With well over 1,500 hockey games under his belt, Tom Meakes has seen it all and then some.
The victories and defeats, the highs and lows and, more importantly, the bumps and bruises.
Meakes wrapped up a 23-year career as the trainer of the Beaver Valley Nitehawks last weekend and for the first time since 1996, he’ll take a seat on the other side of the Beaver Valley Arena for a Nitehawks game this Saturday.
“It’s going to be a weird feeling after 23 years to sit on that side,” he told the Trail Times.
Steve Mears has assumed the role of the Nitehawks trainer now. Nevertheless, it’s probably also going to be weird for members of the Beaver Valley Nitehawks organization who have been used to Meakes’ presence at the end of the team bench since the summer of 1996.
It was at a training camp in Trail that summer when rookie head coach Terry Jones, who was still 1,000 wins away from his recent milestone, asked Meakes if he wanted to become the team’s trainer/equipment manager.
“All of a sudden we had this jack-of-all-trades guy around,” recalled Jones. “He could fix helmets, skates, anything. And being a mechanic he could fix a helmet so fast.
“He became a really important part of our team early on. I felt he created a super level of professionalism in our program.”
Meakes, who had his First Aid training and learned the rest as he went along, recalled his first season with the Nitehawks.
“I had MJ (Mary Jane Jackman) and Fran (Moncrief) help me out so I got off to a good start.”
He admitted the first thing that went through his mind the first time he had to bolt on to the ice to help a player was “Am I going to fall?”
But in all seriousness his main concern was always the players.
“My first concern has always been to make sure the guys are safe and get healthy fast so they can get back to the game. The first priority is the kids.”
Then of course came the franchise he gave so much time to.
“Just being part of the family down there has been unreal. It started off slow and then it got busier and busier. Then I just got more involved.”
From Jones’ point of view, Meakes was not only a trainer but also a sounding board and a gauge on the players’ mindset.
“No question about that,” said Jones. “I viewed Tom not just as a friend but a bit of a father figure too. He was around the guys before the game and he could give me a sense if the guys were nervous or what they were feeling. And accordingly I could approach our pre-game ritual based on what Tom’s information was.”
Perhaps that’s why Meakes’ favorite highlights with Beaver Valley were the team’s successes.
“My highlight is the first championship (Cyclone Taylor Trophy in 1997) the first of many. That one we won on home ice. That was a great, great win.”
No story about a trainer would be complete without hearing about the injuries he’s witnesses and attended to. Meakes said he was fortunate never have to deal with anything too serious.
Ironically the worst injury he ever tended to wasn’t even a member of the Nitehawks.
“The worst one was Corey Flodell, he was reffing our game. I remember he took a puck right in the jaw. I grabbed him and took him off the ice into the room and you could see almost right to his jaw bone.”
Even the injuries have changed over the years since Meakes arrived on the scene.
“There were more cuts and more teeth busted back then,” he said. “I don’t think I saw any cuts this year.”
As for concussions, Meakes said there are as many now as before but the protocol addresses it differently now.
“Back then it was different there wasn’t a protocol. In the old days, they got their bell rung, give them a few minutes and then they got back out there. Now they don’t take any chances.”
It certainly was a different game back in the “old days” when Meakes began.
Jones enjoyed recounting a playoff scene in Spokane, he believes it was in 1997, that included a bench-clearing brawl that spilled into the stands – something that rarely, if ever, happens in today’s game.
“I ended up at the bottom of the heap and Tom came in and gave what I call ‘The Meakes Claw.’ It’s like a Vulcan grip thing, he put his two strong mechanic’s fingers on a guy’s throat and the guy quickly got off me.
“There’s lots of stories but I like that one because it shows Tom’s competitiveness and shows his loyalty.”
And Meakes’ impact on the young players who went through the Nitehawks system was also evident once the picture featuring his retirement circulated on social media.
“With this picture going around, it’s just unbelievable the amount congratulations I got from different players, different people. Which is nice.”
Meakes may be stepping away from the Nitehawks bench but he won’t be far from a rink. He says he’ll spend his time following his grandkids around and watching them play hockey. And his trainer habits won’t be gone soon either.
His son coaches a team and after a player hurt his wrist recently his son called on Tom in the crowd to come and help the young player, who had suffered a broken arm.
“It’s an automatic reaction,” said Meakes, joking that he still jumps up in the stands when a player goes down on the ice.
After more than two decades in the game, Meakes proves you can take the trainer away from the bench but never away from the game.