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Finding Hockey and much more in Chula Vista.

If you don’t play hockey, Chula Vista CA might not seem like much of a hockey town. A stone’s throw north of the U.S – Mexico border, this San Diego suburb occasionally fields world class Little League baseball teams, and it recently purchased and renamed the Olympic Training Center, which it now rents to the U.S. Olympic Committee for athlete training. So, sports? Sure. But hockey?

Hockey’s growth in places like Chula Vista may seem unnatural, but hockey buffs - who, I’ve learned, include anyone who’s ever played - aren’t surprised. It’s a great game, maybe the greatest, and it turns out you don’t need ice to play it. In the Eastlake community of Chula Vista CA, in fact, all you need is a little spare time and a single name.

Keith Quigley has been coaching youth sports in Chula Vista for over twenty years. He’s one of those unsung heroes you hope influences your kids in the public school system. Keith grew up playing hockey, and now he’s uniting his love for the game with his chosen occupation, that of developing kids into leaders. As an educator, Coach Keith, as he’s known to his players, won’t make any Forbes Top 10 lists, so personally funding Eastlake’s hockey revolution was never an option. That’s why he created a 501.c.3 non-profit organization called PUCKidz, or Positive Understandable Coaching for Kids.

I first heard about PUCKidz from my wife while I was deployed in the Western Pacific almost two years ago. Our twin boys, then nine, were trying out this new sneaker hockey thing on Fridays after school, she’d emailed me. The two-month outreach clinic at our elementary school ended shortly after my cruise, so I very nearly missed the important thing Keith was trying to do here. He held the last session while I was home on leave.

It was August, the dog days of summer in Chula Vista. I was tired, and my accumulated domestic tasks loomed large that morning. As I surveyed my priorities for this, my first full day home, cranking up the AC and going back to bed ranked high among them. A distant second was working around the house. And socializing with parents I didn’t know in the afternoon heat while my kids played hockey, a sport I’d never understood… well, that didn’t even make my list. Still, the boys had been pretty excited about it when they’d left for school. Maybe this was one of those gut-check parent moments. At one o’clock, my wife cheerily herded me into our sweltering minivan and drove me to Wolf Canyon Elementary School. She’d been petitioning to stay at this school for years, camping overnight outside the office once a year in order to be first in line for zone transfers as our growing community built other schools nearer to our home. I don’t know if Keith ever did an outreach clinic at those other schools.

The boys were already playing when we arrived that day. The ‘rink’, as I assumed it was called, had been fashioned by cordoning off half the paved recess play area with book bags and two-by-fours. My first impression, and this is generous, was one of utter chaos. This game resembled no team sport I’d ever seen. I had tried watching hockey as a kid on a six-inch, black and white television. While that hadn’t endeared me to the sport, it was poetry in motion next to the fracas that assaulted my senses now. Sneaker hockey apparently crammed the frenetic energy of kids’ soccer into ten percent of the space and replaced the grass with concrete. Worse, instead of kicking at a slow heavy ball, these kids were running at breakneck speed with sticks, swiping at a tiny ball, at each other, and into thin air in equal proportion. What could go wrong here, I thought sarcastically as I nervously eyed the other parents. I remember wondering which of us would be apologizing for our kids first.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before scraped knees and other injustices dominated the chatter, even, I noticed ruefully, from my own kids. What the hell, I soon concluded, at least they’re outside and exercising. As I turned to commiserate with the other parents, however, I noticed two things. First, they were inexplicably calm, and second, the man in the arena was actually managing the little monsters pretty well. “What’s this guy’s name again?” I asked my wife. “Keith”, she replied, smiling, “Coach Keith.”

Today is May 20, 2018. I drove my boys to our rink for the weekly Sunday morning game. I call it our rink because we clean it every time we go. Typically, the other parents and I square away one end, out to the blue line, so Coach Keith can start drills while we work on the rest of the rink. We find everything from booze bottles and drug paraphernalia to leftover birthday cake and party favors. When it’s wet from overnight rain, we dry it the best we can with beach towels and brooms, nearly always finding enough usable space to play. Our rink is just over two miles from my home, but I never knew it existed until we discovered PUCKidz.

Shortly after that oppressive August day back in 2016, my wife told me Coach Keith was running a similar clinic each Sunday morning at Sunset View park. I’d run by that park before, but I’d never explored it and didn’t know it contained a hockey rink. I mean, a hockey rink, seriously? But ok, sure. For ten bucks per kid per week, with no mid-week practice or travel games, I figured it was a good way to ease into sports until the boys found something to get serious about. Plus, transporting them myself would give my wife a few hours of peace each weekend, which seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do after being gone for eight months.

So on that Sunday morning we found our way to the rink, the boys excited, and I with a book and low expectations. I watched with half an eye as Coach Keith and his assistant, Coach Tony, ran basic skill drills with this eager, rag-tag lot. There were five or six boys and girls, ranging from three or four years old to early teenagers. I had no knowledge of hockey, but I’d played team sports before. At some level, it’s just about talking to each other and passing, and these kids looked a million years away from that.

When it came time to scrimmage, the sides were uneven. I couldn’t hear through the Plexiglas, but it looked as though my boys and Coach Keith were motioning me over. “Do you want to play?” asked Keith. I looked dubiously at my Birkenstock sandals and back up at him. “Do you need a goalie?” I asked, and two hours later, I knew. We were onto something special here.

The next week, I wore tennis shoes so I could play out, which meant less abuse and more exercise. From then on, I was known to the kids as Coach Andy. I played on foot and helped Keith and Tony however I could. The kids were like sponges, and it seemed I didn’t have to know much about hockey to teach them about playing as a team, although I learned hockey from Keith, and others, and still do today. Attendance varied weekly, but there was a core group who kept getting better until, about ten months ago, I realized I’d have to learn to skate in order to keep up much longer. That was in July 2017.

Now, in the spring of 2018, as Chula Vista shakes off another ridiculously mild winter, PUCKidz is going gangbusters. The kids are still sponges. The core group has grown, and we get new kids every week or two. They come to the park for other reasons, but they hear our game and wander over. “Grab a stick!” someone will yell, and one of the Coaches will take a break and go explain what we’re about. Some stay, and some don’t, which gives us the space to be deliberate about integrating newcomers. Occasionally, they will simply decline, which we assume is probably best for both of us. Most, however, return occasionally, fitting PUCKidz in around prior commitments like ice hockey, scouting, or church.

In my family, each week revolves around the Sunday game, and we often meet the other diehards for extra play during the week. I am still known as Coach Andy, and now the kids grin when Keith puts me on their team for scrimmage. Other regulars in the ‘mature’ age group include Coach Doug, Coach Deanne, Coach Jorge, and Coach Jerry. All have become my close friends, my ‘village’ of surrogate parents, and there are pages left to be written about the reasons for that. Sometimes, high school kids will come for the community service credit and then stay for the competition, filling a unique, age and maturity niche between us and our kids. One of them, Goalie Coach Gio, is enlisting in the United States Marine Corps soon, and we wish him and his new teammates the very best.

Today is May 20, 2018. I played roller hockey this morning with nine other people of all shapes, sizes, and skill levels. On the face of it, we had only one thing in common; we’re hockey players. We don’t all play well, but our group is unrecognizable compared to what I found here two years ago. Now we’re a team, with a culture of learning, toughness, sportsmanship, and service, and I don’t just mean the adults. My eleven-year-old sons, and other boys and girls like them, routinely set younger kids up for shots they should take themselves. It’s not because they aren’t confident shooters; they are. It’s because they know today’s new kids are tomorrow’s playmakers. They let the new kids win face-offs to build confidence and then stay after practice to run extra passing drills with them. They also take on high schoolers twice their size, having learned to overcome speed and power with communication and teamwork. As a father, this is eye watering stuff. Empathy AND a competitive spirit, at eleven?

I want every kid to learn what my kids are learning in PUCKidz, not for the National Hockey League (although I am a HUGE fan now), but so they can solve the great problems of their generation together, so they keep amazing themselves, and so they meet every stranger’s eye seeking common ground, not isolation.

It really is all about talking to each other and passing, and it turns out it doesn’t take a million years to learn that. In Eastlake, Chula Vista, it takes less than two.

From Left to Right: Coach Doug, Coach Tony, Bill Hughes, Coach Andy, Avery, Nico, Colin, Drew.

A few PUCKidz regulars gather at their rink with visiting NHL Off-Ice Official and USA Hockey referee, Mr. Bill Hughes, Col (Ret) USMC. Ref Bill talked about the NHL and how hockey has been critical to his development in life and ended by giving each of the PUCKidz an official NHL puck as a memento. Notably missing, because he was busy coaching other kids in Lacrosse, is PUCKidz founder, Coach Keith Quigley. About half the kids still play with gear they borrow from Keith, who always lets them take it home as long as they promise to use it!

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