Hockey stinks: You love the sport, but the stench of equipment is in a league all its own.
Beneath a wall filled with inspirational quotes, a dehumidifier fights a futile battle inside the locker room of the Skaneateles High School ice hockey team.
As players enter the door and place their hockey sticks in neatly designated slots, another sign welcomes the team. This one is a quote from a 16th century English poet named Francis Quarles.
“I see no virtue where I smell no sweat.”
The Lakers have that one covered. Man, do they ever. The locker room smells — no, make that stinks — of hockey virtue.
Helmets, shoulder pads, elbow pads, gloves, skates, shin guards and padded pants, socks, jerseys and athletic supporters: They all soak up moisture and create a welcoming home for bacteria, the silent stink producer that gives hockey its unique bouquet.
Even those connected with hockey on a daily basis — such as equipment managers, players and coaches — have a hard time finding words to describe the rancid, mildew smell. They all agree it’s bad.
“It needs to be on the front page. It’s an epidemic,” joked Cornell senior forward Locke Jillson. “Unfortunately, I heard there’s no cure yet.”
It can seep over the glass at hockey rinks and into the stands. It lingers on the ice or wafts out of locker rooms. Players with their hockey bags slung over their shoulders leave a scent trail as they walk through rink lobbies.
Hockey parents have long suffered from the calling card of the sport. Their cars stink. Their basements stink. On road trips for weekend tournaments, hotel rooms can be transformed into stinkatoriums as equipment is left out to dry between games.
Jillson, who is from Dallas, said his father once rented a car for a hockey road trip to Utah. Between games, he would leave his wet hockey equipment to dry in the car, its windows cracked to provide fresh air. The strategy saved the hotel room. In Utah’s thin air, the stuff dried quickly. The car didn’t fare so well.
“I’m sure they had to scrap those cars for parts,” Jillson said.
Being so immersed in the sport builds up a certain immunity to reality. The stink is just there, all the time. Instead of being repulsed, it almost seems better to embrace.
“It’s like the cologne of accomplishment?” asked Cornell hockey equipment manager Sean Schmidt, laughing at his attempt to provide a definition of its.
“You’re so habitualized to it,” said Cornell senior defenseman Keir Ross. “Guys don’t want to think about it. After a certain age, it doesn’t cross your mind you’re so used to it.”
Skaneateles High School coach Mitch Major said there’s a bit of dread opening up his locker room on “Meet the Lakers” occasions. He keeps the door open because, to the uninitiated, “it’s like living on a farm.” On the other hand, Major finds the aroma strangely intoxicating.
“It smells great,” Major said. “I love hockey smell. It means you’re ready to go.”
The epicenter of stink is strongest in two places — gloves and skates.
Ross, who is a pre-med major, believes gloves are the worst offenders. They trap and contain sweat so much they actually cause hands to take on the smell. Ross calls it “hockey hands,” which is why he constantly reaches for the hand sanitizer.
Jillson said some players try to rid the stench by washing their hands in shaving cream. Of course, he said, their hands then smell like Barbasol. Which is worse?
Troy Bodie is a member of the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League. He said some players put their gloves in dryers between periods. He said a good way to start a fight on the ice is to shove a stinky, sweaty glove in another player’s face.
“The gloves are just a dirty, dirty place,” Bodie said.
Skates are another problem. It’s not like you can toss them into a washing machine with some Gain. Schmidt said there are some members of the Big Red who do not wear socks with their skates. Because he sharpens their skates each week, Schmidt said, there is a significant smell differential.
“It’s a crime,” Jillson said.
Crunch equipment manager Joe Guilmet said he convinced one of his players this year to finally wear socks. That player, he said, was surprised at the difference in tang and is now a convert.
Regular washing of what can be washed is essential. But so is proper airing and ventilation. Inside the Crunch’s small locker room at the War Memorial, each player’s changing stall is meticulously organized with all of their equipment hung up for drying.
Four industrial-size floor fans churn along with three ceiling fans to get air moving. Overnight, Guilmet said, heat will be cranked to 100 degrees in the room to complete the drying.
But then, most locker rooms aren’t so proactive. Many area rinks used by youth hockey organizations have no windows or ventilation. They are small, cinder-block rooms where the smell is concentrated because it has nowhere to go.
There’s one rink in the Ivy League with a subterranean locker room that Ross describes as “gross.”
Guilmet, who served as equipment manager for the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL last season, said he was once exposed in the 1990s to a San Diego locker room used by a Russian national hockey team to air out its equipment.
He said the team washed nothing, including players underwear. He still seems almost traumatized by the encounter.
Schmidt said Cornell had to borrow a hotel conference room on a road trip to air out all of the team’s equipment between games. The morning after, he was afraid of the damage.
“It was terrible,” he said.
Jillson remembers it and said the hotel probably had to invite smokers into the room to counteract the olfactory mugging.
“I’ve seen people going through customs with their hockey bag,” Bodie said. “The custom guy goes and opens it, looks at it, zips it right back up and goes, ‘It’s good.’”
A Virginia company called Gear Clean writes online that “bacteria, mold and fungus growing in and on equipment” creates the stench in hockey. It says the organisms rot and degrade the equipment and can lead to more serious growth of MRSA (staphylococcus aureus), a specific staph bacteria that can be resistant to antibiotics.
Ross calls such lurking bacteria “pretty scary if it gets out of hand,” though he has not seen it impact hockey players.
Jillson said the smell is “85 percent bacteria and 15 percent evil. I’m sure of it.”
So what’s a hockey mom to do besides arm herself with a bottle of industrial-strength febreze?
Guilmet said the key is properly airing out equipment. Be vigilant and stay on top of it daily, he said. Don’t let the stuff stay in the bag. Get it out and let it dry. And when you can, replace the equipment.
Those in soccer, basketball, football and lacrosse don’t know how good they’ve got it. Hockey smell is crossing into uncharted territory.
“It’s truly out of this world,” said Jillson. “It’s in the same family tree as good old athletic sweat, only this takes on a completely new life-form.”