Jr. Kings grad Gamez enjoying life in the USHL

It wouldn’t be easy to leave the comforts of Chino Hills, Calif. The 34th-ranked place to live in the United States, according to Money magazine, Chino Hills is an ideal place for an 18-year-old kid to grow up. Overlooking the San Gabriel Mountains, the SoCal city is the place Tri-City Storm captain Garrett Gamez calls home. Well, it’s become more of a summer home.

Gamez has followed a fall ritual each of the last three seasons: Make the cross-country trip to Kearney, get in shape for another season and immerse himself in the Tri-City community.

That first trip to central Nebraska, however, was filled with uncertainty.

“Coming here was a lot different at first, but I’ve just really come to love it,” Gamez said. “There’s probably not as much stuff to do here compared to back home, but it’s a lot more of a family here. The town kind of seems like a family to me. Everybody seems to know everybody, which is really awesome.”

Gamez has become a familiar face in Kearney, a place he called “the perfect USHL city.” Entering his third year with the Storm, he’s recognized at Grace Fellowship church, team trips to Qdoba and at local elementary schools.

His community presence earned him the 2013-14 USHL Curt Hammer Award, which is given to the player who most distinguishes himself on and off the ice by demonstrating outstanding performance skills, leadership, pride and determination. In other words, Gamez is not only the face of the Tri-City organization, he’s the face of the league, as well.

“He’s a special person,” Storm coach Jim Hulton said. “He has a lot of unique qualities to him. To me, he leads naturally. It’s not a forced issue with him. He’s been with this franchise through the tough times. We want to see him be here with the good times.”

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Gamez was one of the few staples of a 2013-14 season filled with change. The coach that brought him to Tri-City, Josh Hauge, was fired two months into the season. Gamez watched fellow Storm leaders Garrett Cecere, Joel L’Esperance and Nolan Gluchowski be shipped at the trade deadline in an effort to rebuild for 2014-15.

After not earning a point in the first 16 games, Gamez still finished the season as the team’s second-leading scorer. His commitment to the Storm, despite all the transition, was never in doubt.

“When you see him on the ice, he’s embraced the changes that we’ve asked individuals to make and the team to make,” Hulton said. “He’s a team-first guy. That’s never been an issue with him. He’s an extension of the staff and vise-versa, he’s comfortable coming back to us with some of the messages in the locker room.”

His locker room presence was why he was nearly a unanimous vote for captaincy. Gamez isn’t afraid to sacrifice his personal stock for the sake of the team.

In his first season, Gamez took a puck to the mouth, which he was expecting to knock out three teeth. Luckily, he only lost his maxillary central incisor (his right front tooth). That was still enough to wash out the $3,000 his parents spent on braces before his USHL career started.

But like all things Gamez does, he uses his fake front tooth to put a smile on people’s faces.

“It’s a fun conversation-starter,” he said. “When things are going bad, I just pop my tooth out and people are asking about it.”

As Gamez said, it could’ve been worse.

“I’m lucky that I had a girlfriend before my tooth got knocked out,” he said.

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Gamez has developed a social life in Kearney, too. Instead of graduating high school with his senior class of over 1,000 people in Chino Hills, he elected to walk at Kearney High. He didn’t mind considering he had buddies at KHS and his grandparents could make the trip north.

This year, Gamez will knock out a few general studies classes online through Coastal Community College. He hopes it’ll ease the transition wherever he decides to play college hockey.

Coming into the season without a college commitment, Gamez earned next-level attention for leading Tri-City in points during a 6-0-1 preseason. He’ll go on visits during down time in the coming weeks.

But down time is something Gamez has less and less of these days.

In between classes, practices, games, volunteering and the group meals at Kearney’s finest eateries, Gamez added something else to his ever-growing plate. He mows the Viaero Event Center lawn four days a week, which means he’ll have an even better lay of the land in 2014.

“It’s nice to be able to do things instead of just sitting at home on my butt,” Gamez said. “My parents always tell me, ‘You have too much time on your hands to do nothing.’”

That’s the approach Gamez takes in all aspects of his life. He didn’t leave Chino Hills just to be another junior-level hockey player. Gamez’s mission was always greater than that.

In his final season with Tri-City, his responsibilities on and off the ice are clearer than ever.

Gamez wants to give one more thing back to the community and the organization that embraced him the last three years - success.

“I really just tell the guys to never give up, no matter what the circumstance is. We’re always pushing for the best,” Gamez said. “It’s a complete team effort and that’s one of the things this team needs to strive for this year. We can’t be individualistic and we need to embrace the fact that we’re going to fight together.”

- Connor O'Gara, Courtesy Kearney Hub