Healing Hands

Athletic Trainers And Team Doctors Play A Pivotal Role In Making Sure World Junior Players At The Top Of Their Games
Chris Peters

They're rarely seen on TV and you almost never hear their names, but the unsung heroes of any U.S. National Team are the support staff.

Stan Wong and Matt Schmidt were the two athletic trainers selected to be part of Team USA  in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. 

For Wong, this is old hat as he has appeared in 17 consecutive World Junior Championships. Meanwhile, Schmidt made his USA Hockey debut, joining the staff from Minnesota State Mankato where he serves as the athletic trainer for the men's hockey team, also led by Team USA head coach Mike Hastings.

The athletic training staff is always important, but this crew got a bit of a workout at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, having to help players combat injury and illness as they marched toward the silver medal. Beyond the injuries you hear about in the news, however, there is a lot more that goes into being the athletic trainer for a tournament like the World Juniors. After all, this is a group of players playing seven games in 11 days, which is a grind inside of the grind of their regular seasons in college and Junior hockey. The job is just as much about injury prevention as it is injury recovery.

According to Schmidt, one of the first defenses is water.

"Hydrating, drinking water, electrolyte drinks, you can't overhydrate," said Schmidt, who added that the staff always makes sure players are drinking enough water even away from the rink. 

"When you're dehydrated, your muscles are stiffer, you feel everything more and your body doesn't flush everything out."

Schmidt and Wong also spend a lot of time stretching players out, massaging injuries either by hand or with special equipment to work through some of those aches and pains that crop up over the tournament.

No matter how much preventative work the trainers do, however, injuries are going to happen and one in particular got a lot of attention during the 2019 tournament. Jack Hughes, one of Team USA's most talented players, went down with an undisclosed injury that required him to miss games. 

In a short tournament, the athletic trainers are doing everything they can to make sure they not only get the player back in the game, but that they're able to play at their best and not risk further injury.

"It helps to have experience," Schmidt said of knowing how long a player needs to sit out. "You know when you see something. Most of the time this injury, this is how it responds [to treatment]. If you know you've got back-to-back games, this is how it is probably going to be tomorrow."

Hughes ended up missing the final three preliminary round games, but was able to suit up through the medal round.

"God made the body to heal so fast," Schmidt said. "All we can do is screw it up and make it heal slower, but we can remove the roadblocks so that they can feel as good as possible in the time frame allotted."

This is where communication becomes a big part of the job for an athletic trainer. The trainers also work in concert with the team physician, Dr. Phil Johnson, to determine a course of action for each player. Johnson has been the physician for each of the last seven medal-winning U.S. teams at the World Juniors.

Then there's the conversations with the coaching staff and with the player to find what the best course of action is.

"I think it's important to be honest," Schmidt said. "You deal with all different kinds of players. So, you try to be objective and say, 'here's what you've got to do.' If a player doesn't have relatively full strength and full range of motion, they could hurt something else. So, we have to protect the athlete from that side of it."

  As the father of three, Schmidt said that he approaches each player's situation thinking about how he'd want his own children to be treated in that same situation. 

"You treat them like family because you kind of build a family relationship in some way," he said. "I think that's the right way to do it.

"You also have to have a personal expectation level for yourself. I've got to do the best I can do. Our slogan is 'We Over Me,' well that's not just for the players."

In total, the U.S. support staff spent 26 consecutive days on the road between the training camp and the end of the tournament. For their efforts, they'll take home silver medals, but the memories and the friendships are far more important to Schmidt.

"We're not in it for the glory," Schmidt said. "We love the relationships and we love hockey." 




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