Nate LaPoint Brings us to Beijing
By Nate Lapoint, Head Equipment Manager, University of Wisconsin, Men’s Hockey
Two flights. A 4-hour layover in Tokyo. 16 hours total in-air. We are still not to the hotel in Beijing, China yet! Time seemed to go so slow that day even though the previous month leading up to this went extremely fast. Planning was fast and furious as USA Hockey had to re-organize the entire roster, support staff, and coaches with the NHL having backed out just over a month before the games. There was a great support staff for the Olympics that included Scott Aldrich, Stan Wong, Chris Mizer, Jason Hodges, Dr Mike Stuart and myself. We were all in the hotel along with other USA hockey staff, while the players and coaches stayed in the Olympic Village. Being in the hotel had some advantages, along with many disadvantages such as seclusion. The only sense of freedom we felt was the 20-minute car ride to and from the rink.
Three days before our travel to Beijing, the team and staff met up in Los Angeles for some pre-tournament COVID testing and practice. The LA Kings’ hospitality allowed us to practice a couple of times at their facility before we departed for the Olympics. John Villa, Justin Penna, and Luke Eichas were a huge help as a couple of practices are never easy on a support staff.
As the players went through the Team USA Experience we started to pack for Beijing. Most of our extra stuff was already shipped into China so we spent a lot of time going through player equipment shipped in to LA and watching for last minute stuff to arrive. We experienced a few hiccups including some goalie pads that didn’t make it on time…more on that later! Because we were flying commercial, not a charter, each person was limited to 4 checked bags. With the athlete’s opening and closing ceremony bags, hockey bags, stick bags, and personal items for the staff we maxed out how much we could take with 148 pieces.
The whole first day in Beijing was a whirlwind with arriving at a cold and completely empty airport at 12:30AM and having to go though 2 hours of health checks, COVID testing, and customs. After finally getting to our hotel at 3:30AM we had to go right to our rooms until we got a negative test result. I think we got about 2 hours of sleep before heading to the rink to get organized for a 1PM skate.
The practice and main game rink for all the teams was National Indoor Stadium, the location of. Handball, Gymnastics, and Trampoline at the 2008 Summer Games. All 10 teams had makeshift locker rooms that were identical and located right off the practice rink. It was fun to have everyone in the same area but it made for a cramped hallway with everyone jockeying for space. The locker rooms were nice and included space for medical, equipment, and coaches. We had a battle everyday with how cold it was in the hallway vs how much the bathroom smelled because of some poor plumbing.
They had a service center that included a Claes 30 sewing machine, some tools, and repair material. The guys that were supervising the service center were always excited when we would come into work on something. That Claes came in handy right away as I was modifying some goalie pads that I had borrowed from the Ontario Reign to get a goalie by until we could get his spec pads in. These pads weren’t even close to his new pads but it was the only choice we had at the time. Thankfully he only had to wear these for two practices before getting the other pads in. And due to the time in production, we couldn’t get a custom graphic on the pads for him but thankfully PadSkin was able to come through with some stars and stripes we could apply.
The game rink was a 2 to 3-minute walk for the guys from the practice rink, so there was a game day room for us to use. It was challenging moving the heavy items down like glove dryers and skate sharpeners as they would tear up the temporary floors. You would see an army of workers going behind you fixing the floor as we brought stuff down. Each team had a couple of team hosts that would help in facilitating laundry, food, water, and being our translator. These guys were great and we all felt bad for them when they said that they had to quarantine for another week after we left. Everybody helping was great, even when we had to move to the women’s game rink for our last preliminary game. There was another 12 people to help us move.
Once eliminated, we had some more free time to get to other events. We cheered on the women’s hockey team in the Gold Medal game against Canada. Curling was right next door in the Water Cube, where they had swimming in 2008. We were able to watch the men’s bronze medal game USA vs Canada. I think just about every USA and Canadian athlete and staff was at that match. We were able to get to the Olympic Village and walk around a bit. While quiet and being a closed loop, this was still a highlight to the trip. It was also the only place you could walk around outside! The main dining hall was interesting with the best food being a station where you could create your own hot pot with veggies, noodles, and beef.
The flight home was one of the hardest things to manage. We had the same 16 hours of flight time back home. They only difference is that we had to arrive at the airport 7 hours early, which was 12:30AM for our 7:30AM flight. The airport was completely shut down; no restaurant, no coffee shop, and just like before…cold. We all tried to stay awake so we could sleep on the flight home. I think I got 10,000 steps just walking laps around the area we were in.
I will never forget this Olympic experience and if anything, it has made me hungrier to work a normal Olympics without all the COVID restrictions. The players and staff we had were some of the best I have worked with. Obviously, we all want to win but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I’m happy for the Finland staff though, they are some of the greatest people and I have been fortunate to get to know some of the support staff over the last few years. It’s always tough to leave your family for that long, but anytime you can represent your country it is a great honor.
All photos courtesy of Nate LaPoint.