He has been a part of seven professional hockey teams spanning 15 years and thousands of miles. He was at Dodger Stadium for the National Hockey League’s first-ever outdoor game west of the Mississippi River. And when he took the ice at the Honda Center in the opening round of the NHL Playoffs, NBC Sports Network went to commercial.
The sorts of severe injuries that have become commonplace for Marshalltown native Joe Huff are often too graphic for a television audience.
Huff, a 1993 Marshalltown High School graduate, is in his first season as the head athletic trainer for the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. And when he’s on the ice, a professional hockey player is in need of immediate medical attention.
“When people see me on TV, that usually means it was bad for somebody else,” Huff said Thursday in a phone interview. “The less work I do, the better off everything is for everybody else.”
The savage nature of the game was new to Huff when he was assigned to cover the Iowa State University hockey club as a student trainer in 1996. Before graduating from Marshalltown Community College in 1995, Huff played football for Brian Albert, basketball for George Funk and baseball for Brad Clement at MHS. Steve Hanson was his junior high basketball coach.
He “dinked around a little bit” with roller hockey at Skatetown, and remebered doing some ice skating “when they used to flood the soccer field at the Y back in the 80s,” Huff said.
“Once I got into middle school and high school, obviously basketball and baseball were pretty much what every kid wanted to do,” he said. “I really didn’t get into hockey until college. Being one of the kids like most from Marshalltown, when the season changes your favorite sport changes.
“And the coaches I had growing up in all the sports, their ways transitioned very well to the culture of hockey. That mentality is really not any different as far as intensity and willingness to do what it takes to succeed, and I guess that’s probably one of the main things that helped (me despite) having not been exposed to hockey – just being part of a team, whatever role that may be.”
Huff said the role of head athletic trainer for a professional hockey franchise is as multi-faceted as they come. He is the pilot of a seven-person training staff who also coordinates treatment with as many as five doctors – an internist, oral or plastic surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, ophthalmologist and a dentist – who work every Ducks game.
And when center Ryan Getzlaf, a 6-foot-4, 221-pound captain for the Ducks was struck in the face by a puck during Anaheim’s Game 1 win over the Dallas Stars during the opening round of the NHL Playoffs on April 16, Huff was immediately on the ice to attend to the gold medal-winning, 28-year-old all-star forward worth $6.5 million.
The live television broadcast cut to commercial.
“Basically from the time the player goes down on the ice to the time they get back on the ice for a game, you oversee everything in the middle,” said Huff. “You go out on the ice and get the player, take care of them and take them back (to the locker room), get them situated and either evaluate their injury or hand them off to a doctor or an assistant athletic trainer – or oral surgeon in that case.
“When I come back out to the bench I give (the coaches) a quick summary of what happened, whether the player is coming back or not, and maybe a time frame for that.”
Images across the internet showed puddles of blood that fell to the frozen surface when Getzlaf was hit in the left cheek by a Tyler Seguin slapshot. A day later, Getzlaf’s brother Chris tweeted a picture of Ryan’s swolen, stitched-up face prior to Ryan’s wife giving birth to their third child.
Two days after the injury, Getzlaf was back on the ice with a protective cage covering his jaw. He had a goal and an assist as the Ducks defeated Dallas 3-2 for a 2-0 lead in a series they eventually won in five games.
“You can always say ‘No’ … but these guys are grown men,” Huff said. “You give them all the information you can, you tell them the risks, but the player makes the call after everything. For the most part you do what you can, make them as comfortable as possible so they can function at a high level without making something worse.
“It’s a pretty blue-collar sport. It is a really fun sport to work because these guys love to play, and most guys just want to get back out there as quick as possible.”
Fifteen years, seven teams
Huff has worked his way to the big leagues like a lot of the players he treats on a daily basis. After graduating from Iowa State in 1998, he took up a job as an assistant athletic trainer with the Macon Whoopee – a Central Hockey League team in Georgia.
The following season, Huff began a six-year stint as the head athletic trainer with the Des Moines Buccaneers. From 1999-2005 he was behind the bench for the United States Hockey League squad, where he gained a work relationship and the friendship with longtime player and coach Bob Ferguson.
Both moved up the ladder when they joined on with the Augusta Lynx, an East Coast Hockey League team back in Georgia, where Ferguson became the assistant general manager. Characterized best as the Double-A farm club of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Lynx closed their doors in 2008 after three years.
Huff remained under Ferguson as both assumed their same positions with the Des Moines-based Iowa Chops in 2008-09. The Chops were the American Hockey League affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks for their one season until the Iowa franchise was suspended by the AHL’s board of govenors for being “unable to remedy certain violations of the provisions of the league’s Constitution and By-Laws,” according to a statement from the AHL.
The Ducks took up affiliation with the Syracuse (N.Y.) Crunch as their top farm affiliate for two seasons, and both Ferguson and Huff stayed with the franchise. After a two-year stint, Anaheim took on the Norfolk (Va.) Admirals on a five-year affiliate contract starting with the 2012-13 campaign.
Fifteen years and six teams later, Huff got his opportunity to make the next step.
The Anaheim Ducks did not renew the contract of their head athletic trainer after the 2012-13 season, and Huff applied for the position immediately.
“I interviewed over the summer. Having knowledge of a lot of the younger players obviously helped, and knowing a lot of the management and how things were run and operated helped,” he said.
Joe Huff and Lisa Perkins, also a 1993 MHS grad, were married in 1999. Four years into Joe’s budding career, the family welcomed their first of two daughters, Macy, during their six-year stay with the Des Moines Buccaneers. Her little sister Marin, now 8, was born before the family’s second stop in Georgia, and hockey has been a part of their lives every step of the way as well.
Huff feels fortunate that his wife, a 1997 graduate of Iowa State, has been able to keep her career intact working from home for Humana Insurance as a network services representative – no matter where home may have been.
Macy, now 11, has been in five schools and lived in seven houses. This month will mark Joe and Lisa’s 15th wedding anniversary, “and I’d hate to even count the number of home addresses we’ve had,” Joe laughed.
“You can’t give enough credit to the family of an athletic trainer,” he said. “You wonder about choices you make along the way, but kids are resilient, that’s for sure, and my kids are very good at moving into new situations and adapting to things and they’ve learned to get along pretty well and to be able to be each other’s best friends at times.
“And obviously my wife is in charge of the household during hockey season and I’m sure a lot of times it feels like being a single parent. My wife and kids have probably sacrificed the most as far as time with dad. That being said we do try to make up for a lot of it in the summer.”
Lisa’s parents, Steve and Marcia Perkins, reside in Marshalltown, while Joe’s folks, Dennis and Joyce Huff, and his sister Janis Foster, are all in the Kansas City area.
Joe and Lisa bring the girls home usually once a year, he said, and spend a week to 10 days in Marshalltown near the end of summer.
“We always try to get to a baseball game, and our standards are the same for everybody: Taylor’s Maid-Rite, Zeno’s, Taco John’s, Sub City,” Joe said. “But the more you move around, the more places you go, you find out how many people are from Iowa or have Iowa connections.
“The more world you see, the smaller it gets.”
Home in the Heartland
The wide world of hockey has taken Huff and his family back and forth from the East Coast, the Northeast, back home to the Heartland and now to the West Coast.
And despite all the moving vans and intermittent home lives, schools and friends, Huff can’t seem to shake his Minnesotan accent.
“I get asked a lot whether it’s Ontario or Minnesota,” Huff said, in a distinctly Upper Midwest American English dialect. “I think it’s obviously just spending so much time around people from north of where I grew up. Even at Iowa State I think we had a half-dozen to a dozen Canadians on the team there, so since 1996 I suppose I’ve been spending a lot of time around people with a northern accent. It’s definitely caught on.
“You spend 70-to-80 games with a group of guys and you’re together every day, the takeover begins.”
Yet no matter how he sounds or where the welcome mat is placed, Huff still calls Marshalltown home.
“We’ve definitely been lucky in many things, and I think that goes back to growing up in Marshalltown,” he said, “where nothing’s free and you work for what you want and whatever needs to get done you do.”