FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: Many will recognize and remember retired Los Angeles Kings athletic trainer Pete Demers, who spent 37 years in the organization. But few know what his job entailed, beyond assisting injured players, or just about anything else, for that matter. In this story, the first of a multi-part series, Frozen Royalty looks at how Demers got his start in professional hockey.
LOS ANGELES — He never scored a goal in the National Hockey League, but was always at the players bench. He never made a pad save, blocked a shot, or threw a body check on NHL ice, but he was a bigger part of the Los Angeles Kings than most would probably give him credit for.
To be sure, after 34 years and 2,632 consecutive games with the Los Angeles Kings, retired trainer Peter Demers, arguably, the Dean of professional hockey trainers, past and present, left a huge, indelible mark on the franchise.
Of course, those who remember Demers, who retired following the 2005-06 season, have probably seen him behind the bench at a game, or when he has had to run out onto the ice to care for an injured player. But few know much more than that, not only about Demers himself, but also about all the duties and responsibilities of an athletic trainer for a professional hockey team, work that relatively few people ever get to see.
With this story about how he got his start in professional hockey, Frozen Royalty begins an exclusive series, spanning several months, on Demers and his 41-year career as an athletic trainer in professional hockey. The series will look at the job of the athletic trainer and how it has evolved over the past forty years, his memories of the different “eras” of Kings hockey, his thoughts on how the game has changed over the years, in terms of conditioning, nutrition, treatment of injuries, and the like, a day in the life of an athletic trainer, working for former owner Jack Kent Cooke, how things changed for the franchise when Wayne Gretzky was acquired by the Kings, memories of the 1992-93 playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the hazards he faced on the job, the circumstances surrounding his retirement, and much, much more.
The Stickboy Makes Good
Like anyone else in professional hockey, Demers had to start at the bottom and work his way up the ladder, starting as a young boy at the local rink.
“When I was growing up in Providence, [Rhode Island], being a rink rat, we’d be around the rink,” said Demers. “They’d let us skate in exchange for helping them. We’d sweep the stands, help them with the ice, but there was no Zamboni [in the early years], so we’d go on the ice with these wide scrapers, and scrape all the snow off first, and shovel it into a pit.”
“Then, there was a 55-gallon drum that was sealed up, and it had a top that was actually on the side, they drilled a hole in it,” added Demers. “There was a pipe coming out of the bottom. That went to an angled pipe that was the length of the barrel, and it had holes in it. They hung a rag or a towel off that pipe. The water would drain out. It was on two wheels, and we’d just skate around. It [took] a couple of barrels. It would be quite the process to make new ice.”
“When there was no one around, they would flood the ice with a hose, but it wouldn’t dry as fast with just the thin layer [that was put down using the barrel].”
Today, Zamboni machines handle virtually all aspects of resurfacing the ice, including scraping the edges along the boards. But back in those days, that barrel contraption was very limited in what it could do.
“There was no edger, or anything,” Demers explained. “We just had these choppers [to scrape the ice along the boards]. That was one of the real thrills I had in my hockey life. We’d be flying along on the ice. As young kids, we could skate like the wind. That was fun, before I graduated into the locker room.”
But before moving into the locker room for good, Demers served in the United States Air Force.
“I got out of high school, and I went into the United States Air Force,” said Demers. “I’m a Vietnam Era veteran, something I don’t really talk about that much. I was an aircraft mechanic, [working on] reconnaissance aircraft.”
“In Alaska, I played hockey on an Army team, which was 26 miles away,” added Demers. “We’d go to practice [at the Army base]. I was the only Air Force guy there. I hitchhiked 26 miles to go play hockey. If it was colder than thirty below zero, we didn’t practice because the puck would hit the pipe and break, that’s how cold it was.”
“Often times, there was an enormous pile of snow behind the airplane, which had six engines. They allowed me to fire up the engines to melt [the snow on] the ice behind the plane, which I had smoothed out and shoveled to make myself a little rink there. I’d skate out there often.”
Playing hockey in the cold of Alaska almost proved to be a bit too costly.
“At the Army base, I had new skates, and they were pretty snug, so I had thin socks on,” Demers recalled. “I was at practice, trying to break my new skates in. The coach of our team was a captain in the Army, and outranked us. I told him, ‘my feet are really cold, can I go in?’”
“He said, ‘no, stay on the ice,’” Demers added.
“I stayed on the ice for the rest of practice, about another half hour. When I went in to take my skates off, my toes were all white. So they told me to get my boots on and get back to my base. For at least two full days, I stayed in bed with my feet up, trying to save my toes. I had gone to the hospital, and they sent me back, saying that I got some frostbite, but keep your eye on them. I kept my toes, but I had to follow the commands [of the Army captain].”
With his toes intact, Demers returned home after his time in the Air Force.
“I went back to Providence, and I got a job with the Navy at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island,” he explained. “I was working on a reconditioning line on vertical take-off planes.”
“I had a real good government job that I could probably stay at for life,” he elaborated. “But I started to work in the locker room also, because I had that passion for hockey, with the Rhode Island Reds [of the American Hockey League in 1965], and I had such a background that, when I got out of the Air Force, I was welcomed right back to the old arena. I had been a stick boy.”
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