Hunter Steward misses an old friend.
“As soon as I walked through the doors and walked by the equipment room, part of my brain wanted to yell at him, talk shit to him a little bit,” the sixth-year B.C. Lions’ offensive lineman told KTW at training camp in Kamloops on Monday, speaking of longtime equipment manager Ken (Kato) Kasuya.
“He wasn’t there, but he’s here in spirit. He’s forever a Lion. He’s always in our thoughts and we’re doing all this for him this year. It was very, very sad to hear the news in the off-season.”
Kasuya, who was 13 when he joined the Lions as a ball boy in 1980, was 53 when he died in April. Cause of death was not released, but he suffered from kidney disease and had a stroke in 2015.
The loss of Kasuya and November retirement of athletic therapist Bill Reichelt — who spent 42 seasons working for the Lions — has created a void of personality and knowledge that became tangible when rookie camp began at Hillside Stadium on May 15.
“You don’t replace those guys,” said Stewart, a 6-foot-6, 315-pound brute from Calgary.
Off-field personnel charged with spurring the Lions into a new era include head athletic therapist Tristan Sandhu and equipment manager Aaron Yeung, both of whom have close ties to their predecessors.
Yeung’s duties at a hockey shop in Surrey included preparing the Lions’ jerseys, work that brought him into contact with Kasuya in 2006. By 2010, Yeung was volunteering at B.C. Place Stadium on game days. He was hired to assist Kasuya in 2016.
Perhaps Kasuya, an East Vancouver product who pedalled his bike to Empire Stadium to volunteer 40 years ago, saw himself in Yeung, who was born in Vancouver and grew up in Burnaby.
“There’s not really a school or a college for this,” Yeung said. “It’s usually guys who start as a ball boy or volunteer who have gotten the respect from equipment managers and have learned on the fly.
“Kato meant everything to the team. We obviously became friends, were really close. He came to my wedding. As someone who’s been in the organization for 40 years, he definitely had his way of doing things and I learned a lot from being around him.
“We have to carry on his legacy, but I’ve got to do things my way, too. We were different people. There is definitely a few things that didn’t work. Kato was more old school.”
New school is king for the Leos these days, with the arrival of general manager Ed Hervey in 2017 and hiring of head coach DeVone Claybrooks this past off-season marking the end of the Wally Buono Era.
Brent Frid and Stu Mitchell are on the equipment staff with Yeung, while Sandhu leads the trainers’ crew, which includes assistant therapists Chris Wong, Emma Pringle and Craig Cuizon.
Sandhu, an Ontario product educated at McMaster and Mount Royal universities, splashed his resume across the CFL after graduation. Reichelt was impressed with his credentials and Sandhu hopped on board in 2013.
“I learned a lot of good lessons from Bill, just watching him interact with the guys, how he treated, how he taped,” said Sandhu, who was promoted into the head therapist role in 2016, when Reichelt became medical director. “Overall, it was really important in my development, in how I work today and how our training continues to function.
“Bill always kept things very light. The training room wasn’t a place to be bogged down. It was always a place where the guys could come, hang out, share their stories, but also get better and get back on the field as quick as possible.”
Yeung learned a lesson in that vein from Kasuya, taking advice about a line that must be walked with players.
“Your employer is the BC Lions,” Yeung said. “You’re a staff member. You don’t want to be going over and partying with these guys or telling them everything.
“The best way is to shut up and do your job. Try to stay as neutral as possible. Yes, you are close with the players, but also you have that relationship with your GM, your coaches. You can’t choose a side. You’ve just got to do your job.”
Yeung’s relationship with his Lions’ mentor took on another dimension when Kasuya became ill. Yeung’s father, a diabetic as Kasuya was, has been on a waiting list for a new kidney for five years, on dialysis and living the limited lifestyle that treatment entails.
“That’s why I was able to give him insight on what to expect, what was going to happen,” Yeung said. “I let Kato know how fortunate he was that he got a kidney donation from his cousin.”
Kasuya always had the final call while he was in charge of the equipment team, but softened stances as trust grew with Yeung.
“He kind of let me in. It meant a lot,” Yeung said. “The respect level was there. At rookie camp, it was a little bit of a weird feeling when Kato was not in his office, in his chair. He sat in the same chair. That was his area.
“But training camp happens so fast. We rarely get breaks. Maybe after camp’s done, maybe it will sink in more. Right now, everyone is so busy working 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. every day.”
Shooting the breeze with Reichelt during down time — listening to stories of players past, yarns usually spun with a comedic twist — was among Steward’s favourite pastimes during camp.
Sauntering over to take a friendly jab at Kasuya was another.
Those days are over, a familiar refrain in the den as the Lions forge ahead.
“You were talking smack with him [Kasuya] every morning. He was always firing back at us,” Steward said. “He was a really good buddy. And Billy was awesome. Same thing. He brightens up the room.”
“They’re irreplaceable, but the guys who are in their positions now, it’s not like they’re brand new faces trying to make their imprint on the organization.
“They’ve been here. They know the guys. They know how to run their spots in the organization.”