The thing about Russ (Rusty) Hammond is that he never seems to have a bad day.
The guy loves his job as the equipment manager of the Guelph Storm. He pays attention to detail. He pays attention to those teenagers who don the Storm sweater. He listens and respects those kids and they listen and respect him back.
How big is Hammond? In the days and weeks leading up to his induction into the Guelph Sports Hall of Fame last week, his mobile phone never stopped ringing and buzzing with congratulatory phone calls, voice messages, e-mails and texts from former Storm players and friends he's made during his time in hockey.
"Rusty, I'm back on the bus for a five-hour trip from Helsinki back to home to Turku. I just wanted you to know that we're thinking about you and all the best with your Hall of Fame induction tonight," wrote former Storm forward Brian Willsie, Alex Ovechkin's first roommate with the Washington Capitals.
Winning Stanley Cup captain Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings spent an afternoon visiting his old trainer last month. New Vancouver Canucks goalie coach Dan Cloutier, who led the Storm to a Memorial Cup berth in 1996, didn't hesitate to make the drive to Guelph and speak during Hammond's special evening last Tuesday.
OHL commissioner David Branch addressed the gathering, too. There wasn't much time left for Hammond himself to speak.
"I've been fortunate to be in this line of work for as long as I have and really it's because of my Dad and the family business [Hammond Mechanical]," Rusty said. "My Dad understood the passion I had for sport and not being the athlete who had the ability to play the sport at high levels. He understood that I wanted to stay involved.
"They allowed me to bend and work around my work as a trainer. Yes, I worked in the family business, but really my full-time work was with the sports teams."
Hammond has been presented with opportunities to leave Guelph and junior hockey for bigger cities and the pro game. But he has remained tethered to Guelph because of his deep roots in the city. His father was a long-time city councillor and one of the owners of the local senior team, the Regals back in the 1960s. Guelph was home.
"I had a lot of chances to leave Guelph and work in pro hockey," Hammond said. "But did I ever want to leave Guelph? No. Guelph is my home. I love this city. Everything I want is in junior hockey."
There was a time that Hammond had designs on being a junior hockey star himself. Nevertheless, his tryout to join his buddies on the Guelph Dee's Beef Kings junior C team in the 1960s was short and not sweet. He was cut.
But Hammond already had helped out around the Regels. So he hatched a plan to become the Beef Kings trainer. That way he could stick around the game and his friends. The plan turned into a life-long career as an equipment manager with all kinds of teams.
For example, the first Los Angeles Kings training camp was held in Guelph. Hammond helped out. From his days with the Beef Kings and Regals, he became a mainstay with the Guelph junior B team.
When the Dukes of Hamilton became the Guelph Storm in 1991, new general manager Mike Kelly, now in his second stint running the Storm, couldn't help but notice Hammond and make him the new junior team's equipment man.
Attention to detail
"The junior B team and the Storm had dressing rooms next to each other and even shared the same shower area," Kelly recalled. "Russ kept the area so clean I think he used a tooth brush as a cleaning tool. When it comes to the job he pays attention to detail.
"He also has the ability to sell the program. He takes these kids and treats them in a first-class manner. He takes them to lunch and knows how to break the ice. I don't know where the Guelph Storm would be without Russ."
The only time the Storm bench has been without Hammond was over the 2003-04 Holiday season when he was with Sidney Crosby and the silver-medal winning Canadian junior team in Helsinki.
He has worked plenty of Top Prospect games and will again work the bench on Thursday when Team OHL plays Russia in the Subway Series. He won a gold medal at the 2003 World under-18 championship.
Hammond calls the time spent with the Hockey Canada teams the highlight of his career. But a close second was when the Storm advanced to the 1998 Memorial Cup final in Spokane, only to lose 4-3 in overtime to the Portland Winter Hawks.
The play of Storm goalie Chris Madden was magnificent. Guelph forward Matt Lahey provided the heroics of a breakaway game-tying goal with less than eight minutes remaining in the third period. But Hammond's biggest thrill from that tournament occurred before the event began.
"I remember it like yesterday," he said. "There was some nervousness before the everything began. The guys were excited and jumpy. So when the players were lying down, stretching at the end of the last practice before the tournament [then Storm coach] George Burnett skated around tapping guys with his stick. He spoke softly and calmed everybody down."
That was the third of four trips for Hammond to the Memorial Cup with the Storm. He also has been part of two OHL championship teams. When he hoisted the Robertson Cup at the old Guelph Memorial Gardens in 1998 the fans cheered as loud as they did for any player or coach.
Even though it appears Hammond sips from a water bottle of youth, he's not getting any younger ("I can tell you but I don't want you to print it," he said, when asked his age.). His full head of blonde hair and slim build keep him looking young.
But before he retires there is one experience he would like to encounter: a Memorial Cup championship.
"Unless [current Storm coach] Scott Walker wants to run me out of here, I have a few years left in me," he said, jokingly.
But does he put any pressure on the Storm players and remind them that his time is running out.
"Yeah, I do," Hammond said. "I've been to four Memorial Cups. I don't know a lot of guys who have been to four Memorial Cups. I haven't won that Cup yet. The guys are all well aware I have a dream to win the Memorial Cup before I get out of this."
It would be a perfect ending to this stay-at-home story.
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