While the players prepare before a game, cycling through their own mental highlight reels of tape-to-tape passes, rebounds, and celebrations, Graham Pepperman is making sure every part of the 1/8-inch wide skate blade on which each player will skate is leveled to perfection.
As equipment manager of the women’s hockey team, Pepperman operates on almost the complete opposite schedule as the players.
On this upcoming Thursday afternoon — just like most others — when the Lions leave the ice dog-tired from the week’s final practice, Pepperman will round up each player’s equipment, as well as his own trunk of wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers in preparation for the team’s weekend trek to Robert Morris.
Despite the travel, away games are “surprisingly easier,” Pepperman said. On the road, the hosting team usually cleans the jerseys and socks for the visiting team. For Pepperman, the hospitable gesture makes for one or two hours of “down time” he doesn’t have to spend running each uniform through the wash.
Every time a player slips that Penn State sweater over her shoulder pads, it’s been clean and pressed, all thanks to Pepperman.
By the time the players stride out onto the 200 x 85-foot sheet of ice at Robert Morris’ Island Sports Center on Friday night, Pepperman’s work will be mostly finished.
“During the actual game, it’s easy,” Pepperman said. “I watch hockey.”
Aside from the occasional broken stick — an occurrence that is far less frequent amongst the women than the men — Pepperman mainly focuses on the players’ skates during the game.
“If I see someone fall down three times in a shift, I’m going to go over and say, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Pepperman said. “A lot of times they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s me.’ But sometimes they want me to check out their skate.”
Just about anything that isn’t ice or rubber can ruin a skate blade. Between the goalposts, sticks, and metal on the benches, there are plenty of ways for a once-sharp blade to become dull. Most of the time, these imperfections can be smoothed out with a grindstone. But, in more severe cases, the skate may need to be sharpened again, Pepperman said.
Despite the tendency among hockey players to devote as much care to taping their stick blade as their on-ice play, the women’s hockey team isn’t too picky with their equipment, Pepperman said.
“The beginning of the year is stressful on everybody. Everyone is trying to get used to new equipment,” Pepperman said.
After a process that required repeated trial and communication between player and equipment manager, Pepperman has learned what each player prefers.
As just two games stand between Penn State and the CHA conference playoffs, it is now confirmed the Nittany Lions will finish their inaugural season at the bottom of the CHA standings in the sixth and final position. But that hasn’t seemed to dampen the spirits of the team’s equipment manager.
A member of the Penn State Class of 2009, Pepperman takes pride in the Nittany Lion crest stitched on the front of the uniforms he works so diligently to maintain.
Pepperman spent four seasons as equipment manager of the now-defunct Penn State Icers before serving the United States Women’s University Team at the 2011 World University Games in Turkey. Now, as Penn State has revamped its hockey program and a new state-of-the-art arena is just months from its long-awaited completion, Pepperman is right where he wants to be.
“My parents went to State High and I knew growing up I wanted to be here at some point,” Pepperman said standing in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion lobby. “I love this place.”