It's next to impossible to find a hockey event on the Kenai Peninsula that doesn't have a member of the Gabriel family involved in one capacity or another.
That being said, it stands to reason that Brian Gabriel Jr., a senior at Kenai Central High School, would be right in the thick of things any time the puck is dropped, and in fact, he is. Gabriel Jr.'s high school debut was an auspicious one, notching a game-winning goal against a team from North Pole as a freshman.
"It was in his very first game," said Brian Gabriel Sr., who has served as Gabriel Jr.'s high school coach. "Everybody on the bench was yelling, 'Shoot! Shoot!' There was a couple seconds left, and he took a shot from the blue line. It just trickled in.
"It seems like it was yesterday that it happened. He got in good with the seniors right there."
That was the beginning of what has been four highlight-filled seasons on the ice with the Kardinals, in addition to the countless hours he's spent playing with the Midget A Alaska All-Stars in Anchorage.
But when the Kardinals celebrated their senior night during their last regular-season home game against Skyview earlier this month, and while many of his teammates cited on-ice accomplishments as highlights of their hockey careers, Gabriel Jr. pointed to things that happened off the ice as his favorite moments.
"I just like being around teammates -- it's a family away from your family," Gabriel Jr. said. "I attribute that to the seniors we had on the team when I was a freshman. I got along with them really well."
Gabriel Jr.'s off-ice accomplishments are every bit as notable as what he's done in the hockey rink, if not more so. Gabriel Jr. has maintained a 4.0 grade point average through high school and is in the running to be Kenai Central's valedictorian come graduation in May.
"When I was in eighth grade, Dad made a bet with me that if I got valedictorian, he'd buy me a truck for graduation," Gabriel Jr. said. "That's been my motivation."
"I didn't think he'd be able to do it," Gabriel Sr. said. "It's one of those deals where you say, 'Whatever it takes.' Hopefully, he'll go easy on me and hold back on the extras."
After seeing Gabriel Jr.'s success, his sisters, Jenna and Branda, made sure they were in on the same deal.
"We had to make it fair," Gabriel Sr. said. "I think the whole idea behind it was to get them disciplined and focused on academics. If that's all I have to shell out for their hard work, I'm getting off pretty easy."
Indeed, Gabriel Jr. had the motivation to succeed without the lure of keeping the peninsula's auto dealerships in business being waved in front of him.
"He's actually always been a self-motivated kid," said Gabriel Jr.'s mother, Lisa. "We don't have to check up on him. He's got a lot of high expectations. Hockey is a big part of it, but he sees way beyond that."
Gabriel Jr. is hoping an opportunity to play junior hockey arises for next fall, but he's also applied to five very competitive colleges, and will weigh his options when the time comes.
In addition to helping teammates with classwork, Gabriel Jr. is a member of the National Honor Society, the Vocational Industrial Club of America, and the community service club Interact.
Gabriel Jr. spends his summers working his family's Kalifornsky Beach commercial fishing site. Last summer, teammates Wally Ward and Scott Kornfield were hired as hands.
"It was a pretty good time," Gabriel Jr. said. "It's fun to spend the summer with your shirt off, chillin' down the beach."
As for hockey, Gabriel Jr. was simply born into the sport.
"Ever since I can remember, I've been playing hockey," Gabriel Jr. said. "Every once in a while, when we clean out the cabinet, we come across the video of me pushing a chair around (on the ice) in my skates and my blue helmet. I was pretty young. It's pretty much bred into the Gabriel family -- my grandpa, my uncles and my dad, and all my cousins.
"The only time we don't talk about hockey is right around the alumni game. Half of us went to Kenai, half to SoHi, and it doesn't make for a pleasant Thanksgiving."
One of Gabriel Jr.'s cousins, Jimmy, transferred to Kenai Central this year, reuniting a defensive pairing that first made its debut out on a frozen lake in Sterling years ago.
"We spent quite a few hours out there just messing around, working on passing or just having a good time," Jimmy said. "I think it's really neat that they paired us up. It's been fun playing with him."
Gabriel Jr. grew up through the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association, playing with the Bantam team before moving on to the All-Stars for Midgets. Playing for the Anchorage team has been a huge commitment for Gabriel Jr. and his family, but the club has traveled across North America and a good showing this spring could get him noticed by junior hockey scouts.
Gabriel Sr. served as coach for many of those KPHA teams before becoming the Kardinals' bench boss.
"I've coached him since he was 4 or 5 years old. It's not that I wanted to -- I think kids deserve different perspectives, it was just by default," Gabriel Sr. said. "All in all, it's been a real positive experience. He's coachable, always does what we ask, plays hard, plays with passion, tries to be a leader, things I appreciate from a coach's perspective."
Gabriel Sr. said the only other thing he could have asked for was a season to be just a parent, sit in the stands and enjoy the game, instead of strategizing from the bench.
Lisa said that on occasion, she's had to be the go-between, but in general, hockey has strengthened the father-son bond.
"It's always nice to come home and talk to each other about what happened in a bad game, or what we're doing good," Gabriel Jr. said. "It's definitely made us closer. Between fishing, hockey and family, we've got a lot in common."
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