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  • Emma Garcia

Bones of the Blade


Photography by Elias Catania (https://eliascatania.com/)


As the puck glides across the ice, the crowd disappears. An athletic trainer’s attention is glued on the players, carefully keeping a keen eye as they come off the ice. So when an athlete gets injured, even slightly, the athletic trainer goes from watching the game to being drawn back into procedure. They are friendly faces trying to keep the injured calm and an advocate for an athlete in a medical situation. A game-silent voice suddenly becomes loud. There is an urgency in their actions. While the crowd might go wild when a fight breaks out on the ice, the athletic trainer has their guard up carefully watching as it progresses. Most of their work happens behind the scenes, but they have a hand in many aspects of keeping the Big Red on the ice. Athletic trainers are the not-so-silent backbone of an athletic program.


For the last four decades, Bernie DePalma has been a name synonymous with sports medicine at Cornell. Bernie DePalma, the former Associate Director of Athletics for Sports Medicine and the Doc Kavanaugh Head Athletic Trainer, left a lasting legacy on safety, injury prevention, and sports nutrition at Cornell and nationwide. His retirement this fall led to the restructuring of the school’s athletic training program, with familiar faces filling the new leadership positions. Longtime athletic trainer for Men’s Ice Hockey, Ed Kelly, accumulated the Doc Kavanaugh Head Athletic Trainer position and the Associate Director of Athletics for Sports Medicine Operations. Splitting some of the other responsibilities of DePalma’s former position, longtime athletic trainer for Women’s Ice Hockey, Katy Harris, became the Associate Director of Athletics for Sports Medicine Administration and NCAA Athletics Healthcare Administrator.


One of the goals of athletic training is to ensure that each athlete understands what athletic training can do for them throughout their time representing the Big Red. Kelly explained, “We are the conduit for the athlete to get any type of health care, even if it is an injury outside of hockey. If they are sick, get injured, have mental health concerns, or need nutrition advice they need to come see me. Granted, for most of these I will refer them out, but I am the one they come to first.”


Photography by Elias Catania (https://eliascatania.com/)


Going behind the scenes of one of their practices, I witnessed their day-to-day interactions that are typically hidden from the public. With benches filled with athletes doing treatments before or after practice, the room comes to life. Whether an athlete was explaining why they were sore or bruised, or getting cupped, there was always a lively atmosphere: cheer when Gatorade was being made for the team, a laugh from the athletes as Kelly made another dad joke, or even the comradery as Harris and Kelly were moving from bench to bench getting the athletes ready.


“The culture that has been formed by the coaches and even by ourselves has made us a close-knit group,” Kelly described. “The four years from Freshman to Senior year is a journey that we get to witness and be a part of.”


Photography by Elias Catania (https://eliascatania.com/)


For some athletes, an athletic trainer might be a figure with whom they are unfamiliar with. In previous years, this figure could have been convoluted with an equipment manager or a parent putting ice bags on injuries and then sending the athlete off to a doctor. But now, these athletes have a central person to direct health concerns to regardless of the situation. Athletic trainers have helped these athletes get through lacerations of the forearm to stressful prelim seasons and even navigating a pandemic. These relationships are not built overnight though, they are constantly evolving.


Harris, who also serves as the Co-Chair of the Student-Athlete Mental Health Committee, explained that there is no separation of one’s mental and physical health when treating an injury. In fact, these two are interconnected. Throughout the seasons, Harris noted that she is able to recognize the types of days that athletes have had once they come in: “When someone is down with an injury and they might also be having a bad day, that injury may come off with more pain or the description of pain may differ and it is important to recognize these changes.”


Being able to recognize the smallest of behavior changes is a very special skill for an athletic trainer. It allows them to treat an athlete as a whole person and not just someone they need to get back on the ice. This circles back to the importance of the relationships athletic trainers need to have with their athletes. Both Kelly and Harris value these interactions outside of the injuries, and this helps the athletic trainer in reinforcing injury prevention and care. It builds trust. It builds respect. It builds rapport.


Photography by Elias Catania (https://eliascatania.com/)


“If there is an athlete down on the ice due to a fracture or having sustained a concussion, they know and trust me already,” Harris said. “So when I am out there, they know that I am going to do everything that I can do to help them get better.”


Even years after these seasons finish, the memories and conversations are what stand out the most. Seeing each athlete grow as a player is one thing, but for both Kelly and Harris, seeing their development as young adults is one of the most rewarding aspects of their profession.


To those who regularly interact with athletic trainers, what they do logistically might be clear. For the greater population, they get confused with strength and conditioning coaches. While the two work together to care for the overall health of an athlete, they provide a different set of resources. Kelly explained that athletic trainers can be thought of in a way as physical therapists for athletes. Typical game days start well before puck drop, they don’t just go out once the players go out.


Before Morning Skate, they begin doing treatments and evaluations for injured athletes. Kelly explained, “While those guys are getting taken care of, the regular players start coming in and we prepare them for practice. This preparation can consist of anything from taping, stretching, or treatments like hot packs. Once that is all done, we then turn them back to the coaches.”


Photography by Elias Catania (https://eliascatania.com/)


One of the hidden components of Ed Kelly’s job involves getting all the water and Gatorade ready to go. Explaining that everything they provide to the other team (water, cups, hot packs), is what they would typically get when on the road. Kelly mentioned, “Game days for away games are nice because someone like me already set the bench and locker room up.” For a home game day though athletic trainers care for both teams making sure they have what they need.


Photography by Elias Catania (https://eliascatania.com/)


After morning skate this is the time where the athletic trainer may let the coaches know whether an athlete can play for the night if they had sustained an injury prior. With the goal often being to get in at least two treatments during the day to maximize the effectiveness, more of the same repetition as far as treatment continues and might also include Game Ready or Normatec (forms of compression therapy).


Ideally, the afternoon consists of returning home and eating lunch before making the quick turnaround of heading back to the rink to finish up the last preparations (e.g. setting out pre-game snacks, setting up the benches, and getting the referee’s locker room setup). Once again the athletic trainer will start getting the team ready in a similar way from the morning. During the game, Kelly explains “when the puck drops, I hope that I am watching a hockey game. If anything happens during the game though, we deal with it as it comes.”


So, the next time that you are at Lynah and you see someone who is not in skates or one of the coaches, there is a good chance you might be seeing Ed Kelly or Katy Harris.


Photography by Elias Catania (https://eliascatania.com/)


Despite the long hours, their passion for the occupation remains. Many key players in the sports medicine field get mistaken for one another, and it is true that they are intermingled. Each of the bones of some of our favorite teams contribute to maintaining successful programs. From helping equipment managers hang jerseys or carry over blades, there is great care for their teams and a joy in seeing the program continue to grow over the years. Athletic trainers like Kelly and Harris do more than just tending to wounds and injuries; they care for the people underneath all of the gear.



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