Monday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, four Gatorade bottles perched on the boards in front of the bench, evenly spaced. Nine rolls of tape — some white, some black, some red — sat on another set of boards, up against the glass. An orange bucket of pucks rested on the floor aside the bench. There wasn’t a player in sight.
Forty-five minutes later, when the Washington Capitals buzzed about the ice, no one thought twice that the pucks, the gloves, the Gatorade, the tape, the sticks, the towels — the tools — would be in their proper stations. Craig “Woody” Leydig has put the pieces in place for thousands of hockey practices over a quarter century on the job. Who would notice that everything’s there, unless it wasn’t?
“What do I like about my job?” Leydig said earlier this week. “To be honest with you, I like everything about it.”
Leydig is the Capitals’ assistant equipment manager, a decidedly unglamorous title for a life lived on the margins of glamour. Saturday night in Toronto, he worked his 2,000th NHL game, all but one season’s worth with his hometown team. To get in position for that most unheralded of milestones, he and his colleagues — Brock Myles, the head equipment manager, and equipment assistant Dave Marin, along with athletic trainer Greg Smith, his assistant Ben Reisz and massage therapist Curt Millar — had packed a truck at Verizon Center after Friday night’s loss to Montreal, unpacked it at Dulles International Airport for the team’s charter, and moved the gear onto another truck in Toronto.
And while the players headed by bus to the Ritz-Carlton, the equipment and training staffs headed by truck to Air Canada Centre. They have a rule, this group: From the time the back gate of the truck slides open, everything must be done — skates and jerseys hung, name plates placed on the lockers, towels folded, dressing room left spotless — in 45 minutes. An efficient operation is the only way they can get to the hotel by 3:30 a.m., the only way they can squeeze in four hours of sleep before being back at the rink two hours before the morning skate begins.
“In case you get an early-bird player,” Leydig said. “He’s got insomnia, he can’t sleep, he wants to get to the rink early. We’re always there for them. And there’s days where you wake up and you’re running on four-and-a-half hours of sleep, and you’re like, ‘What am I doing?’ ”
This is not a complaint. It is the reality of a hockey life somehow lived obscurely in plain sight. The Capitals will mark Leydig’s milestone Wednesday night against Ottawa in the first period with a tribute on the Verizon Center video board above center ice. His family — wife Lisa (“the backbone,” he said) along with 13-year-old Cam, 11-year-old Luke and 7-year-old Brooke — will watch from a suite, feted for a night.
And behind the bench, Leydig, 48, will let the moment pass, and go about his job.
“I try to be good for morale,” Leydig said. “If I see a guy dragging, I’ll say, ‘Come on, man, we need you tonight.’ ”
Whether the players focus on it or not, they need Leydig — and Myles and Smith and even the five part-timers who work game nights at Verizon Center — constantly. “Anything you ask of him, he does it, and doesn’t complain,” veteran forward Troy Brouwer said. “Guys have to be courteous not to use him as an errand boy.”
But in a perfect world, the errands are done before the players arrive. Prior to practices, Leydig checks each visor for scratches or cracks, Myles examines each skate for nicks, each pair of socks is explored for holes. Sewing is performed in the back, and the laundry is so constant that the vibrations from the machines can be felt throughout Kettler, a rhythmic, almost soothing reminder that the operation is running smoothly. On a practice day, the equipment staff washes 50 to 70 towels and 30 sets of underwear, twice as many on game days, which begin at 8 a.m. and end at midnight.
“You’ve got to get people in those jobs that love those jobs, or it never works,” Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. “We’ve had other people that say they want to do it but can’t handle it. Too moody, too much work. And they don’t last long. These guys, they put in ridiculous hours and never have a bad day. ”
The six full-time members of the training and equipment staffs are with each other constantly, more than with their families during the season — at the rink, in the trucks, at dinner on the road, after wins and losses, in seasons promising and crushing. Smith has been with the Capitals for 14 seasons, Millar 21, Myles eight, Leydig 25.
“I know Woody so well, and the other guys so well, that the unfortunate part of it is you got to have a little thick skin,” Smith said. “We go after each other, but in a fun way.”
Because somewhere in there, there has to be fun. That’s what Leydig thought it was that night in 1983, when he was just a teenage hockey player from New Carrollton. His coach’s son was one of the Capitals’ stick boys on game nights at the old Capital Centre. The other stick boy was sick. Could he fill in that night against Detroit? There’d be $25 and maybe some tickets for family members in it. No one promised a career, the rest of high school as a game-night employee, a year with the New York Islanders, then back home because, as he said, “I’m red, white and blue through and through.”
Monday morning, as the Capitals trickled into the locker room and tugged tape off their shin guards and tossed sweat-soaked laundry into bins, Leydig was there in his Capitals T-shirt and Capitals shorts, wearing surgical gloves and wiping ice shavings from the blades of skates, then hanging them in place.
What has 2,000 games brought? When he sees Wayne Gretzky, the Great One says merely, “Hey, Woody.” He has a collection of perhaps 400 autographed hockey sticks stored away in his father’s basement, insured, to be willed to his children. He has a nickname so enduring — provided by former Capital Larry Murphy, because he thought the once-mulleted Leydig so closely resembled the dim-witted bartender from “Cheers” — that if you called the Capitals and asked for “Craig,” people would shrug their shoulders. Who?
After all these years, all those games, with a thousand more stretching out in front of him, any regrets? Without hesitation, Woody said, “I’d like to win it.” On the team within the team, the goal is the same, whether anybody knows or cares or not.