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With today being Valentine's Day, it seems only fitting to talk about following your heart.
That's exactly the situation Crater senior Daniel Gomez found himself in recently after a season in which he was accumulating hockey goals in bunches for the Comets.
Torn between completing his fourth season with Crater teammates and friends or taking a big step toward realizing a dream, Gomez wasn't sure what to do — so he left the decision up to his peers.
And, at the risk of sounding sappy, his fellow Comets responded by showing their love for the 6-foot-2, 175-pound forward, as well as fellow senior Thomas Gamble.
Because of that, Gomez and Gamble now find themselves, quite literally, on the road to hockey careers as recent additions to the Northern Pacific Hockey League's West Sound Warriors in Bremerton, Wash. Both seniors remain enrolled at Crater and on pace to graduate but have been granted a special circumstances leave of absence until their season is complete.
West Sound stands 12-25-1 in NORPAC play entering Wednesday's home game against the Seattle Totems, who most recently split with the Southern Oregon Spartans here in Medford. The Warriors' final regular-season game is Feb. 19, and they're currently in sixth place in the seven-team league.
West Sound, however, has lost the services of four of its best players this season to the North American Hockey League's Minot Minotauros, including three on Feb. 2 who were involved in 101 of the team's 129 goals at the time of their call-up.
Those moves are what opened the door for the 18-year-old Gomez who, beyond his role with Crater, had also been working out this season with the Spartans and even played one game for the Tier III junior hockey team. The Spartan players and coaches served as mentors for Gomez, who was put through the paces in practice and traveled with the team to learn the ropes and the intricacies of the sport at the next level.
"They actually are the ones that gave Daniel the opportunity," said Eric Gomez, Daniel's father and the Crater hockey coach, "and when they heard there was an opportunity for him to go play (in Bremerton), they encouraged him and knew it would be beneficial and they actually opened the door for him. I can't say enough about the whole Spartans organization and how they've treated him and helped create an opportunity for our local kids to play hockey."
Knowing Gamble, a standout defenseman, shared the same passion for hockey, Eric Gomez contacted West Sound on his behalf as well given the team's need for players.
Those opportunities, however, would have gone for naught had both players not been given the stamp of approval to test their skills by their fellow Comets.
"When this opportunity came up, it was brought to the other players because it affected them, too," said Eric Gomez, "and they all said neither one of them should forego the opportunity just to stay and play high school hockey. They said they should go and do the best they could. That was a testament to our team; I can't say enough about them. I've never dealt with kids with this much integrity and love of the game."
At stake wasn't just the loss of two of Crater's top players. With Daniel Gomez and Gamble, the Comets had only nine players at their disposal. Choosing to move on with only seven players for the rest of the regular season and league playoffs likely meant nothing but hardship for those left behind.
"Hockey's not designed, especially at this level, to be played with only five or six players," said Eric Gomez. "It's meant to be played with 10-15 players and a goalie or two. But the kids, to their credit, they never quit. They knew what that meant when Thomas and Daniel left, that it probably meant the end of their season, but they were willing to make that sacrifice and go forward."
In the final game with the entire group intact last Wednesday in Klamath Falls, Daniel Gomez and Gamble ceremoniously turned over their captains letters to sophomore J.R. Keyser, who had been serving as assistant captain, and to Daniel's sophomore brother Dustin Gomez and Ali Havice.
"It was a changing of the guard and from that point on it was their team," said Eric Gomez, choking up a bit upon recalling the special moment. "That last game was Daniel and Thomas, just as players."
Daniel Gomez's first game with West Sound was Feb. 3, and he tallied his first junior hockey goal one night later in an 8-4 loss to those same Spartans he'd been mentored by all season long. It's his only goal in five games with the Warriors, but Gomez was one of the state's leading scorers when he stepped away from the Comets.
"A lot of that had to do with the quality of teammates he had as well," said Eric Gomez. "Even though he was getting the goals, it wasn't a one-man effort. There were a lot of things going on to create space for him to go in and shoot."
Gamble has played in three games thus far for West Sound, along with Medford's Preston Carney.
West Sound has the rights to the players only for this season.
Playing high school and junior hockey in the same season has occurred before in southern Oregon since the Spartans organization, formerly known as the Rogue Valley Wranglers, took up residence at The RRRink. Taking a leave of absence from school for an out-of-state opportunity is a bit more rare.
With the likes of current Spartans Dane Irving and Jake Sexton now being joined by Daniel Gomez, Gamble and Carney, the level of play — and opportunity — for those in the area appears only to be growing.
"We have great talent here," said Eric Gomez. "Now we're starting to see some of our kids show that they're able to compete with kids who've grown up in hockey hotbeds with really expensive programs. It's just an awesome thing to see."
As for the rest of the Comets, their season came to a close over the weekend with a loss to North Medford, which used a hot streak to reach the championship final of the Southern League playoffs. Crater went into the game with six players and had one suffer a game-ending concussion, leaving the Comets to play almost a full game with only five players and no substitutions.
Again, Eric Gomez couldn't have been more proud, even in the loss.
"At one point I was telling them if they needed to rest then they should take a minor penalty to get that rest and they wouldn't do it," he said. "They just wouldn't quit."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry