By Kevin Westgarth | Special to LAKings.com
I have always loved the ice. So growing up in Amherstburg, across the river from Detroit, many of my earliest memories are of skating outside, bundled up to immobility, shakily pushing a chair around a backyard rink. Hockey was always what I wanted to do. From playing my brother in the basement, road hockey in the neighborhood, or finding a frozen pond, hockey was it.
Skating early let me jump into my first season of hockey at 5 years old, on a team with my older brother, Brett, who was 7. I had quite a season, netting my one and only goal in the playoff finals. In my mind I was flying and pulled a Mario Lemieux-worthy highlight reel goal, although mom and dad still try to convince me it wasn’t quite that pretty.
In any case, I had my first taste of hockey and loved it. Chauffeured by our parents, Gilda and Reg, we got to discover the great arenas of Southwestern Ontario. By the time I was 11, in Atom Major, I was getting pretty good, which luckily coincided with the first AAA team ever available to Essex County. There were some growing pains being part of the blossoming Sun County Panthers, I remember playing our home games in London and often having only 11 or 12 players for a game. The work my parents put in over these minor hockey years and the sacrifices they made is still incredible to me, something I’ll never adequately be able to thank them for.
By Bantam Minor my teammates were surpassing me and I got cut from Sun County, a moment I’ll never forget. No matter where you make it the memories of getting cut always sting. Saying goodbye to AAA, I headed back to Amherstburg and small town travel hockey.
This was definitely a low for me, as even returning to a lower level of hockey, I still didn’t have much success. It was still fun to play, but any NHL dreams I harbored looked very far away. In fact, in what was a brilliant motivational move, my dad told me I should maybe forget about hockey and concentrate on golf. That woke me up.
I began playing for my high school team that year as well. In the regional finals, I scored the overtime winning goal against our rival high school. I found my groove again and got invited to the Chatham Maroons training camp. During camp, I found out that I enjoyed fighting. I had gotten in my first hockey fight that summer and tried it out a few times at the Maroons’ camp. It began out of a desire to be seen, and then my role expanded as my teammates looked to me to take care of business. I was honored and thought, this is great -- I was good at fighting, it was fun and the boys certainly appreciated it.
I made the team and started my rookie season pretty hot. So when a coach from Princeton came to scout my brother, it turned out they were interested in me too. This was after 10 games, so within a year I went from being told that I should give up hockey to having a major university interested. College was always the route that made sense to me and my parents, and given that I was a late bloomer it seemed tailor-made to give me the best chance to develop in hockey.
My brother was already accepted, so I once again rode his coattails and joined the class of 2007. I majored in Psychology and Pre-Med, and managed to graduate. I met some incredible people, lifelong friends, my fiancée, and made a lifetime worth of memories in those four years. My hockey career made a huge jump junior year, as our coach, Guy Gadowsky, gave me the opportunity to expand my role and it paid off. Gadz stayed on us all to be responsible, professional players, and without him, I definitely wouldn’t be here today.
After we had lost in the playoffs, I signed with L.A. The end of my college career gave way to one of the happiest. I went to Manchester for a taste of pro hockey, all the while finishing up my senior year at school. I was excited to begin my career fully the next season.
After a single preseason game with the Kings the following fall, I was back in Manch, and had already learned a few lessons. My time in Manchester was incredible and I again got to get back to the physical side of the game. I again was able to ensure the safety of my teammates and the New Hampshire fans appreciated it as well. I can’t imagine being treated better by the people of Manchester, and again met some lifelong friends along the way. I also got to faceoff against my brother in many AHL contests.
Last season with the Monarch was maybe the best. We were so young, with no expectations, and we all came together to surprise a lot of people. Although we lost in the semifinals of the playoffs, the boys were definitely not satisfied. But we grew and were resilienct throughout the year.
In January 2009, I got called up to Los Angeles for the first time, a call that I’ll never forget. After skating with Kings and travelling to Minnesota, my number was finally in the lineup. It was a feeling I tried my best not to think about. ‘Just another hockey game,’ I told myself. Sitting on the bench to start the game, my hands were a little shaky, but that went away as soon as the puck hit the ice.
So after all those ups and downs, the years of my dad waking me up early to practice, shooting pucks at the innumerable splintered pieces of plywood in the basement, and always trying to get better, I had played my first NHL game. It really sunk in when I looked at my messages after the game, and amid many congratulations, my brother had written simply, ‘You’ve played in the NHL, no one can take that away from you.’ That meant a lot to me and I had to stave of a tear or two.
I can’t wait to keep getting better and to be a part of something great here in L.A. Left on my list is maybe the grandest of all goals: To win the Stanley Cup, although I’ve definitely won it in my mind a many times on the outdoor pond, usually with a Game 7 overtime winner.