The Anaheim Ducks had Scott and Rob Niedermayer. The Florida Panthers had Pavel and Valeri Bure. The Dallas Stars had Kevin and Derian Hatcher. The Northridge Matadors have Chris and J.P. Gale.
For the Gale household, hockey is a family affair. J.P. is a 6-foot, 230-pound junior defenseman for the CSUN men’s hockey team. His younger brother, Chris, is a 6-foot, 180-pound freshman forward. Their dad Steve, is not only a former semi-professional hockey player, but he is also one of the Matador coaches. This is not the first time the three Gales have shared the same ice. Steve has coached his sons throughout most of their young hockey careers.
J.P. started playing hockey when he was six years old, while Chris was only four. A year later, the brothers played on their first team together. Steve started coaching J.P. when he turned eight. Chris would soon follow. While the father-son coaching strategy seemed to work for many years, having dad as a coach started to negatively affect J.P.
The boys were both born in Tarzana, but after Chris was born, the family moved to Palmdale. The closest rink to their home was in the San Fernando Valley, almost a two-hour roundtrip drive. Some of those trips seemed even longer for J.P.
“It was hard being coached by your dad and taking it home,” J.P. said. “It got old after about seven years.”
Chris felt the opposite of his brother. He welcomed the idea of having his dad around.
“It wasn’t as hard for me,” Chris said. “I enjoyed having him coach me because I could take it home and try and learn more from it.”
Steve put pressure on his sons and demanded a lot, especially his oldest.
“They weren’t treated differently, but I think your first born, you’re always harder on, and your second one to a certain degree,” Steve said.
For as long as the boys have been playing hockey, Steve has insisted they demonstrate a strong work ethic, and rightfully so. Steve played and coached at a high level growing up.
He played youth hockey and was a semi-professional player for five years. As a coach, he won three Southern California Amateur Hockey Association championships, three Regional Championships and one state championship. Last season, Steve joined head coach Sean McLynn on the Northridge coaching staff, ironically at the suggestion of J.P., who respected and understood his dad’s intensity, something he could not handle or comprehend as a child.
“I have played for coaches that didn’t seem to care as much,” J.P. said, “Playing for [dad], having him so invested and Sean so invested is refreshing.”
Steve brings the same intensity to coaching as he did when he played the game. He tries to push his players, without them going over the edge, including his sons. Chris and J.P. get no special treatment on the ice. In fact, Steve demands more. J.P. is the captain of the team and Chris is the leading scorer.
“At times, he can be harder on us because he expects more,” Chris said. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone on the team or the coaches, plus he’s my dad, so I want to do more than I can.”
Steve’s intensity for hockey also stems from the financial obligations. Playing hockey in southern California is expensive.
Ice time costs over $250 an hour, each player must buy their own equipment, and ice rinks are sparse, resulting in long hours on the road.
“It’s a competitive sport. It’s a contact sport and it involves a lot of money,” J.P. said. “So when you multiply that out and you’re not getting the effort from players or kids, [dad] would get [the effort] out.”
The brothers’ relationship on the ice is slightly different than the one with their father. While the boys view their dad as “coach” on the ice, Chris and J.P. will always be brothers first. Despite their close relationship, there is a hint of sibling rivalry.
“During practice, if we are doing one-on-one drills, I definitely want to take it harder on [J.P.],” Chris said. “I want to make that move to get around him so I can take that home and say ‘well I burned you at practice earlier.'”
Chris and J.P. are just as intense with each other as they are with other teammates or opponents. Since the brothers have two different roles and playing styles, they each benefit from playing with, and against each other. Chris knows that getting hit by his brother in practice is good for him, and with a 50-pound advantage, J.P. can be quite the bruiser.
“I’ve never been intimidated in my whole life, so playing against someone else who is bigger, I know I’ll never get hit as hard as [J.P.] will hit me,” Chris said.
Playing with Chris has improved J.P.’s game. He is quick to admit that his younger brother has more skill, talent, and finesse. While J.P. is the hard-hitting defenseman and enforcer, Chris is the stick-savvy forward that goalies worry about.
“There are not too many kids who can stick handle the puck as well as [Chris] or skate as fast as him,” J.P. said. “Trying to stop him two or three days a week has definitely made me improve as a player.”
When the brothers leave the ice, they take everything home with them. They are still competitive, but they keep it light and playful. They know when they can push each other’s buttons, yet know when to pull back and leave the other alone. Once in a while, J.P. will sneak in a punch, and just like on the ice, Chris will never admit he is hurt. Despite the hits, trips, punches and burns, the brothers are close.
“There has never been a time when I came home and dreaded that my brother was there,” Chris said. “I would definitely say he’s my best friend.”
Chris and J.P. have not always shared the ice and the spotlight. Each has been able to shine on their own. Chris’ most memorable hockey moment was when he played in the Chicago Showcase for Team California. He was selected among the most elite high school players in the country and played with some of the best hockey players in the nation. J.P.’s most memorable moment was winning the Pee Wee World Championship when he was 13 years old. The game was played in front of 13,500 people and it was nationally televised in Canada.
While J.P. is ready to explore new career options when he leaves CSUN, most likely in business management, Chris would still like to pursue his hockey dream. He knows he will not make the NHL, but that does not stop him from making an attempt at another level of professional hockey.
Hockey has taught Steve, Chris and J.P. Gale the true meaning of sportsmanship, teamwork and family. While they have been a family on the ice, they have an even stronger bond at home. Along with Joyce Gale, the proud wife and mother, the family practices the true meaning of team: together everyone achieves more.