March 16, 2011

Bruins equipment guru always up for a challenge

by Jesse Connolly

Bruins equipment manager Keith Robinson -- adjusting the skate of Tuukka Rask -- has been with the team 23 years. (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

 For Bruins equipment manager Keith Robinson, even the most uneventful days are a long grind.

“On a home-game day, we’ll get in around 6:30 in the morning and start setting things up, making sure every detail of the dressing room is ready,” said Robinson, a native of Tewksbury, Mass.

“The coaches come in early and they have certain things in the coaches’ room that need to be set up. Then it just flows into practice because the guys need everything all in place, whether it’s a new stick or general repairs. Usually we’re never home on a regular weekday game until midnight at best, so it’s a pretty long day.”

At a moment’s notice, however, Robinson’s job can become one packed with pressure. On Feb. 18, with the team up in Ottawa to take on the Senators, the Bruins reeled in Tomas Kaberle in a trade with the Maple Leafs.

With just five hours to go until the puck dropped, Robinson was responsible for getting everything ready for the defenseman in time before the game, as Kaberle flew from Toronto to Ottawa to join up with his new club.

“We carry a letter kit, so that part wasn’t that big of a deal,” he said. “We could’ve handled just about any name, though maybe not some of the long European ones. We spoke with him on the phone during the afternoon, and out of the numbers that were available, he chose 12.”

That, however, was a problem. Robinson’s only solution was to pluck the digits off of spare jerseys kept in the event of a call-up while the team was on the road.

“Basically, the mindset at that point was to do whatever we had to do to get through that game. We had pant covers that slipped right over his pants so he was comfortable in his gear. We even spray-painted both Kaberle’s and Chris Kelly’s gloves with black spray-paint, just to get through until we can get the real thing in our colors.”

Now in his 23rd season with the organization, Robinson, 42, is in his first year as the head equipment manager, having worked his way from the ground up. He began his tenure with the Bruins as an attendant in the visiting team’s locker room, stocking fridges, setting up water bottles on the bench and providing the opposing squad with tape and medical supplies. From there, Robinson took on his first gig as an official employee of the team, a role he described as the truck job, which required him to pick up opposing teams and their gear at the airport and transport it wherever needed.

So what has the 42-year-old learned after more than two decades on the job?

“The most important thing is just being around enough to pick up on how everything operates in here,” Robinson said. “It’s unlike any other work place. Just being around and seeing how things work and how they flow, when to stay out of a coaches way, a frustrated player’s way, just the whole dynamic is a pretty unique environment.”

Unique is perhaps the best way to describe what Robinson would call the toughest challenge he’s ever faced. In early March 2009 in a game in Columbus, goaltender Tim Thomas’ mask broke … twice.

“Timmy’s mask he was wearing at the time was highly customized,” Robinson said. “The cage, the metal bars themselves, got dented in the first period where we couldn’t fix it. We changed it, which was a monumental task to do during an intermission and get back to him before he went back on the ice.

“Unfortunately in the next period, Timmy got hit when he went out to play the puck behind the net. It ripped the chin cup, which has very specific measurements, so you have to take everything apart. We couldn’t do it in a timely fashion and the officials were getting on us. Coach was looking at us like, ‘You better get that thing done.’

“Technically, we’re supposed to switch goalies if it’s a lengthy repair,” Robinson said. “Manny (Fernandez) was helping frantically to get it fixed, so the only option was to give him Manny’s mask, which is completely different than Timmy’s. He was not comfortable to say the least. We managed to fix it shortly after, but it was probably one of the most memorable things and challenging things to do under pressure.”

No matter how many hurdles Robinson faces, he knows how lucky he is to have made a career in the NHL.

“It’s a good feeling when the team’s having success,” he said. “If you look at it from a job standpoint, there’s only 60 to 80 of us — depending on the job titles — in North America that have the opportunity to do this at this level. It’s a pretty unique job.”

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com