goes down and I’m off with somebody, he goes out. If I have injured guys back here I want to follow up with and I’m taking care of someone, I might get out to the bench late, but I always tell the boys that even though I’m not there right away, I’m right in the back so I’m quicker than Life Lion.”

The grind of the regular season guarantees its share of events, like winning and losing streaks, and 40 home dates; likewise, Stuck says he can pretty much know when a particular player is going to come into his office, and what he’s going to need, with a “Groundhog Day” feeling prevailing. However, in the playoffs, Stuck says it’s a totally different animal.

“During the playoffs, I have more responsibilities to make sure there aren’t any excuses. There are things that the players do not need to worry about when it comes to the game time; when they come to the rink, they can be totally focused on the game and they don’t need to worry about anything else.”

A big part of that “no worries” mentally for the players in the playoffs is Stuck’s attention to detail in the spread that is laid out for the players on game days during the playoffs. I can personally attest to the spread consisting of fruit bars, bagels with toppings, as well as a bountiful variety of fruits with an assortment of sports drinks and water.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking the way the Bears organization goes to great lengths to keep their players nourished during the playoffs is the norm around the league. Stuck says that he has had more than a few players with prior AHL playoff experience be in total awe when they see what the Bears do since some other organizations only offer water, and maybe a fruit bar during their other stops.

“They are really catered to here,” said Stuck, who added that the team even goes the extra step to provide a toaster for the bagels. “As much as I’m the trainer, sometimes I feel like I’m the concierge at the Ritz or at the Hotel Hershey. I’m that person that makes sure they have nothing to worry about but the game. I try to make sure everything is exactly the same for them in the playoffs, whether it’s a home game or an away game.”

On the eve of his 22nd playoff season as the Bears’ trainer, Stuck still seems to be enjoying his job as his constant smile and cheery demeanor certainly attest to, and according to him, retirement is still a number of years away.

“I’ve been fortunate to win so many Cups (five),” said Stuck, who jokingly added, “When we win, it’s all because of the trainers, when we lose, I pity the coaching staff, it’s all them.”

“I look back and think what a great career it’s been, but it’s not over and my candle is burning as bright as it was before. On the day that people come by and look at me and I’m not smiling and enjoying myself, that’s when I’ll know it’s enough. I still love this life every day and I love what I do here, and I want to keep doing it, and age for me is only a number.”

“I’m in my mid-40s, and to be around these younger guys is great because I have to come down to their level and be relaxed and talk about anything that goes on in their lives. I look at it as an opportunity to help them out in life, not just in hockey. I’m still having a good time and looking forward to things to come."

Eventually, Stuck conceded that he knows that someday down the road he will hang up his trusty fanny pack full of medical supplies and make way for someone else to take over his position, and quite possibly his replacement could have a very familiar last name, if the price is right.

“Just like when anybody else who has been in a job a long time goes to retire, there’s always somebody willing and ready to take over. In fact, my son, Dustin, is graduating high school this year and he’s taking his athletic training and then he’ll go to PT school, that’s his goal.”

“I told him it’s great, so I’ll only have a couple more years to wait for you. Then he told me that he doesn’t want my job, but Greg Smith’s job (Washington Capitals’ trainer). He said he wants to make more money.”

Photos Courtesty of JustSports Photography

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