One thing I’ve been blessed to see over the course of my life is how a circumstance of inclusion helps both parties, and to a degree few people seem to understand.
The life of Joey Moss makes everyone even tangentially related feel good, and so it should. So often when hearing his story, though, people consider the great life that hockey and football seem to have provided for him, while understating just how valuable his daily presence was to others. What most see is someone simply getting to spend time with a pro team, when a line from the piece Mark Spector wrote after Moss's passing more accurately sums up the immediate relationships at play:
“In the heartless world that pro sports can be, Joey became the goat in the horse barn, putting an arm around a player that had just been released, assuring him better days lie ahead, and leaving an impression that no coach, GM or teammate possibly could.”
“The goat in the horse barn” is nothing but a compliment, as it’s a very real thing (seriously, google “comfort goats” — it’s amazing).
So let me frame what I’ve seen and learned given my somewhat-unique experience around those in roles like the ones Joey Moss held.
I’ve been in dressing rooms my whole life, first with my Dad’s teams and then in my own career both playing and coaching. It’s not at all uncommon for a team to employ a helper of sorts. These helpers maintain a variety of titles and duties depending on their age and capabilities, and almost all of whom are beloved if they have any run of time at all with the team. Some of these people are physically disabled, some intellectually; some are just kids, and some are seniors. But make no mistake: There’s a lot of work to be done to keep a pro hockey team clicking along at max capacity, and these are the people who help them get from 99 per cent to 100.
I also have a brother who’s active in the disability community and has been his whole life. Being from Kelowna, B.C. – a good-size town but not exactly a metropolis – meant that growing up I was a full-time member of wheelchair basketball teams, and a participant on numerous other wheelchair teams, given finding enough people between a reasonable age range with comparable limitations can be tough without a huge population to draw from.
I was around when the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL got my brother involved, and heard numerous stories of team experiences that have been provided to those within the disability community.
I’ve seen the benefits to both parties here in the immediate, from the person getting the opportunity (the value of the confidence and sense of purpose is immeasurable), to the team getting the help, both tangible and emotional.
It’s the value of that “emotional” part I don’t think many teams fully understand or even appreciate, given it’s rarely anywhere near the focus of often stressful in-season days.
It wasn’t until I took my role with the Marlies that I was really able to step back and process the true value someone like Joey Moss would’ve provided, and that’s because we had Pistol Pete Flagler. Sportsnet featured the Marlies’ locker-room attendant a couple years back:
You can follow Pistol on Instagram here.
Pete has a very real job working with the team, but he also moonlights in a kind of voluntary advisory role. One day Pete had me set up a laptop so he could go through the shifts of a Marlies centreman to help find him more ice time. He regularly campaigned to Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe for more opportunity for his favourite players, which included a group of … basically everyone who was nice to him, which was pretty much everyone (extra love here for Connor Brown, Justin Holl and Rich Clune). He even addressed the full team on multiple occasions, and when he did he could wipe away tension in a way no player or coach ever could.
He earned his jewelry:
Here’s the thing with a pro hockey locker room. With the exception of those who’ve made it to the highest level and have long-term deals and no-move clauses, almost every day and every interaction is vaguely competitive. It’s exhausting. The players are trying to climb past the players beside them with their performance on the ice.
But part of being put in good positions with linemates and ice time to do that means impressing upon staff on a daily basis that they deserve the best opportunities, which means for those more-unestablished players, even the most random conversations matter. Players aside, coaches have to juggle giving direction with keeping players happy, and how they do that is judged by the players and other around them. The evaluation rarely stops for anyone.
To go with that, every day exists in the shadow of the previous game. Players who underperformed are held to vaguely higher standards whether that’s spoken or not. There’s handwringing over team shortcomings. And if the team lost (or is generally losing a lot), the strain of each day becomes immense. Blame is just floating around, looking to land on the most inactive of the team members in the room.
Having someone like Pistol Pete, or Joey Moss, or anyone who exists somewhat outside that competitive ecosystem creates the opportunity for everyone to talk to without pressure. In the midst of the darkest times, there’s a ray of light. And if you’re ever so misfortunate as to be stuck in a cave at night, you’ll come to see just how much you can appreciate a single candle.
So while I know Joey and Pistol and their cohorts benefit from their roles, I know the players and staff benefit, too — and I don’t think either side realizes how much. When the medical staff has that ray of light around, that candle, they’re often put in better mental frames to do their job, and that trickles down to those they work on. The coaches benefit, the extended staff and management benefits — even if just in small amounts. But those small bits, for everyone, accumulated, can have a profound effect on a locker room. I believe the whole of the operation makes larger gains than any one person may feel them.
For those teams in development leagues, these relationships also provide younger players an opportunity to learn about compassion and kindness.
If there are teams out there not offering a role like this up to someone from their community, they’re missing out. Missing out on making someone’s life better, but also missing out on helping their team grow, both on the ice and off. Guys like Joey and Pistol Pete are proof of the impact that can be made in those jobs, and in turn, the positive effect that can be had on so many people.