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Equipment managers MVPs of Lightning trip

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — At the end of a long, tiring evening, Ray Thill and Rob Kennedy were lost on the outskirts of the city.

The men who drove the Lightning equipment managers, and the players' equipment, from Bratislava, Slovakia, where the team had played the night before, clearly needed a map.

The two-vehicle convoy was rescued by an O2 Arena worker who was summoned and led them in the right direction.

"The drivers didn't speak English," Thill said Thursday. "I don't know how they found us."

Welcome behind the scenes of Tampa Bay's European adventure.

The 10-day trip, which culminates Saturday and Sunday with season-opening games against the Rangers, is all about the players, but it runs on the energy and ingenuity of the equipment managers.

Thill, the head manager, and Kennedy help repair equipment, set up the locker rooms, sharpen skates, stock shower rooms and handle all player requests.

Practice in one country, play in another the same day and practice tomorrow in a third?

"It's part of the job," Thill said. "It's great we can pull it off."

"It's really unbelievable what they go through," Lightning wing Jason Ward said. "On a trip like this, where we're constantly moving around, they don't get as much appreciation as they deserve. They're part of the team, and that's 100 percent."

Consider the locker room in the old Bratislava arena, where no air-conditioning meant no air flow to dry gear. "It was wetter the next morning than when we started," Thill said.

So, air blowers, normally used to dry gloves and skates, dried uniforms and pads.

There were bathrooms and showers without toiletries and towels. That may not sound like a big deal, but as Kennedy said, "We're used to walking into an arena that is set up already. They're all little details and menial tasks, but it takes time."

The language barrier is another curveball. So is Europe's different electrical current. On the first day in Prague, Thill and Kennedy were reprimanded by an O2 Arena worker for putting two air blowers on one outlet strip, something done regularly in North America.

Then there was the great transformer incident. Two were brought from Tampa. But the leftovers from the 1998 training camp in Austria began to smoke.

"It was so smoky in here, you couldn't see the back of the wall," Kennedy said.

New transformers were found, and despite the chaos, nothing the next day was amiss.

"It's seamless, and there's a lot of satisfaction in that," Kennedy said.

Which brings us back to that morning on the outskirts of Prague. In an attempt to avoid an hourlong delay like after Sunday's game in Berlin, when the gear was meticulously screened for a flight to Bratislava, Thill and Kennedy, after Tuesday's game, supervised as the equipment was driven from Bratislava to the Czech Republic.

Wrong turns turned a four-hour trip to five. Thill said they finally arrived at the rink at 5:45 a.m., then had to unload the gear and set up the locker room.

"They've been fantastic," coach Barry Melrose said. "They've never complained, and they've worked their butts off. This has been a nice trip for the players, but a hell of a trip for them."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Equipment managers MVPs of Lightning trip 10/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 6:53pm]
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