Selkirk Saints defenceman Stefan Gonzales celebrated his greatest hockey triumph last March when he helped his team to its second straight British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League (BCIHL) title at the Castlegar Recreation Complex.
The bumps and bruises from the season-ending highlight moment were well earned, but the opponents Gonzales faced on the ice were nothing compared to the battles he faced in the classroom after returning to school after a four-year absence.
Selkirk College Saints defenceman Stefan Gonzales came to the West Kootenay to continue on with his hockey career, but has discovered that life as a student athlete teaches lessons he never imagined.
“I barely survived the first semester,” says Gonzales. “I never really had great study habits in high school; I got good grades by just showing up to class. I was lucky in that sense, but it didn’t really prepare me for the amount of work I would have to do coming back to school.”
Gonzales played junior hockey for four seasons before arriving to Selkirk College at the start of the 2013-2014 school term. Forgoing any college courses after high school to concentrate on hockey, two months into the first semester at Selkirk College, Gonzales had failed a midterm and was struggling in the role of student athlete.
“After four years of just playing hockey and hanging out with your buddies watching Netflix and playing video games, there wasn’t a lot of studying going on then,” he says. “Coming back, it was a steep learning curve for the first couple of months. It was much harder than I anticipated.”
Pursuing Dreams and Facing Reality
Gonzales grew up in Surrey and found a passion for hockey at an early age. When he was 12, the prestigious North Shore Winter Club recruited him to come and play out of its North Vancouver facility. In pee wee and bantam hockey, he was teammates with the likes of NHL’s Evander Kane (Winnipeg Jets), Stefan Elliott (Colorado Avalanche) and Martin Jones (Los Angeles Kings).
When he was 17, Gonzales was a highly touted prospect and went to play Tier II Junior with the British Columbia Hockey League’s Burnaby Express.
“I wanted an NCAA scholarship and that was my main focus,” says Gonzales. “I was drafted into the Western Hockey League (WHL), but my goal was to combine education and school so I took that pathway.”
Gonzales played three full seasons in the BCHL with Burnaby, Quesnel, Chilliwack and Victoria. The success Gonzales experienced with the North Shore Winter Club in minor hockey was not mirrored during those seasons where he played on teams that struggled to get wins.
In his final season of junior he was traded to a team in Ontario and when Gonzales decided he didn’t want to make the trip across the country, he opted to play Junior B with the Aldergrove Kodiaks. It was a difficult choice and one that put an end to his dream of playing hockey on a scholarship in the United States.
“When it’s the goal for so long and you are so focused on it, when that doesn’t turn out it’s disheartening and you have to re-evaluate what you’re doing,” says Gonzales.
Determined to make the most of it, Gonzales had a tremendous season with Aldergrove where he led all Pacific Junior Hockey League defenceman in scoring and helped his team to the championship final.
Exploring New Opportunities and Challenges
Gonzales was recruited by former Selkirk Saints coach Jeff Dubois, who had built a powerhouse program in Castlegar that saw the team post a 21-3 regular season record and capture its first BCIHL Championship in 2013.
“I hadn’t gone to school for a few years and I was sold on the small school experience,” says Gonzales. “I felt like that would be a good adjustment period to get back into the swing of academics.”
Gonzales is one of the main anchors on the Saints' blueline, but it wasn't his hockey skills that were tested in his first semester at Selkirk College.
Gonzales enrolled in the Business Administration Program and on the first day of class was a 21-year-old freshman who hadn’t cracked a textbook since graduating from Grade 12.
“I was excited to be going back to school,” says Gonzales. “But when things started to get stressful, hockey was the comfort zone, so I focused even more on hockey. When you are so stressed out with school, you are not having as much fun at the rink because you are thinking about school. Instead of trying to fix it, it’s easy to ignore it and then that only makes it worse.”
Rather than giving up, Gonzales battled through the first semester. When the second semester started in January, he took a deep breath and paid another visit to Solarik where he sought help through Student Support Services. It was there that Gonzales found tutors and counselors that helped him channel his energy.
“I felt I was working so hard to get Cs and Bs… but I wasn’t really working efficiently or smart,” he says. “The second semester was the beginning of a refocus where I went over my notes every day, was on top of my homework, worked ahead, communicated with the teachers when I was not going to be there and managed my social life a lot better. I hit my stride because I became more focussed.”
Soaring Through the Second Year
Now midway through his final year of the Business Administration Program, Gonzales is a star student and one of the key Saints’ leaders on and off the ice.
When new Saints’ head coach Alex Evin—himself a former NCAA student athlete with Colgate University—told the players that academics were going to take on a heightened focus with a mandatory weekly study group, Gonzales was one of the players to step forward to help lead it.
Gonzales (top right) celebrated a BCIHL Championship last March and hopes this spring will bring two major celebrations of success: a second title and graduation from the Business Administration Program.
“The first semester last year was humbling,” Gonzales says of his motivation to take the academic lead as a second-year player. “Everyone is just as smart as you here, everyone did the same thing you did in high school. By the second semester I realized that it’s okay to go for help and now that I have gained that experience I want to help the other guys.”
Having commanded control over his academics, Gonzales can now enjoy other important elements of student life. Living in the Kekuli House Residence on the Castlegar Campus, Gonzales has found a community beyond his teammates.
“One of the coolest things about the games is that so many students come out to watch,” he says. “When I get back after a game there are people in the common room that will let me know how the team played… good or bad. They are there every game and they are loud. People really get into it, you don’t see that with any other teams in this league. We have great support from the community and the town.”
With newfound academic confidence gained, Gonzales plans to continue with his education and hockey career once he graduates in April. With Business Administration transfer agreements in place with a number of different institutions in British Columbia and Alberta, Gonzales has set his sights on putting in two more years and earning a degree.
Though looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead, Gonzales says his Selkirk College experience has laid a solid foundation for his future.
“The transitioning from four years of not really using the academic side of your brain and not learning away from the rink, Selkirk College has been a great place to make that transition,” he says. “The teachers know your name, they want you to succeed, they want you to graduate here and get your diploma.”