By Logan Buckley
Muskegon, Mich. - Jason Smits glides across the L. C. Walker Arena ice, stick in hand, ready to receive the puck.
The former Midget Major player and coach of seven years dekes left, slides right and clangs a break-away shot off the bright red cross bar.
His ambitious attempt is greeted with an avalanche of hoots and hollers from a host of Jacks players who rarely miss the opportunity to razz "Smitty," the Muskegon Lumberjacks' equipment manager, on the rare occasions when he suits up for his favorite part of the job - practice with the team.
"I enjoy seeing the guys' progression," Smits says. "Of course I also like helping and hanging out with them. Hopefully when they make it, they'll look back on me well, as someone who helped them achieve their goals."
In his first year as the Lumberjacks' equipment guru, Smits has learned numerous things on the fly since he arrived in Muskegon with only a week to get acclimated before the Jacks' first game of their inaugural season in the United States Hockey League.
"Just getting a routine down and building relationships with the players and coaches and staff were the hardest things to pick up initially," notes Smits, "and getting my bearings around the arena and Muskegon. Even finding and running the washer and dryer was a task."
With his deep well of hockey knowledge to draw upon, as well as timely advice from former mentors Greg Samms, Andrew Kitts and the Jacks' former equipment manager, Andrew Oliver, Smits not only navigated his first hectic days on the job, but he quickly began to excel.
These days, the guidance from Head Coach Kevin Patrick has allowed Smits to dominate his position. He has set his sights on continuing to improve upon numerous aspects of his job.
"Inventory is a focus point for me - tracking equipment, logging what goes in and out, making sure we have everything, who has what and how much of it," Smits says.
Smits makes a note that skates are what the players are most "finicky" about.
"Some are OK with a quick sharpening, but other guys tell me to make them as sharp as possible," Smits says. "They all like them (their skates) different and it's my job to know that. Guys trust me with their skates they use to earn playing time, and someday their livelihood."
Part of the family
Athletic training is in the Rule family's blood. Jason Rule is the Jacks' go-to guy, his father, Mike, was an athletic trainer with the University of Rhode Island and his brother, David, is a trainer with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens.
That appreciation for family is why Rule relishes feeling right at home with the Jacks' players.
"The kids joke around with you," Rule says. "They're gonna give you hell in the locker room and you gotta give it back to them. You're gonna get eaten alive if you don't."
Though he hasn't done much to put himself in the crosshairs of the team's pranksters, Rule has done plenty to keep the players in good health throughout the fast and physical campaign the team has endured this season.
Player-tailored weight lifting programs, pre- and post-game workout supervision and nutritional direction are a few of the strength and conditioning practices that Rule and Jacks Assistant Coach Dave Noel-Bernier have implemented to pre-empt player injuries.
One of Rule's favorite nutritional tactics to help players recover after games is to dole out chocolate milk, which helps explain his popularity among the players.
For Rule there have been no mysteries surrounding the bumps and bruises the Jacks have sustained so far this season.
"I've seen some odd things, some things that have been a little bit different but I can't say it's been anything we've been unprepared for," says Rule of the injuries he's treated. "As different as some of them may be, there's always a basis for what you're going to do to treat them."
In his second year with the Muskegon outfit and first with the current squad, Rule has continued establishing his own sports medicine program and growing his network of medical contacts, two objectives he maintains in order to buttress his favorite part of being an athletic trainer – interacting with the all the motivated people involved with the Lumberjacks organization.
Helping the players come back after being out of action for any amount of time also stokes Rule's passion for the job.
"When you see a kid that comes in with something that's holding him out of games, you take care of him, you get him back and all off a sudden there he is scoring a couple goals one night," Rule says. "You really feel like you're a part of that because you did a lot to get that kid back to that level."
In the end, preparing the team for immediate and future success is what brings Rule and Smits to work. And if they get pranked by the players, both are happy that it comes with being a part of the team.