story: Jim Dyar photo courtesy of Don Smith/San Jose Sharks
As a freshman at Anderson High School in the late 1970s, Ray Tufts discovered the book “The First Aider” by the Cramer Sports Medicine Co., and used it as a guide to help athletes recover from sprains, bumps and bruises.
Back then, the field of sports medicine was in its infancy. Wherever Tufts went, however, he soaked up information about how to keep athletes healthy.
Tufts continues that endeavor today. The Happy Valley native has been the head trainer for the San Jose Sharks professional hockey team for the past 13 years. In February, he’ll serve as a trainer for the U.S. Olympic Team as it competes in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. Tufts will work primarily with the U.S. men’s hockey team.
“It’s quite an honor,” says Tufts, 45, by phone from his home in Los Gatos. “Hockey’s obviously something I really enjoy and, being that it’s in Canada, it’s going to be the top-billed sport by far. I love Vancouver and the building where we’re playing is where we (the Sharks) play the Canucks.”
In June following the NHL season, Tufts got a call from Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson saying USA Hockey was interested in having him work the Olympics. Tufts was excited by the opportunity, but his analytical side soon kicked in. NHL teams take two weeks off for the Olympics, but a pro trainer’s duties never really subside that much.
“You always want to make sure you’re prepared,” Tufts says. “There’s a lot that goes into something like this, and you want to make sure you can walk through that door with confidence.”
Being prepared is a big reason Tufts has enjoyed such success during his career. After graduating from Anderson in 1982, he worked under longtime Shasta College trainer Mike Vanderwerf, who saw a spark in the young man. Vanderwerf had a connection with San Francisco 49ers trainer Lindsy McLean and thought Tufts could land an internship position with the team during its summer camp.
Tufts got on with Niners and eventually worked his way into a full-time job. He served as an assistant trainer with the team from 1987 through 1996, earning three Super Bowl rings as San Francisco won NFL titles in 1989, 1990 and 1995.
“Ray’s kind of a can’t-miss person,” Vanderwerf says. “Once you were around him and saw his work ethic and how well he does his job, you just knew this kid was going to do well. He has all the tools. He’s personable, reliable and picks up things really quickly. At Anderson, he was kind of self-taught. When he had someone to teach him things, he was like a sponge. He was the best student trainer I ever had at Shasta College.”
Tufts, who graduated from Sacramento State University, learned the nuisances of working with pro athletes under people like McLean and Fred Tedeschi, now the head trainer with the Chicago Bulls. Being around athletes like Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott was an education into the minds and bodies of super-elite athletes.
“It’s very much a people business,” Tufts says. “I’ve been fortunate to work with very high-caliber athletes. Their desire to return to the playing field is paramount. It’s a very satisfying feeling to know you helped them achieve that.
“You can’t be cocky, but you have to be confident to work with these kinds of athletes. They come to you in confidence because they know they can work with you to regain their full strength and get back to work.”
With the Sharks, Tufts has attended hundreds of surgeries, which he believes helps the athletes trust that he’s there for them through every phase of their recovery. Sometimes that means players on his doorstep in the early morning or late at night. It’s an all-encompassing job, which includes managing a staff of an assistant trainer, a strength and conditioning coach and a massage therapist. He also coordinates the schedules of Bay Area physicians who attend games and perform surgeries.
Fortunately, Tufts’ wife Michelle, a Toronto native, understands hockey and the demands on her husband. The couple is expecting their first child in January. Tufts’ family in Cottonwood includes his mother, Jo, father, Bob, sister, Barbara and brother, Rob.
When Tufts made the switch from football to hockey in 1996, it brought in a brand new set of challenges. Hockey players do things like break their jaws and still want to finish games. They’re also, in general, very appreciative of what Tufts and his staff do.
“In hockey, the players get into a car wreck two or three times a week, as opposed to once a week (for football),” Tufts said. “You’re standing on a piece of steel going 35 miles an hour, and they’re in incredible cardiovascular condition. But they also tend to really appreciate your time and always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I still hear guys say, ‘May I get a towel, please?’ ”
For a guy who started young in the business and remains young at 45, Tufts still has a long career ahead of him. “It took me a long time to get older than the athletes,” Tufts said. “I’ve had 20 years in the business and it’s just starting to feel like I’m hitting a bit of stride with athletes.”