NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- To most hockey players, the locker room attendant is just another guy who puts shampoo in the showers, leaves water bottles on the bench and picks up rancid socks to launder after a game.
A player may know that guy's name, but likely not much else.
Craig Baugh is different.
The Nashville Predators' equipment assistant has been a National Hockey League fixture since the team's first season in 1998. He's so well-liked that he's often invited to lunch with the players. His presence is regularly requested on road trips, and he has been a houseguest at more than one player's home.
No other person in the NHL in Baugh's position is as universally known and loved. The players easily see past his mental disability to the large, loveable, 45-year-old man they know as "Partner," who offers an unfailing dose of optimism. He greets players with a hug, and ends many conversations with an "I love you, buddy."
In the often ego-driven arena of professional sports, Baugh also provides a reminder that life is more than just the ice and the puck.
"Sometimes we get a little bit full of ourselves or take ourselves a little too seriously," said Predators Coach Barry Trotz, whose own son has Down syndrome. "Then Partner comes by and puts life in perspective. I think that's the gift he brings."
Becoming 'the guy'
Baugh wasn't always a hockey celebrity, of course.
More than two decades ago, he was a dishwasher at the Nashville Sounds' baseball stadium. His twin brother, Paul, worked there, and it was a good place for a Music City native with special needs to get his start.
But it wasn't long before Baugh's charm made him an organization favorite. And through his relationships with the Sounds staff, he learned that the brand-new Predators would be hiring equipment assistants for their inaugural season. Baugh was intent on getting the job.
"He wouldn't take no for an answer," Predators Equipment Manager Pete Rogers said. "The rest is history. He has endeared himself to us."
No one, not even his twin, knows the exact diagnosis of Baugh's mental disability, but his stutter, slow, deliberate choice of words, and simple speech are indications of it. His short-term memory is not sharp, and performing tasks that require quick turnaround, like getting water to the players between periods, is difficult.
But the care, precision and positive attitude with which he performs his other duties all make him stand out.
"He has such an impact on people, and it's not just because of his disabilities, believe me," said Mike Aldrich, the equipment manager for the San Jose Sharks. When the Sharks play in Nashville, Aldrich always seeks Baugh's help in the locker room. "He's a worker. You never have to worry about things getting done when you ask him."
The job isn't glamorous. Baugh folds towels, moves exercise bikes and lugs body-size duffle bags to the visiting team's bus. When a team arrives, he's often at the arena well after midnight unloading equipment, only to return at 7 a.m. on game day. He fills whatever requests the visiting team may have, down to laundering their underwear after practice.
"They told me before I applied for it it's going to be a lot of work," Baugh said. "I know that, too."
But for Baugh, there is a payoff. "On the first day, when I saw all the players, they started talking to me," Baugh said. "They asked me, 'Why you want to work for this?' I told them, 'I love to be . . . I love to be around a lot of players."'
That feeling is mutual.
When hockey players talk about Baugh, they mention the same two things: his big smile and his big appetite.
Mealtime has evolved into a favorite bonding time for the players and Baugh. They have seen him do in an entire Bloomin' Onion by himself and inhale Krispy Kreme donuts without coming up for air. Cale Hulse, a now-retired 10-year NHL defenseman, fondly remembers his first meal with Baugh.
"I took him to Fuddruckers, and he ordered a burger the size of a dinner plate," said Hulse, who played three seasons for the Predators. "He put about a cup of mayo on it, and we sat and had lunch. From that point on, him and I hit it off and became very close."
Baugh often spent Sundays at Hulse's house. They attended concerts together, went to the movies and shared many, many meals.
Baugh doesn't usually travel with the team, but after Hulse signed with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2003, the Predators took Baugh on an Arizona road trip. Baugh didn't stay at the team hotel; instead he stayed at Hulse's home, meeting Hulse's then-girlfriend, actress Gena Lee Nolin. (The pair are now married.)
"I can't really explain what made our friendship so strong," Hulse said. "He's a great person and fun guy to have around. He puts things in perspective. When you think things are going bad and you hang out with him, nothing is ever as bad as it seems. . . . I love the guy."
For all his sunny outlook, though, life isn't always rosy for Baugh. There are teams he doesn't get along with and players he doesn't like. But he remains philosophical.
"Different teams come in, and they give me trouble, too," Baugh said. "I don't mind it. That's going to happen. That's hockey."
Home life isn't always easy, either. Baugh lives with his brother, Paul, in Murfreesboro. To get to his downtown job, he rides the bus. The NHL teams compensate Baugh, and he receives assistance from the government for his disability, but money can be tight at times. On more than one occasion the brothers have struggled to pay rent and even faced eviction.
That's when the Predators step in.
"He gives so much to us in just being himself," Predators defenseman Dan Hamhuis said. "If there's something special we can do for him, whether it's covering his rent or taking him for dinners and celebrating his birthdays, anything just to show our appreciation for him."
Another arena employee also has taken Baugh under his wing. Ryan Murphy, who works rink maintenance, allows Baugh to stay overnight with him and his wife in East Nashville. The gesture means Baugh doesn't have to travel back and forth from Rutherford County, especially on days when he works long hours.
"It means a whole lot to me," Paul Baugh said of the help his brother receives. "It makes him feel good, because they love him, and that keeps him going."
Who do you love?
Players from all over love Baugh, but who does Baugh love the most? Well, that changes.
Former Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios a former favorite was once left speechless in the hallway after a game, having heard that St. Louis' Keith Tkachuk had overtaken premier status. The current list of favorites includes the Predators' Patrick Hornqvist, Montreal's Hal Gill, Columbus' Rick Nash and New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk.
Baugh's own fan club is far broader. Tucked in the bowels of Bridgestone Arena, there's a room where Baugh keeps a collection of signed paraphernalia and sticks from some of the league's biggest stars, including Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby. Every item is personalized to Baugh.
"He works hard, and I think guys appreciate that," said former Tennessee Titan Frank Wycheck, who has provided Titans tickets for Baugh to every game for the last four years. "He's kind, he's funny, and he would do anything for you. He's a breath of fresh air. He really is."
So hard to say goodbye
When a visiting team is preparing to leave Nashville, Baugh usually stands nearby, waving goodbye to the players as the bus engine grumbles and the vehicle pulls away. The moment is often bittersweet.
"It's sad, though, because I don't want them to leave," he said. "It's going to happen, though."
There was a time when the departing bus unexpectedly stopped.
Signaling to the driver to hold on, Joe Thornton descended the stairs and walked toward Baugh. One of the NHL's premier centers, the 6-foot-4 Thornton wrapped his arms around Baugh, saying, "We love you, big guy. We love you."
And in the story of Craig Baugh, that says it all.