Local hockey player Kevin Qualls has overcome long odds to play the sport he loves and is serving as an inspiration to even the biggest of Stars.While the battle for the gold medal at the Winter Olympics captured the attention of the hockey universe last February, it isn't the only international tournament Team USA participated in last season.
Most people aren't aware that there was an American team of amputee hockey players that went overseas to compete against other national teams, but with a Metroplex representative on the squad, it did attract some local interest.
Aged 14, Flower Mound's Kevin Qualls was the youngest member of Team USA at the International Standing Ice Hockey Federation (ISIHF) World Championships in Riga, Latvia in late May. Team USA went 4-2 during the tournament, defeating teams from Latvia, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic before falling to Canada in the Gold Medal game by a 4-2 margin. It was the squad's 3rd consecutive silver medal at the world championships.
The team technically represented the American Amputee Hockey Association (AAHA), a separate entity that was founded in 2000 and which is now under the umbrella of USA Hockey, the American governing body.
Qualls, whose right arm stops a few inches past his elbow, was one of the few players on the team that does not wear a prosthesis. He has used one at times in the past, but is most comfortable without one and doesn't wear one to play.
"It's harder to use the prosthesis," Kevin said. "With my arm, I can control whatever it does. (With the prosthesis), it's harder to pick up stuff and it only moves three fingers."
When not playing with Team USA, Kevin blends in with all the other youth hockey players in the Metroplex, playing on the Ice Hawks Bantam Major A club, as well as the Junior Varsity Silver team for Flower Mound High School. While other players on the national amputee team are much older than him (ranging from Kevin at 14 to some in their early 20s), his teammates were more impressed at Kevin's skill level coming from a Texan than they were at his young age.
"They were like, I didn't know they played hockey in Texas,'" Kevin recounted.
"The other players didn't think a kid from Texas would be so good," added Cathy Qualls, Kevin's mother. "All the other players are from Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan and places like that."
Perhaps 15 years ago, they would be right to be skeptical of a kid from Texas. That's because Kevin, along with thousands of other kids in the Metroplex, probably wouldn't be playing hockey and making an impact across the country if it weren't for the arrival of the Dallas Stars in 1993.
When the Stars arrived in town, there were only three ice hockey rinks in town and participation in youth hockey was minimal. There weren't even any high school hockey teams until 1996 when the Southwestern Bell Metroplex High School Hockey League started with a grand total of four teams.
But with the Stars' success on and off the ice, hockey participation of all ages in the Metroplex has simply exploded. As the Stars became a more popular draw among the area's sports fans, overall interest in hockey increased, culminating with the Stars' Stanley Cup championship in 1999 and return trip to the Finals in 2000.
Now there are over 70 different high school teams in the area, including the Flower Mound Silver JV team that Qualls plays for. Even though he was an eighth grader in middle school, Kevin made the JV development team, and in his first 12 games, Kevin managed two goals and one assist. Qualls' JV team plays out of the Euless Dr Pepper StarCenter, while his club team, the Ice Hawks, plays out of the Farmers Branch Dr Pepper StarCenter. With nearly 30 sheets of ice in the Metroplex now, seven of them have been built and managed by the Stars, as they continue to expand their reach in helping the growth of youth hockey in the area.
The mere presence of junior varsity and varsity high school teams helps fuel the younger kids by giving them a goal to shoot for, and by having an NHL team in town to root for further reinforces the dream for many kids to play, and work hard at, hockey.
Like many local kids putting in many hours of work on the ice, Kevin is a big Stars fan and his favorite player is no surprise, captain Mike Modano.
"I like when he goes into his breakaways, I like all the moves he does," Kevin said.
"Modano's skating is really great and I love the way he plays."
At his own level, the left wing is a good skater himself. In fact, it was his skating ability that first caught the eye of his coach Nick Skelton when he first tried out for the Dallas Stars Bantam B travel team last season.
As one might imagine, Skelton was initially somewhat skeptical when he heard he had a kid with only one hand trying out for his team& until he saw Kevin play.
"I started watching him skate, and I noticed, watching his stride, that he was really quick," Skelton recalled. "Then we moved into the shooting drills, and I was thinking, God, I'd love to see this,' and then I realized he was picking every single corner of the net. I just thought, Wow, this kid's got it.'"
Not only can he shoot improbably well, Kevin has developed into a key leader on his team. "He is the heart and soul of our team," Skelton said. "He gets everybody energized when they're down, he's constantly talking. He is, without a doubt, the only player that gives me 110%, if not more, every time he's on the ice. When you get to know him, when you get to play with him, coach him, you don't realize he has one hand."
In fact, Skelton knew he had a special player when he introduced Qualls to his new teammates in the locker room after his first practice last season. Kevin didn't really know anyone and was keeping to himself when Skelton put him on the spot and suggested he tell everyone the story about his right arm.
Qualls, without missing a beat, proceeded to tell a highly embellished tale of pain and suffering.
"He told the team that his sister cut off his arm when he was a little kid," Skelton laughed. "A great practical joke. I stood outside the locker room and watched them -- every single one of those kids came out of that locker room with a blank face. Like a sheet, pure death."
That story, of course, is pure fiction, as mom Cathy puts it, "That's just how he was born. They've never really given us a name for it. That's how God made him, that's what we say."
"People might say it's bad or it's not cool, but it really bonded the team together fairly well," Skelton said of the tall tale. "We let it go for a couple of weeks and finally I said, OK guys, by the way, that's not true, he was born without an arm.'"
Not surprisingly, Kevin, who is described as being positionally sound and excellent at digging the puck out of corners, has devised a unique way of handling his stick and shooting the puck.
"I hold the stick up underneath my armpit, and then I use my hand to just fling it," he said.
And he doesn't just play ice hockey. "Kevin never stops," Cathy says. "He inline skates, he skateboards, he played football in middle school, he snowboards. You name it, Kevin can do it. It's not an issue here as far as Kevin has one hand and it's never been an excuse."
Except for one thing: he can't tie his own shoes, or, for that matter, skates. As a child, his mom or dad would tie his skates, but as he got older, that got more awkward. So the Qualls family scoured the skate market for a company that offered an alternative to traditional lace-up skates.
Their quest ended at CCM, who had recently introduced a skate called the Vector Boa, designed for kids under 10, enabling them to tie their own skates.
"There's a lacing system called Boa lacing -- you find it on snowboard boots and wakeboard boots and they're easy to tie," Andrew Stewart of CCM explained. "Basically, you push the reel in, you crank it, and it tightens the whole skate all by itself. It's got a miniature stainless steel cable that runs through the lace guides. We only did it for kids, because moms and dads have trouble tying their little kids' skates in the dressing room. It's a way for them to be able to tie their own skates."
There weren't any plans to make the skate for teenagers or adults, but Stewart started the development process to that end, providing Kevin with skates he can tie himself and utilizing him as a field tester.
"Basically, he's our guinea pig for adults," Stewart said. "It's a great way to test a product, on a kid like that who wants to wear them, and he gets to tie his own skates in the dressing room now."
"I love my skates," Kevin said. "There's wires on them that tighten up, and all you have to do is twist the knob, and to un-tighten them, all you have to do is pull the knob out. It's really easy and takes like 30 seconds at the most. All the people on my team say they want some."
"What Kevin likes about them," added his father Richard Qualls, "it's consistently tight up through the boot, as opposed to when you're lacing them up, they get real tight in spots, but they're loose in other spots. He likes that it's consistent pressure all the way up through the boot."
Kevin supplies Stewart with feedback periodically on the skates' performance, and his comments have already resulted in an improved model that has more padding in the ankle area. "Kevin got on the phone with Andrew and would tell him, it hurts here, it doesn't hurt here, you need more padding here,' that sort of feedback," Richard said. "And the other thing is the wear and tear on them, because certain parts were getting more wear and tear than others, so we took digital pictures of them and sent them to Andrew. Talk about wear and tear tests, this kid's on them 10 hours a week and they're the only pair of skates he's got.
"The CCM folks have been very nice," Richard added. "And hopefully, we've given them some really good product testing."
Qualls has done much more than giving an equipment company product testing. He's inspired countless hockey players with his boundless love for the game.
"Kevin's a good hockey player," Cathy Qualls said. "Whether or not he's got one hand, he's just a good hockey player."
And an inspirational young man who continues to make his parents, coaches and all of North Texas proud.