Jan 26, 2019

By Tom Witosky

Follow @toskyAHLWild

When Justin Sturtz got his chance to become the Iowa Wild’s assistant equipment manager, he didn’t wait.

“It’s where I’ve always thought I should be,” the 35-year-old Des Moines area native said. “I’m just like everyone else who is in the American Hockey League. I am working to move up as far as I can.”

Mike “Tuna” Lefczik, the Wild’s veteran equipment manager and Sturtz’ boss, described his assistant as hardworking and someone “who is easy to teach.”

“He’s a beauty,” Lefczik said. “He has worked his way up to this job simply by working hard, learning the job and by being a good guy. I learned a long time ago that kind of combination means someone like that is going to be successful in this business.”

Iowa Head Coach Tim Army agreed, adding that Sturtz, like the rest of the Wild athletic training and equipment staff, doesn’t get nearly enough credit as they should for the work that they do.

“I can’t begin to say how hard their job is,” Army said. “It really is thankless work.”

Army pointed out just how the hours for Lefczik and Sturtz can pile up, particularly on road trips.

“You are talking about bussing from San Antonio to Austin after a game and we are getting in to the hotel about 1:30 and they still are going over to the rink to unpack the gear,” he said. “So that takes about 90 minutes so they aren’t back to the hotel and in bed till 3:30 a.m.“

Then, of course, the equipment staff has to be on hand to help players get ready for the morning skate.

“That is going on non-stop,” Army said. “The demands on those guys are incredible. The hours they put in are brutal sometimes.”

 For Sturtz, known as “Sturtzy” in the Wild locker room, the journey into becoming a part of a professional hockey support staff began simply enough – a roller skating party when he noticed a couple of guys playing roller hockey.

“I just got hooked on it,” said Sturtz, whose grandparents owned a roller skating rink in Clarion, his mother’s hometown. “After the party was over, I noticed a couple of guys playing so I joined them. It just went from there.”

For years after that, the 2001 Roosevelt High School graduate played roller hockey throughout the U.S. and in Canada as part of a Des Moines tournament team. 

“My first big tournament was in Toronto,” Sturtz said, adding that he would play against a former Iowa Wild player in a later tournament.

“I once played in a tournament against Pat Cannone,” Sturtz remembered.  “But, he remembered the pictures better than me of the tournament.  He was really good. He was better than me by a long shot.”

With that kind of experience, he said, moving to play on ice wasn’t really an option, but instead got involved in the support staff aspect after he applied for the job of equipment manager for the Des Moines Buccaneers.

“I just love hockey and wanted to find a way to stay in it,” said Sturtz, who was the Bucs equipment manager for four years when John Rogger and Dave Allison were head coaches. “I was working for the kids to get to the next level, whether it was further down the road in juniors or college or even professionally. My goal then, as it is now, is to help the players in every way that I can.”

Sturtz’s day begins early almost every day and ends late a lot of the time.

“Guys begin to show up early and we have to make sure they’ve got what they need,” he said. “I’m doing laundry, but, of course, we are always doing laundry. Then it comes to practice, then they come back in, we collect jerseys and socks and throw that in the washers.”

But an equipment manager’s job is more than just doing laundry. In fact, an equipment manager’s job requires a variety of skills, including an ability to sew and sharpen skates. Neither is easy and both take skill to accomplish

“I’m getting better at both,” Sturtz said with a laugh. “Sharpening skates is one of the most important jobs we do and it is an art form.  Every machine is different and you have to learn that and how it affects the blade.”

It also helps to know how to spell the last names of all the players in the locker room correctly, Lefczik said.

When Minnesota played St. Louis in the preseason game in Des Moines, Eric Staal discovered the nameplate above his locker read “Stall.”

“He did a phenomenal job getting both locker rooms set up. But when they get into the locker room, Eric Staal’s name is spelled wrong. That’s a learning experience that it is the small details that matter,” Lefczik said.

At the same time, Staal took it good-naturedly, Lefczik said, leaving Sturtz the nameplate autographed with the last name having “a bunch of Ls.”

Sturtz, like any AHL player or coach, has a dream to make it to NHL, but also understands that it will take a lot of hard works and long hours. Sturtz said that his wife, Melinda, and sons, Jaxon and Karson, support the effort and the goal.

“The goal is simple – the NHL. The key is hard work,” he said.

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