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A Stinky Situation: Hockey Equipment, Foul Odors Seem to Skate Together

West Lebanon — Shouting could be heard from within a Campion Rink locker room early on the evening of Jan. 14. Then the battered blue door flew open and Hanover High hockey goaltender James Montgomery led the Marauders out to face visiting Concord.

As the players clomped along single-file, they were accompanied by more than their clamor. An odoriferous, almost palpable scent rode with them. A young lady, walking behind the rink’s benches and toward the parade, stopped abruptly and flapped her hand in front of her face.

Bring in da noise. Bring in da funk.

For the uninitiated, hockey equipment and hockey locker rooms smell worse than those of their sporting brethren. To the athletes who marinate in the sour, salty mildew that accompanies the game, however, it’s a comforting olfactory experience. Just a whiff will stir up happy memories from long ago, of winning and losing, of lengthy car rides, of best friends and weekend hotel stays with exasperated parents.

“That’s the smell of success, right there,” Hanover coach Dick Dodds said with a grin as the last of his players sallied forth onto Campion’s ice.

Those who encounter hockey equipment smell have difficulty crafting a description, despite the fact it is so bad and so unique.

“It’s hard to describe, because it’s not just body odor,” said Chrissy Drake, captain of Lebanon High’s girls hockey team and a three-sport athlete for the Raiders. “Soccer smell has grass mixed in and softball has dirt and dust. Hockey just has a lot of sweat.”

Donnie Webb, a writer for the Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard newspaper, may have best described hockey’s bouquet last year when he wrote that “It is at the top of the food chain when it comes to odor. … It is a witch’s brew of stench created by sweat, body oils and the massive amount of equipment that players wear.”

The science involved isn’t complex. Sweat soaks into the soft parts of a competitor’s gear — such as the linings for shoulder, shin and elbow pads. It permeates shirts, shorts and tights worn against the skin, clings to the nylon and plastic used in hockey pants and is especially powerful in gloves and skates.

Ben Kaufman, a recreational hockey player who writes an Internet blog called The Weekly Meat, noted in 2008 that hockey equipment smell is “shockingly the same from player to player: stale, fetid, animalistic. Not quite body odor, not quite fungus, not quite feet, not quite aging cheese … but a combination of all.

“I’d be sitting next to a guy on the bench — or worse yet, skate by a guy on the ice — and get slammed by a sudden and thunderous wall of stink,” Kaufman wrote. “The sort which burns your nostrils.”

Brian Corcoran is in the midst of his 10th season as equipment manager for the Dartmouth men’s team, but he vividly recalls the first time he encountered the hockey smell. Hired in the spring, he walked into the locker room after a group of players had skated during their sophomore summer.

“In hockey terms, I had my back to the Zamboni when it ran me over,” Corcoran said. “I can’t even describe how bad it was. An absolutely sour, musky stench.”

Eventually, however, Corcoran became like all players and coaches — pretty much immune to the smell. That doesn’t mean the Connecticut native doesn’t do everything he can to keep it to a minimum. Two industrial-strength fans occupy opposite corners of the Dartmouth locker room and are powerful enough when running to blow a set of shower sandals across the floor. Six air freshener cups are placed throughout the space and the Thompson Arena washing machines have a special cycle designed to combat the odor of the hockey players’ undergarments while not damaging them.

Despite these measures, the smell of Dartmouth’s locker room is, ah, rather noticeable.

“That’s normally the first thing that anyone who doesn’t play hockey comments on when they get in there,” laughed center Tyler Sikura. “Especially the ladies.”

Corcoran said the Big Green women’s players ask to have their protective gear washed roughly once a week. The men? Less frequently, although “Corky” regularly goes through the locker room with a spray bottle of sanitizer and targets especially smelly equipment.

“The women wear a lot of scented lotion, so it’s good that they use the wash more,” Corcoran said. “But we have a lot of superstitious guys who don’t want their gloves or jock washed.”

Some of the men’s players also go barefoot inside their skates, a habit which, if you examine the undersides of their skate boots, shows itself in streaks of rust from corroding rivets. Canadians, no doubt inspired by the sock-free style of NHL legend Bobby Orr, tend to do this more, Corcoran said. Those players get their skates sprayed with disinfectant and deodorizer almost every time they bring them in for sharpening.

Although there seem to be extremely few instances where the bacteria on hockey equipment has led to ill health, it’s always a concern and one trumpeted by companies that disinfect gear. Cuts, abrasions and blisters can provide openings for germs to enter the body, especially when they’re pressed against elbow and shin pads, gloves or skates. The most dramatic consequence could be exposure to MRSA, a potentially deadly strain of staph that is resistant to antibiotics.

“In the average set of hockey equipment, there’s over a million living organisms, any one of which can cause you serious harm,” Steve Silver, founder of equipment sanitizing company SaniSport, told USA Hockey Magazine in 2011.

Bob Friend, manager of the hockey department at the West Lebanon sporting goods store Stateline Sports, said the shop bought a $14,000 SaniSport cabinet about eight years ago. Stateline did a brisk business until the machine was destroyed by flooding during Tropical Storm Irene. Resembling a wide, stainless steel refrigerator, the device pumped pressurized ozone inside itself during a 17-minute cycle. The cost was about $35 per use and Friend said he was happy with the results.

“I would toss my own equipment in there and it would get the smell right out,” he said. “It would come back, but we had regulars who would bring in their stuff at the start of the season, halfway through, and at the end.”

American Hockey League players Jordan LaVallee and Nathan Oystrick could have used sanitizing during a 27-hour stretch of the 2007-08 season. The pair of Chicago Wolves skaters agreed not to remove their gear, with the exception of their helmets and gloves, during a fundraising effort that eventually collected more than $5,000 for charity. The pair played a game, practiced and slept in their rancid padding. They also participated in meet-and-greet receptions with fans at two local restaurants.

LaVallee told the Toronto Star that he had to replace his undergarments and protective cup after the stunt and that the garter belt that held up the socks atop his shin guards “disintegrated.”

“It’s a unique smell,” LaVallee said of the scent in which he wallowed. “There’s nothing you can compare it to. The closest thing is probably sewage.”

Dartmouth men’s coach Bob Gaudet recalls wearing old-fashioned goaltender padding during his undergraduate days with the Big Green from 1977-81. Made of leather and filled with cotton stuffing or horsehair, his equipment would grow crusty each time it dried. These days, he marvels at the high-tech, netminder protection his daughter, Kelly, lugs home and spreads in the basement after her Hanover High practices.

“My little angel, her stuff smells, too,” Gaudet said with a laugh. “Her brothers (former Dartmouth players Joe and Jim) used to put their stuff down there when they played. I’m not sure the smell will ever come out of the house.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.