Living the dream

Kenai’s Parker Lockwood is proof that dreams — and mission statements — come true.

Lockwood, 20, is a forward in his last season of eligibility with the Kenai River Brown Bears of the North American Hockey League. He is the only local player on the team’s roster.

The Brown Bears were founded for the 2007-08 season with the mission, according to the team’s website, of giving players every possible resource of playing college hockey.

Kenai River also prides itself on its relationship to the community. The Bears are the main program of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Foundation, which allows players to provide hours of community service to further the educational and athletic pursuits of the community’s youth.

The dream of the team’s founders is for current Brown Bears to inspire young players in the community to one day become Brown Bears. With Lockwood, the Brown Bears’ dream, and Lockwood’s dream, have become reality.

Dragged to the rink

Lockwood said he didn’t even come from a hockey family. Lockwood’s father, Mark, grew up in Homer and was a wrestler. Lockwood’s mother, Jen, grew up in Utah and Wyoming.

Parker said that until he was 7 years old, he had absolutely no interest in hockey. That didn’t change when Mark and Parker’s brother, Dawson, got all excited to go to a learn-to-skate event with the Brown Bears.

“My brother’s all excited to skate,” Lockwood said. “We went and got gear and I did not want to get on the ice. My dad dragged me to the rink with my brother.”

Lockwood saw himself as a basketball, soccer and football player. Then one of the Brown Bears came over and put a 5-gallon bucket in front of Lockwood and had him skate in a circle, using the bucket for balance.

“Ever since that day, I love it,” Lockwood said. “It all kind of sparked the interest for me.”

Brown Bears or bust

By the time Lockwood was 10 or 11, he had dropped every other sport to focus on hockey. There was a summer ice program at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility and Lockwood was focused on a goal.

“When I was that young, I wanted to play for the Brown Bears,” Lockwood said. “I thought it was the thing to do.”

Playing for the Brown Bears is not an easy thing to do. Junior hockey is the level players use to make college teams. There is only one Junior hockey league better than the NAHL in the United States — the 16-team United States Hockey League. After those USHL teams are filled, the most desirable option is the 27-team NAHL.

The NAHL is a tough league to make, with players from all over the world seeking spots. The league said it had over 300 NCAA commitments for the sixth straight season in 2021-22, with over 76% of those being at the Division I level.

“I wouldn’t say I picked it up real quick, but I definitely worked at it a lot,” Lockwood said of his hockey ability. “It’s something I enjoyed so much that I spent so much time on it when I was younger that I finally started catching on more and more.”

Lockwood said he’s fortunate there were people in the community willing to help with the dream. Two examples Lockwood gave are Trevor Baldwin and Vince Redford.

Lockwood had Baldwin as both a power skating coach and a coach in the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association. Redford ran the summer ice program at the Multi-Purpose Facility and instructed Lockwood in one-on-one sessions.

Both Baldwin and Redford have been fixtures at Brown Bears games over the years and still watch Lockwood play to this day.

Leaving home behind

As a freshman, Lockwood played for Soldotna High School in the 2016-17 season. Under head coach Derek Urban, the Stars finished 15-10-1 and were just one game short of making the Division I state tournament.

“We had a great group of guys,” Lockwood said. “All of those kids on the team, I still talk to. They’re all really close buddies.”

Lockwood had a tough decision. He could stay with SoHi and have fun playing high school hockey, but that would have made it harder to achieve his dream of playing for the Bears.

“If I wanted to take my career to the next level, I think it would have been best for me to go play AAA and get a little more exposure and development,” he said. “See more higher tempo players.”

Lockwood spent time playing in Iowa and New Jersey before getting called up to the Bears during the 2020-21 season. He thanks then Brown Bears head coach, and current University of Alaska Anchorage assistant, Kevin Murdock for the chance.

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound forward was limited to 14 games that season by a surgery for appendicitis that led to sepsis. He then played eight games in the playoffs as the Bears won their first playoff series in franchise history, then came within one game of making the final four for the Robertson Cup.

“That year was COVID, so a lot of the league was condensed, and we had a lot of really good players in the league,” Lockwood said. “It was hard to keep up, especially as a rookie.”

Planting seeds for playoff run

In the offseason, Lockwood said he worked on his skating to become quicker. He played 54 games for the team in 2021-22, notching a goal and 11 assists. The Bears finished with the second worst record in the league at 14-41-3-2.

“I think it brought the guys together,” Lockwood said of the losing season. “We did a lot together outside hockey, and it gave us more time to get to know each other.

“It’s always fun whether you’re winning or losing — I mean, hockey’s a blast — but I definitely think it set the standard for what we didn’t want to happen this year.”

With two games left to play in the regular season, the Bears are 31-23-3-1 and have qualified for the playoffs. Lockwood has played 53 games and has two goals and six assists.

Eating pucks

Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw and forward Ryan Finch said Lockwood’s value can’t be judged by points alone.

“The biggest thing to having a successful hockey team is that every player has to play a role,” Shaw said. “Parker has really taken on the role this year of a lot of penalty killing, in addition to the five-on-five.”

Shaw said his team has taken too many penalties this season, particularly early in the season. That has meant the Bears would be nowhere without a successful penalty kill.

“The penalty kill is what makes or breaks games,” Finch said. “When we’re winning 2-1 and we have a penalty you have to kill off, if you lose that penalty kill you’re tied up and you lose all momentum.

“They kill it off every time.”

Lockwood said the Bears’ penalty kill is a lot about positioning. Kenai River isn’t looking to break up plays as much as it is looking to clog all good angles to the goal.

Of course, another term for clogging angles is sacrificing the body.

“I’m not one of those guys that loves eating pucks in practice, like (Brown Bears defenseman) Jake Zwirecki. That’s not me,” Lockwood said. “But if it’s in the game, I’ll eat it with my face. I’m not worried about that.”

Lockwood also said he takes pride in the little things, like not getting scored on and earning offensive zone faceoffs so the scoring lines have less work to do.

“There’s a lot of kids at the Junior hockey level that give up because they want to be the goal scorer on the team,” Finch said. “Most teams already have those guys.

“I’m not saying Parker doesn’t score goals, but he goes out there and hits people and does his role perfectly. He knows exactly what he needs to do to help the team.”

Shaw said Lockwood has offers to play college hockey, and Lockwood said he is interested in college hockey. Lockwood also said he’s totally focused on the Brown Bears at this point and will wait to decide on college until the season is over.

Attitude determines altitude

Lockwood said a lot of his value to the team also comes off the ice.

“You just gotta be a good guy in the locker room,” Lockwood said. “I think that has gotten me a long ways.

“Just being upbeat, having a positive attitude and coming to work every day.”

Shaw said Lockwood is an important voice in the locker room.

“He goes about his business the right way in the workout room and the community,” the coach said. “He always wants to roll up his sleeves and get to work, and our guys certainly appreciate that.”

Finch said that although Lockwood does not have the letters on his sweater of a captain or alternate captain, he still serves a vital leadership role.

“A lot of the boys just look up to him as a person,” Finch said of Lockwood. “He’s very straightforward, so people respect what he says.

“If we’re messing around, Parker says, ‘Let’s dial it in and get ready for the game.’ We wouldn’t be winning without him.”

Back to school

One of the most natural roles for Lockwood is when the Brown Bears make school trips. More than anyone, Lockwood knows how pivotal an interaction with a Brown Bears player can be in a young person’s life.

“Our guys do school visits almost every week and obviously Parker is a staple in that,” Shaw said. “He’s grown up here, so a lot of kids look up to Parker.”

Finch said Lockwood’s attitude toward the school visits is infectious.

“He shows us how much we mean to the other kids,” he said. “They look at us like we’re NHL or pro.”

Lockwood keeps daily reminders of his path to the Brown Bears in his locker. There’s a picture of one of his KPHA teams, a Brown Bears season pass Lockwood got from KPHA for the 2010-11 season and a picture of Dawson and Parker with young Brown Bears fan Kevin Michael.

“I just sometimes look at it and realize, ‘This is what I wanted to do when I was that age,’” Lockwood said of the mementos. “I’m here and I’m blessed.

“I gotta make the most of it, you know?”