Qualls defies odds on ice

FLOWER MOUND, Texas -- Kevin Qualls, a 17-year-old junior defenseman for the Flower Mound High School varsity hockey team, is resourceful on the ice. He has to be, since his right arm ends only a few inches south of his elbow.

But Qualls also displayed resourcefulness, combined with a dash of devilishness, years ago when explaining to his curious new youth hockey teammates why he didn't have a right hand.

With sleepy-looking eyes and a straight face, he calmly said he got into a fight with older sister Samantha and shaved her head and she retaliated by chopping off part of his arm.

"Are you kidding me?" thought Mitch Rausch, one of Qualls' teammates back then and today with the Flower Mound Jaguars. "I don't want to meet her in a dark alley."

Of course, Qualls was kidding. But his parents, Richard and Cathy, had to perform some hasty neighborhood damage control so Samantha wouldn't be turned in to the local authorities.

Kevin Qualls has never really considered his small right arm a big deal. Prosthesis? When his mother worked for what seemed like hours to get it on when he was a youngster, Kevin would blithely unhook it within seconds. Not really interested. Once while riding in a grocery cart, he handed it to his father, who stuck it in his back pocket. Much to the horror of a little girl in a nearby buggy.

Maybe the matter-of-fact attitude took root because the Qualls were never given a reason why Kevin was born that way. That's how God made him, they say.

It has rarely hindered Qualls from being a little boy and now a typical teenager. He tried numerous sports as a kid, decided at 5 he didn't want to play baseball anymore, never really took a liking to golf after taking lessons. But there was soccer and swimming and football and inline skating (how he broke his left arm) and snowboarding and skateboarding (how he broke his left arm the second time).

And hockey. He started playing roller hockey, where he became a scoring whiz. Then he moved onto the ice and hasn't stopped moving since. He played on travel squads for years and has been playing for his high school team since the eighth grade.

Qualls asked to move from forward to defense then because he thought his team, Flower Mound's junior varsity second team, was giving up too many goals. He has been on the blue line ever since.

"I think he should be playing forward," said Scott Curry, a longtime travel teammate who plays for Plano West High School. "He's amazing with passing."

Qualls holds the stick with his left hand and, at least when handling the puck, wedges the top end of it into his right armpit. His right sleeve flaps slightly.

"Unless you would have pointed it out to me," Rausch said of Qualls' situation, "I never would have noticed."

Qualls considers his strength playing one-on-one defense.

"People just don't beat me," he said. "I don't go for dekes." Weaknesses? "When breaking out of the zone with two or three people crashing in, getting the puck to the open man with a nice, crisp pass."

At 5-foot-9 and about 150 pounds, he prefers to beat opponents with his head. Mom says when his coach wants him to take the body, he'd rather try to take the puck.

Curry said opponents probably underestimate Qualls.

"They'd think, 'Oh, my God. He has only one arm. He's not going to be that big of a threat,' " Curry said. "I'm not saying that's why he's good, but that probably helped out."

Qualls hasn't shied away from what makes him different.

"Right off the bat, he started joking [about himself]," Rausch said. "So everyone kind of knew he was chill about it."

On many teams, his nickname has been "Nub." Curry said that on one travel team, their good-luck ritual was to "rub the nub."

"I probably couldn't handle that," Curry said, "but he doesn't mind at all. If he can beat people at a sport, you have to be pretty confident in yourself."

The head coach of Flower Mound's varsity is Knute Anderson, the director of hockey programs at the NYTEX Sports Centre in nearby North Richland Hills. Anderson's wife, Jennifer, is the center's director of skating and gave lessons to Qualls for years. Kevin's parents would know they got their money's worth when he left part of his most recent meal behind after the lessons.

But, said teammate Rausch, "He can skate like the wind."

In a travel game, Qualls was once given a penalty for cross-checking. That's defined in the NHL's rule book as "the action of using the shaft of the stick between the two hands to forcefully check an opponent." Considering the necessity of having two hands to do that, Qualls was somewhat miffed at the call.

"Really? You're sticking with that?" he asked the referee. Dad was the team's designated penalty-box rep that game and told him to sit down and be quiet before he incurred an additional penalty.

The aspect of hockey most affected by the lack of two hands is that Qualls can't tie his skates. Used to be his parents would take care of that before a game, and teammates would pitch in if his laces came loose during play. But skate manufacturer CCM now provides Qualls with a special adult version of its kids' model that features a cranking mechanism to tighten steel cables in the boot. Many of his teammates want them, too.

Qualls gave up travel hockey this season to concentrate on the high school team and his grades, not to mention his job at a local grocery store. But he still also participates on USA Hockey's amputee team. He was the youngest member of the 2006 team that won the silver medal in the world championships in Latvia. He recently qualified for the '09 team and will play in Washington, D.C., next month against the U.S. Naval Academy's club team.

Qualls and the Jaguars finished fifth in the 13-team upper varsity division of the AT&T Metroplex High School Hockey League this season. With its win in Thursday's quarterfinal win, Flower Mound qualified for the state tournament. In the team's first playoff game, Qualls scored his first goal in two varsity seasons.

He was stationed on the left point just inside the blue line when the puck came off the wall near him. He one-timed it and sent to past the McKinney (Texas) goalie, who was screened. Coach Knute Anderson said the team has been working of defensemen taking more accurate shots with maybe a tad less oomph.

"It's like a golf shot," Richard Qualls said of Kevin's slap shot. "If he hits the sweet spot just right, it will go."

Kevin shrugged: "I just shot it."

Rausch there might have been a larger goal celebration than usual for him. If so, not by much. Anderson noted there is a little more excitement for anyone who scores his first goal of the season.

"It was not shocking," Rausch said. "Just another goal."

For someone who wants to be just another player.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.