Keeping the Gophers sound in mind and body is a job at which Jeff Winslow excels
Hockey might be getting safer, thanks in part to better gear and smarter play, but also thanks to people like the Minnesota Gophers' trainer, who is a trusted member of the team in his 14th season.
MINNEAPOLIS — The sports world was shocked in December when Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in a game versus the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bills trainer, Denny Kellington, went right to work, administering CPR to help Hamlin, who had gone into cardiac arrest. Within minutes, Kellington literally saved Hamlin’s life and was rightfully hailed as a hero.
Jeff Winslow, now in his 14th season working with the Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team, watched it happen and was not surprised at how quickly and how efficiently Kellington, a former co-worker of Winslow’s from their days on staff with the football program at Syracuse, turned around a life-threatening situation.
“It’s not an accident. They practice and prepare for those situations,” Winslow said of the NFL trainer’s work. “There is so much the athletic training profession does behind the scenes and goes unnoticed, that when the preparation of all of those people involved comes together and becomes prominent in the public eye and they get recognized, it’s rewarding. The outcome was great for the athlete, and it was good to see the profession get put on the pedestal for a small period of time.”
Honesty, with a smile
Winslow’s office is tucked between the players’ lounge and the locker room, deep inside 3M Arena at Mariucci, but a visit with the guy whose sole job is to keep the team healthy is an everyday happening for many of the Gophers.
“I think 90 percent of the guys, when they get to the rink, you walk through the lounge, say hi to the boys, then make a left and say hi to Jeff,” Gophers defenseman Brock Faber said, a short time after Winslow had helped the team captain overcome both an upper body injury and a bout with the flu. “Everyone loves him and he’s so good at his job. With my shoulder and my sickness I’ve been seeing a lot of him. We’re all thankful for him.”
It is an interesting job, being in charge of the physical and mental well-being for 26 young men whose on-ice job often involves getting in the way of speeding pucks, and collisions of varying speed and intensity. If all goes well, he’s got very little to do.
“I just hand out water,” Winslow said with the trademark disarming smile that helps players be comfortable confiding in him. The Gophers were an incredibly healthy bunch in the first half of the current season. On a campus where learning is paramount, that actually created a problem. Via one U of M program, students learning how to be trainers shadow Winslow for a semester and immerse themselves in the profession.
“The student I had in the first semester had the worst experience ever, because he did not see a thing,” Winslow said. “We did not have one player who missed a practice or a game due to injury in the entire first semester. There were a couple who missed due to illness, but other than that, nothing.”
He’s so friendly and such a good human being that you feel comfortable going to him if there’s ever anything on the mental health side.
That was clearly not the case in the second half, with players like Faber, Ryan Chesley, Jackson LaCombe and others all missing multiple games with a variety of ailments. Still, while there is talk about sports like football getting more and more dangerous as players get bigger and faster, and collisions become more violent, there is a notion that hockey might actually be getting safer. Winslow’s early season boredom might be evidence to support that theory.
“It’s 100% anecdotal, but throughout the course of a season, I do feel like I see fewer injuries than I used to see. And I don’t know what to attribute that to,” Winslow said. “I’ve always felt the way Gopher hockey played – being historically more skilled and less grinding, less big hits, less getting dirty in corners – that maybe it was just my team that was staying healthier than most. But talking to my colleagues, it seems like there are less big injuries throughout the course of the year.”
Playing to the finish
By late in a hockey season, nobody is truly fully healthy, and Winslow concurred. Early in a season, players might take time off to rest a nagging ailment. By February and March, if there is nothing structurally wrong with a player where playing could cause a more severe injury, they tend to push through to the end of the season, putting up with bumps and bruises, and getting X-rays and other treatment sometime in April.
A place where some form of attention is played to many more players year-round comes from the increased awareness of mental health issues. Playing college hockey under the bright lights, on national TV and with 10,000 people watching your every move in the arena can be a stressful. Add to that the pressures of school work, relationships and myriad other things that a 19-year-old man deals with, and it can be a challenging time. Winslow prides himself on being a safe place where the Gophers can go for an honest conversation, and to get any help they may need with mind and body.
“He’s so friendly and such a good human being that you feel comfortable going to him if there’s ever anything on the mental health side,” Faber said. “He’ll do anything in his power to get you the resources you need and he’s always there to shut his door and talk. Everyone on the team feels so comfortable with him.”
That mental health awareness also manifests itself in helping players return from a physical injury, when their body is ready to go but their head may be telling them something else.
“Even though I’m confident it’s safe to return, if it’s brand new for the student athlete, he might not have the same confidence. If he doesn’t have the same confidence, he may be playing timid and set himself up for further injury,” Winslow said. “So we have conversations about how it’s safe for them to return, we know it’s safe, ‘We’ve put you through X, Y and Z steps to get you back into practice, so trust in the process.’ Sometimes that will help players get over the mental hump they might have.”
Investing in health
When Bob Motzko and his staff bring a potential future Gopher in to see the rink, and talk about all of the resources available to a U of M athlete, Winslow and his staff factor heavily into the conversation. He is assisted by two student trainers who take their board tests at the end of the season. The Gophers also retain two sports medicine physicians, one orthopedic surgeon and one chiropractor. Whenever possible, the health care professionals come to the rink, rather than the athletes having to travel to a clinic.
“We try to provide a lot of services in-house,” Winslow said. “Schedules for student-athletes are so crazy. The more that we can bring to them, the less they need to seek out on their own.”
As busy as he may get late in a season, the profession in 2023 is practically boring compared to 2021, during the depths of the pandemic, when every player was testing for COVID-19 each day, and the road back to the team for players who were infected involved a post-COVID cardiac protocol which included an EKG, a MRI and a thorough exercise test to study oxygen levels. Winslow jokes that he gets post-traumatic stress disorder just recalling those days, when he would spend the bulk of many days on the phone with Hennepin County Medical Center, setting up tests for Gophers who were trying to get back on the ice.
With all of that in the rear-view mirror, hopefully for good, Winslow can smile, and look back on 13 other years on the job with the Gophers that have been — for the most part — enjoyable. His age is as good an indication as any regarding how much life has changed since the 2009-10 hockey season, when Winslow first got an office at the rink.
“I started at 26, and some of the players were just about my age. Now I’m 40,” he said. “Back then I’d go to appointments with the players and I’d get asked if I was a teammate. Now I get asked if I’m their father.”