They found the televisions where they could, mismatched and different sizes, and stacked them precariously in the makeshift office on the 47th floor of the NHL offices in New York. They made do with the satellite dish, set up in a conference room, though it often didn’t work because someone had inadvertently bumped it during a daytime meeting.
It was just the two of them back then, in 1999, just Colin Campbell and Damian Echevarrieta, cobbling together what they could in order to watch as many NHL games as possible.
The biggest problem back in those days was the VCRs. Campbell and Echevarrieta would want to stop a tape and rewatch a play — a questionable hit or potentially suspendable action — but stopping the tape would mean a missing section of game.
“There was always that gamble, like should I stop it now? Throw another tape in?” Echevarrieta recalled. “And then you’d have three tapes for one game.”
That was in their hockey operations days, before the Department of Player Safety existed, before it split off and became its own entity in 2011, before Echevarrieta became its engine.
The room now is state of the art, the TVs matching, located in the new NHL offices in New York. There are no VHS tapes, no wavy lines with which to contend. They can go frame-by-frame, can zoom in, can see the inches that divide a suspension from what is not a suspension. They can send out video clips immediately instead of, say, making a VHS tape in New York, taking it to the airport, paying a flight attendant to hold onto it and hand it off to Campbell after the flight landed in Toronto, as they once had to do.
This is what Echevarrieta has built.
The Department of Player Safety has improved vastly with all the innovations that technology has brought. Though there will always be arguments centered on suspensions and discipline — just check Player Safety’s Twitter feed for proof — the department believes it has gotten closer than ever to protecting the players it needs to protect, to disciplining those who are out of line.
And as Campbell said, “The heart of Player Safety is Damian.”
Making a name
The 41-year-old Echevarrieta has been the constant, from the early days of Campbell to the Brendan Shanahan regime to the current period under Stephane Quintal, beginning at the start of last season.
When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman asked Shanahan to take over for Campbell in 2011, when Player Safety broke off from Hockey Operations, it was understood one of the conditions was that Echevarrieta would remain, according to Campbell.
“I’ve been here a lot longer than I thought I would be,” Echevarrieta said. “I thought I would have gone out to a team by now. But Player Safety became a thing that I thought was a worthwhile effort. And it’s hard to just get up and leave. You have to make sure it’s the right job, it’s the right place.”
Still, Echevarrieta wants more. He wants to be a general manager. He wants to make a name for himself — or rather, honor the one he was given.
“I always felt like this: I never really got anything from my dad because he died when I was only a baby, but one thing he gave me was my name,” Echevarrieta said. “And I know I have a really long name and everybody makes fun and I get real sensitive about it.
“My name is Echevarrieta and I am driven to make that name something. I’m not in it for the glory, but I just want a name that he could be proud of if he was here.”
Something is missing
The absence stabs a little. He had less than two months with his father, a whisper of a bond.
He yields the emotions more to his older brother, 10 at the time of their father’s death in the line of duty, a boy literally left at a fire station by a man who never returned. Their father, Fabian Echevarrieta, died of a heart attack while on the roof of a burning building in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn on Jan. 7, 1974.
“I love knowing that my dad had saved people, saved their life,” Echevarrieta said. “He was in the Navy, he was a fireman, he was exactly the kind of guy that I would want to be.”
Damian was just six weeks old when his father died.
“I say to myself, it must be hard for him because the other two have memories of my husband, but of course he doesn’t,” Damian’s mother, Shirley Echevarrieta, said. “In fact, I told him one day, I think your father held you once. Because he was afraid of little babies. He was a big man and he used to come home all dirty and sweaty from the firehouse so he didn’t want to hold the baby.
“I always say he was cheated. God took your father — this is what I try to say to him — God gave me you and that’s it.”
The fact that her younger son played hockey at all was a small miracle, derived in part from his mother’s rabid Rangers fandom — Shirley wouldn’t talk to Damian after Player Safety suspended Carl Hagelin for three games during the 2012 playoffs — and in part from the Miracle on Ice. Hockey is a difficult sport for single parents, more difficult still for a single mother who did not drive.
“I sometimes think, ‘How did I even end up playing hockey?’ ” Echevarrieta said. “It was because of the Miracle on Ice team. I was a 7-year-old and my family was watching, and I thought that was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t even really understand how great it was, looking back now.”
He got caught up, and his mother found a way. They took buses and trains, transferring here and there. She offered gas money to other parents, finding rides among her son’s teammates. Damian’s brother finally grew old enough to ferry him to practices and games. They all managed. It wasn’t easy.
It was hockey that helped save him, kept him from slipping into a lifestyle he saw on the streets of Brooklyn, with its own certain allure. It was Shirley, the “tough Irish broad from Brooklyn,” as her son put it, watching how she managed as a single parent with three kids.
She created a home where he never fully felt the force of what he was missing.
“Only when I started playing bantam and midget hockey did I realize how much dads were around, that I didn’t have that,” said Echevarrieta, who went on to play at St. John’s University. “I don’t feel like I lost out, and only when I had my son did I say, oh man, I don’t know anything about being a dad or having a dad. That’s where I felt the most lack.”
Echevarrieta never had the memories his siblings did. He had only Shirley.
“He always said to me, ‘Mom, you were my mother’ — don’t start me crying — ‘You were my mom and dad,’ ” Shirley said, sniffling a little. “I’m sorry. He’s gone 40-something years and I’m still crying after him. But no — I just tried to be there every time he needed something.”
Putting in the work
His mother worries about all the work, the hours piling on hours, the strain on her son. But Echevarrieta has never shied away from work. He has never had a problem with effort. As he said, “I’m not the smartest guy, but I’m the one that works the hardest. If I don’t know it, I’ll go learn it and work seven days a week for 17 straight years.”
It was in the early days with the Rangers that Campbell felt the full force of that.
Echevarrieta was an intern, tasked with answering phones and helping out players and washing towels and shipping packages. Between rounds of the playoffs, then-Rangers coach Campbell handed his intern some notes, hoping to have some work put into the pre-scout. He expected something half-completed, not close to done.
Instead, Echevarrieta had not slept, had finished the pre-scout report, and had found a mistake in the notes on the opposing team’s penalty kill.
Campbell was sold.
“I said this is my chance and I worked like crazy,” Echevarrieta said. “I worked like literally 20 hours a day every day.”
He computerized scouting reports. He started keeping ice time. He made himself indispensable. Or, as he put it, “I find these niches where nobody’s doing this or that and I do it and I do a little bit of everything and then all of a sudden I’m like George Costanza. You just need me to be there because I’ve always been there.”
It’s why Campbell brought Echevarrieta to the NHL office when he took over Hockey Operations. It’s why Shanahan made sure he stayed. It’s evident in all the owners and GMs and media members who eagerly wait for his playoff picture charts, with tragic numbers and games remaining, ones he completes every night after all the games are over and his job is finally finished for the day.
But after 15 years, Echevarrieta doesn’t know how much longer he’ll stay in Player Safety. His goal remains the same as it’s always been: to be a GM.
He knows there are factors working against him.
“That’s something I’ve constantly been fighting,” he said. “Like being from Brooklyn and not playing in the NHL, it’s been like, ‘What do you know about hockey?’ You really have to show what you know and nobody wants to be that guy that’s standing up, telling everybody how smart you are. You have to just let it be.
“You have to let people figure out, no, this guy, even though he’s from Brooklyn, even though he’s not a hockey player, he knows.”
That’s what comes from watching every game, every year for 15 years, thousands and thousands and thousands of games. That’s what comes with watching more NHL games than just about anyone else on the planet. That’s what comes with knowing the rule book back to front and upside down.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for the work he’s done and the amount of games he watches and the knowledge he now has after doing this for 15 years,” Campbell said. “He’s a good hockey man.”
At some point, Echevarrieta hopes, it will be time to move on. It will be time to create something else. It will be time to lend his name — that long, confusing, hard-to-spell and hard-to-pronounce name — to something even more.