The name is like the shot. See them, and at first, it’s hard not to wonder where they came from.
We’ll start with the name — Gil Garcia of the Kenai River Brown Bears. A common enough name, to be sure, but not for a 20-year-old forward from Enstaberga, Sweden.
Then there’s the shot, a shot that Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich calls “very elite.” A shortage of time and space dictate that Garcia doesn’t get off a blast in every game, but to watch him load up on a few at the end of practice and ring the crossbar from the faceoff dot is truly something to behold.
The name is easier to explain than the shot. Garcia’s dad, also named Gil Garcia, moved from Spain to Sweden when he was 2 years old. Gil’s father stayed in Sweden and eventually married Sibyl Dahlberg, leading to son Gilito, or “Little Gil,” Garcia. But the Brown Bears forward goes by Gil when he is in the United States.
The shot started on Dahlberg’s side of the family, where an uncle played hockey. Garcia was on the ice by 5 and skating by 6.
“My dad didn’t know anything about hockey,” Garcia said. “I started to play and he grew in it.”
One thing Garcia’s dad did know is bodybuilding. He started Garcia on bodyweight exercises at an early age before progressing to barbells. Garcia said his dad was creative, eliminating lifts that would not help with hockey and thinking of new exercises that would help with hockey.
Garcia said he was never a skill guy with the puck on his stick, so the strength edge helped him have the energy to do more in the third period.
“I’ve always been ahead with strength, but now everyone is catching up,” Garcia said.
Watching his dad train also taught Garcia the value of discipline and repetition. He put that knowledge to use in developing his shot.
Enstaberga is a village of under 500 in the countryside of Sweden, about an hour south of Stockholm. Garcia lived next to an abandoned house. He had a small soccer goal without a net that was similar in size to a hockey goal. He put that goal in front of the house and proceeded to pulverize the house.
And soon, he started to do that shooting practice with a technique tip from the father of one of the players on Garcia’s youth team. The father was a pro player, with the kind of shot where the crowd roars in anticipation when he starts winding up.
“He said since we were young, we should use our whole body when we shoot,” Garcia said. “When we were strong enough, he said we should use our wrist — just rip it.
“That was rare. Not many could do that.”
So Garcia set out to do that, specifically working on the flexor muscles in his forearm to make it happen. His parents eventually tired of him pounding that house and got their son a shooting pad. At 16, he moved to Sodertalje, just 10 minutes from Stockholm, to play junior hockey.
With nothing to do on the weekends, he made use of the shooting ramp there to continually refine his shot.
But even with all that work, Garcia was never a big goal scorer and didn’t think he had the ability to play in the North American Hockey League. He spent two full seasons with Sodertalje in Sweden’s top junior league and had six goals and seven assists in 40 games in 2015-16, and 11 goals and four assists in 36 games in 2016-17.
This past summer, he went to a showcase in Boston, leading to a showcase in Sweden, with few expectations.
“I never thought I could play here,” Garcia said. “I was just preparing for the season.”
Johan Skinnars, a former Brown Bears player who does some scouting for his old team, thought different.
“He said, ‘Coach, this kid’s a man. He’s a 20-year-old that skates well, is physically strong and has a great shot. If you’re looking for an import, I think this is the kid,’” Petrich said.
While Garcia jumped at the chance to play for the Brown Bears, his friends were not so sure. They asked Garcia why he would want to go to a bad team in a small town in Alaska. But that didn’t scare Garcia. Growing up, he had seen how small towns give one ample time to spend on practice. And Garcia had never minded being on bad teams, reasoning that meant he always got to challenge himself against great players.
Then the billet son of Tim Bornowski and Naomi Hodgson of Kenai arrived on the peninsula and was pleasantly surprised.
“When I got here, the team is not bad,” Garcia said. “They have good players, and the level of the league is good.
“They had it wrong. This is the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Garcia also said he loves playing in front of the crowds at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. He said the fans give the game an energy that was lacking in front of just family members in the Swedish junior games.
That didn’t mean Garcia did not have adjustments to make. While the climate is similar, he said the food took a few weeks to get used to. Hockey also is a lot different, which Garcia quickly learned in a preseason scrimmage with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
“That was the hardest game I ever played in,” Garcia said. “I took a bad hit that in Sweden would have been a penalty.
“On the bench, coach said, ‘Are you OK? Then let’s go.’ He’s tough, but I like it. You need to be a man to play here.”
Garcia started quickly, scoring eight goals and notching four assists in the first nine games. In the 12 games since then, he’s had three goals and three assists. Even with that slowdown, he is still tied for ninth in the league with 12 goals.
In Sweden, Garcia had never been a top scorer. Both Garcia and Petrich said the high-scoring start threw his game off a bit. Garcia said he must remember to do the easy things that fans sometimes don’t see, like blocking a shot or chipping a puck out of the zone.
“He started putting a lot of pressure on himself to score and shortcutting the defensive side to try and get another chance,” Petrich said.
But the coach said Garcia has improved on that and said his ability to shoot and score makes him an intriguing prospect to colleges. Beyond hockey, Petrich said Garcia is a pleasant addition to make the grind of a season easier.
“He’s an incredible, fun-loving, humble human being,” Petrich said. “If you’re having a bad day and go to the rink, there’s a good chance Gil will have a smile on your face by the way he carries himself.”
For instance, this week Garcia found a Darth Vader toy in the hall of the sports complex and outfitted it with a curled up candy wrapper, putting the creation in the locker room and telling his teammates they’ll have the dark force in the weekend series with Fairbanks.
“Most guys think I’m funny and kind of weird,” Garcia said. “That’s how we do it in Europe. I love making guys laugh. If we all have a good time, we practice better.
“It’s not that hard to put a smile on faces. I love playing hockey.”