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An unexpected career path

Erica Dischino / Tribune Jason Serbus, Bird Island native and head athletic trainer for the Capitals, speaks with John Benson before autographing Benson’s Danube Cup, a victory cup given to a hockey club teams in Danube, when the Stanley Cup visited Bird Island Monday.

BIRD ISLAND — Hockey was supposed to be a one-year venture for Jason Serbus.

Serbus, a BOLD High School graduate, thought being an athletic trainer for football would be his lot in life. The Bird Island native played football for the Warriors, and the town isn't exactly a hockey hotbed like Roseau or Warroad.

But, as Jason put it, "Life has a way of taking you down a journey."

Jason's professional journey brought him back home Monday to the parking lot of The Broaster in Bird Island with the Stanley Cup in tow. As the head athletic trainer for the Washington Capitals, Jason Serbus' name is now etched into one of sports' most prestigious championship trophies.

"By a strange twist of job changes, I ended up with a hockey job," Jason said. "I was going to do it for one year and get back into football and things just kind of built an ran from there. And that was 20 years ago."

The people around the sport is what ultimately kept Jason around the rink.

"I found out I really liked the people," he said. "I had a lot of similarities to where hockey players come from, the types of backgrounds they come from and the industry fit me well. It's been a natural fit and it's gone well from there."

And for a sport that wasn't in Jason's future plans, it also brought him something better than the Stanley Cup: a family. At the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Jason managed to meet his wife in the trainer's room.

"I was a soccer player and a hockey player (at UW-RF) and he was my trainer," said Paula Serbus, Jason's wife.

With Paula being a former hockey player and their 9-year-old son, Garrett, being a "hockey and Cup historian," according to Mom, the Serbus family has found a balance with the sports life. Much like the players, the job of a hockey trainer involves a lot of road trips and uncertainty from year to year. This past winter was Jason's first with the Capitals after a nine-year stint with the Arizona Coyotes.

"It can be challenging. We spend a lot of time away from home, we spend a lot of time on the road and that means moving as things happen in the sports industry," Jason said. "We make the most of our time together. We're blessed to have the experience to do something like (bring the Stanley Cup to Bird Island)."

Paula added, "We're both very attached to our hometowns and our midwestern roots, but it's been amazing to experience other places and other cultures."

An 82-game regular season is a grind. Over the course of the postseason, the Capitals had 24 extra games, including the five-game Stanley Cup Championship series against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Jason and the Capitals' training staff had their own gameplan in the postseason to help keep the team as fresh as possible in a deep playoff run.

"Going into the playoffs, we made a strategy that we were going to come up with some routines and protect their recovery and stick with what's working," Jason said. "It paid off; we were able to keep guys going. The players did a good job with their preparation and recovery and now, going into a short offseason, they have to rethink their strategies a little bit to give them time to recover and be ready for next year."

Along with droves of people taking pictures and kissing the Stanley Cup, Jason got to be in uncharted territory Monday as he signed autographs and shook hands with people who made the trek down to Bird Island's only traffic light.

"It was a haul, but it was worth every minute," said Mark Gatzemeyer, who along with his son Jared made the 40-mile trek from New London.

"The players are the ones that do get all the glory, and rightfully so," Paula said as Jason signed pictures of himself hoisting the Cup. "But there are a ton of people behind the scenes that are just as successful and just as important to the success of the team. It's nice to see the kudos once in a while, even though he'd much rather be behind the scenes instead of in front."

And to think, hockey was once viewed as a short-term solution.

"It is surreal," Jason said. "It's something when you're in the hockey business, you're humbled to know, someday, you work in an industry where someday it could happen. ... You get the call from the Hockey Hall of Fame and they ask you where you'd like to go. You explain to them, without a doubt, that you want to take the Stanley Cup home."