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Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, whose hockey bag never left the arenas in his native Slovakia, also thinks the smell is getting better in the NHL.
“Oh, they don’t stink as much as they used to,” said the Boston captain. “The technology of the equipment is better. The trainers do a great job; they’re washing gear at least once a month. But some guys still like wearing 10-year-old shoulder pads because they are more comfortable”
The Bruins were one of the first NHL teams to buy an $11,000 ozone-infused sanitizing machine to reduce bacteria and eliminate odor from equipment. Former Bruins center Joe Thornton developed a serious staph infection on his elbow in 2002 and then an infected cut above his eyebrow the following year that required hospitalization.
Now, 27 NHL teams have the Sani Sport cleaning units in their locker rooms.
“It’s not funny,” said Sani Sport president Steve Silver. “The smell is not the big deal; the fact that the smell is eliminated is a nice byproduct.
“The reality is that the smell is caused by upwards of a million living organisms on the average set of hockey or football equipment.
“You get an abrasion on your skin, and ironically the bacteria from the shoulder pad or the skate or whatever piece of equipment that is supposed to be protecting you, bacteria from there can seep into your skin and cause things like MRSA [methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus].
“It is resistant to most drugs, so unfortunately people die from MRSA and get very sick from other staph infections.”
The Bruins take all of this all very seriously.
“We’re very sensitive to that kind of stuff,” said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “You get a cut or just a little scratch, you’ve got to make sure you cover it with a Band-Aid and ointment. Make sure it doesn’t get inflamed. If some bacteria gets in, even a little scratch could be trouble.
“I got cut last year from [goalie] Timmy [Thomas’s] skate, and they stitched it and it did get infected. They had to open it up again and wash it out. I had to take all those antibiotics.”
A couple of the game’s greats say that cleanliness and odor elimination begin with young players taking care of their own dirty stuff.
At Hockey Town USA in Saugus, Ray Bourque skates incognito in an afternoon pickup game, steam rising from his broad shoulders as he heads to the locker room. Bourque says the problem begins with teenagers who just leave everything in the bag.
“They sweat and they don’t dry it out,” he said. “It doesn’t smell very good, but you’ve got to take care of it, just like anything else.
“I had a spot at home that I aired out my stuff after I played, and that was that.”
Fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Orr thinks a reporter asking about smelly hockey bags is sniffing down the wrong path.
“I don’t know what smell you’re talking about,” he said.
So hockey gods don’t smell?
Orr smiles that still-boyish grin.
“I dried my equipment out as a kid,” he said. “Mine didn’t smell. I don’t remember my duffel bag having an odor.
“My last duffel bag is in Parry Sound, in the Hall of Fame up there. And I haven’t noticed that it smells.”
But what of mere mortals?
“Well, the problem we have is the kids expect the parents to carry the bag, hang the equipment up, and so on and so forth,” said Orr. “I took responsibility for my own and I didn’t wait for my parents to do that.
“The kids ought to be doing that themselves, and then it wouldn’t smell so bad.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.