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Inside the Sabres: New athletic trainer busier than expected

Ideally, Rich Stinziano would barely know the Sabres’ players. He just started working in Buffalo a few months ago, so it would be fine if he was a guy they said hello to as they went about their business.

Instead, there’s a line of players waiting to see him every day. It’s a busy life being the new athletic trainer for one of the NHL’s most injury-plagued teams.

Stinziano, hired before the season, certainly hasn’t had a chance to ease into the job. He’s dealt with Jack Eichel’s ankle sprain, Evander Kane’s cracked ribs, Zach Bogosian’s knee injury, Tyler Ennis’ groin ailment, Ryan O’Reilly’s middle-body problems and a host of other bumps and bruises from the moment he walked into the dressing room.

“Hopefully,” Stinziano said, “we get the injury bug out of the way.”

Until they do, Stinziano will serve as one of the club’s hardest-working employees.

“Stinz is great,” O’Reilly said. “I got to talk to him this summer, and it’s been nice to getting to know him even more and more. He’s definitely a great guy, great at his job.”

Stinziano joined the Sabres after spending a decade with this weekend’s opponent, the New Jersey Devils. He had no plans to leave, but an unexpected conversation between the teams’ general managers changed everything.

“Ray Shero actually pulled me aside one day and said that Tim Murray had called and asked to talk to me about a potential position,” said Stinziano, a graduate of the University at Buffalo. “I said to get back home, it certainly doesn’t hurt to talk.”

Talks clearly went well. The Sabres hired Stinziano as their head athletic trainer, a position he held for the final eight of his 10 years with the Devils.

“It’s no different than it was in New Jersey for me as far treating the guys,” he said. “It’s just a matter of building a relationship with the guys, getting that trust factor. It’s them having the trust in you so you’re able to do the job.

“That’s a day-to-day progression. Just chitchat, lots of the communication. I’m a big communicator with the guys, talk about personal life, things outside of hockey.”

Still, there’s awkwardness at first. Professional athletes make their living with their bodies, and entrusting it to someone new isn’t easy. Longtime Devils forward Travis Zajac said the Sabres are in good hands with Stinziano.

“He’s a fun-loving guy, likes to be around the guys,” Zajac said in KeyBank Center. “He’ll do anything to help anyone with an injury, sickness or if you just need a talk. He was a guy for us who showed up at the rink every day and was there to help. That was his biggest attribute.”

Athletic trainer Rich Stinziano spent 10 years helping the Devils, including Patrik Elias in 2010. (Getty Images)

Athletic trainer Rich Stinziano spent 10 years helping the Devils, including Patrik Elias in 2010. (Getty Images)

The Syracuse native got his start in hockey locally. UB’s Sports Medicine Institute had an outreach program with the Wheatfield Blades and Williamsville School District, allowing Stinziano to work with their athletes in the mid-2000s. His philosophy is the same now as it was then.

“You’re just interested in making a difference for guys and getting them back on the ice,” he said.

After leaving UB with a doctorate in physical therapy and bachelor’s degree in exercise science/athletic training, Stinziano planned to work in a clinic. A connection he made in Wheatfield altered his path. Greg DeSantis, general manager of the Blades’ hockey program, was the son-in-law of New Jersey goaltending coach Jacques Caron. The Devils were looking for an athletic trainer for their minor-league team, and Stinziano got the job.

He spent the 2005-06 season with Lowell in the American Hockey League, joined the Devils as an assistant athletic trainer the following year and was bumped to the top spot in 2007-08. Since then, he’s worked alongside hockey legends such as Martin Brodeur and Lou Lamiorello.

“Knowing the right people at the right time, timing was everything, I guess,” said Stinziano, who got his break with Buffalo after the club and longtime athletic trainer Tim Macre parted ways during the offseason.

Rich Stinziano has tacks on his shoes to get to players quickly. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Rich Stinziano has tacks on his shoes to get to players quickly. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Fans first saw Stinziano during the season opener, when he ran onto the ice after Kane crashed into the boards. With tacks on his shoes, he can move swiftly and steadily from the bench to the corners. It’d be a different story if he had skates on.

“I don’t skate,” he said. “Growing up it was baseball, basketball, football, golf. I enjoy hockey, but I’m not a skater. It’s a 'you’re broke, I fix you' type of deal.”

Right now there’s a lot of breaking and fixing. It has allowed the players and Stinziano to get to know each other – albeit faster than they figured.

“The rapport and the relationship that you build with the guys is pretty neat, pretty special,” Stinziano said.

Boots made for sitting

As seven skaters participated in an optional morning skate Monday in Boston, defensemen Cody Franson and Casey Nelson took turns sitting on the floor in the TD Garden hallway. They may have gotten their legs pumping just as much as the guys on the ice.

Franson and Nelson pulled on a pair of “recovery boots,” an air-compression therapy device that covers the feet and travels up past the thigh. Looking like baggy snow pants, the recovery boots are actually four air-filled chambers. They inflate from bottom to the top, applying pressure to help clear metabolic waste build-up and restore oxygen to the muscles.

“It starts inflating from your feet all the way up to your hips,” Nelson said. “After a little while, it’s almost like a numbing feeling. Once you take them off, you feel more refreshed.”

RP Sports, maker of the recovery boots used by the Sabres, claims using the product for 1-2 hours will produce results similar to 12-48 hours of rest. With games nearly every other day this month, Sabres players are looking for any help they can get.

“I feel a little better,” Nelson said. “They’re something to keep the mind off hockey a little bit and just recoup and hydrate while doing it. I like it.”

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