Family given hope through hockey

TORRANCE, Calif. -- The apartment seems impossibly small for six people.

There are boxes piled hither and thither, along with clothes and childhood art. The television shows highlights from the previous night's NHL games. There's a hockey stick in the corner.

The two middle boys -- Teegan, 7, and Oliver, 4 -- argue over who gets to wear which Los Angeles Kings jersey, likely because there's a visitor breaking up the day. Three-month-old Dustin, named by older sister Emma for Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown, is having a fine snooze in spite of the tussle over jerseys, which threatens to invade his piece of the floor.

Cramped quarters or not, there is a happy chaos to the Gardner home.

Still, Jeffray Gardner, a 51-year-old father of four, is nowhere close to where he expected to be and maybe nowhere anyone expects to be.

Gardner was born in Saskatoon, in Saskatchewan, Canada, but his mother has French roots, which might explain his love of the culinary arts.

Gardner managed to juggle his two loves, making chocolate and playing hockey, which he officiated at a high level, including working the 1991 World Junior Championships in Saskatoon, with players such as Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure, and minor pro games in the old International Hockey League.

A business venture in Winnipeg went south, so in January 2000, he ended up in California, where he hoped to make a fresh start in the world of chocolate.

He met his future wife, Naomi, who arrived on the West coast at the same time, while he was inline skating and eating macaroni salad. She told him she was from Minnesota, and he joked that was pretty much part of Canada.

"As soon as she heard chocolate, her ears perked up," he said.

In 2003, he started Marsatta Chocolate.

Eventually he had a space to manufacture the chocolate and sold it retail and at various markets in the Los Angeles area. But a disagreement with the landlord -- in part over whether Gardner and his kids should be playing street hockey in the parking lot after hours -- led to Gardner's dismantling his entire kitchen, much of which is still in storage, and needing a new location to produce his wares.

The couple had lost their condominium when Oliver was a baby and moved into an apartment. Gardner used satellite kitchens to continue to make chocolate as the economy declined.

Then Dustin -- an admitted surprise addition to the family -- arrived.

"We're trying to keep our heads above water, and then the surprise happened," Gardner said.

The family was getting ready for hockey practice one day when Naomi, just seven months into her pregnancy, started to bleed.

Dustin was about to join the fray, 10 weeks ahead of schedule. Naomi admits she was under a lot of stress in the weeks leading up to Dustin's arrival via emergency caesarean section. By the time the family got to the hospital, there was blood pooling in her wheelchair.

Born early and small, Dustin was diagnosed with IVH, or intravascular hemorrhaging, a condition involving bleeding into the ventricles of the brain, which is quite common in premature or low-weight infants. The ventricles house nourishment for the brain, and bleeding into them can result in brain damage in more severe cases. In lesser cases, the bleeding stops, and the cells heal themselves without any long-term damage.

Dustin was diagnosed with a serious, Grade 3 case on one side of his tiny brain and a Grade 1 case on the other. The Grade 1 has vanished, but the Grade 3 portion remains troubling. Dustin, who sleeps peacefully and appears alert and interested in his surroundings when awake, wears gear to monitor his breathing pretty much 24/7.

Even so, like the rest of the family, the infant seems to respond positively to hockey.

"When the games are over, he starts crying," his dad said with a laugh.

He's a regular attendee at his siblings' hockey outings. One day at the Kings' practice facility, the entire Gardner family was on hand to take part in a program put on by the Kings, the Hawthorne Police Department and the NHLPA. That included Dustin in his little papoose and monitoring equipment.

"He really responds to the kids, and they love him too. They're always giving him little kisses," Gardner said.

Still, the economic pressures on the family have been intense.

One night while Naomi was in the hospital with Dustin, Gardner broke down in his car and prayed for guidance. He took a part-time job with Costco to help pay bills and to get benefits, but the seasonal gig is now over. He did not have enough money to buy a car seat for Dustin to come home from the hospital.

Now that vehicle is gone too.

Three times a week, the couple sells their chocolate products at local farmers' markets.

"That's kind of our livelihood right now, until things get better," Gardner said.

Through it all, hockey remains a passion for the family, whether watching on TV, playing in the driveway or getting on the ice.

Teegan had been on skates since the age of 3, and Gardner bought used equipment for the kids. More than a year ago, Gardner came across a flyer outlining a program that allowed kids to play hockey for free. The program was started by the Hawthorne Police Department and is supported by local groups, including the NHLPA through its Goals and Dreams program.

Emma, 10, asked if she could play, so Gardner brought the three older kids to the Hawthorne sessions.

The program relies on new equipment donated by the NHLPA. The Gardner kids used their old equipment bought second-hand, but if there were extra, new equipment, they would use it as well. To try to pay back the group's generosity, Gardner referees a couple games here and there for free.

Last week, he went from child to child helping tie skates.

"What we can do, we do," Gardner said. "We may not have the money right now, but we're going to pay it forward."

Hockey with the Hawthorne group led to an invitation for Emma to play on another team, and now Naomi wears home and away jerseys of the Bay Harbor Red Wings.

Proud? Both parents practically glow. In those moments, they are no different than the parents of any other kids who skate.

"I feel like a rotten dad that I can't provide for my family," Gardner said. "I don't want to say it, but you feel like a failure."

To be part of something Gardner knew so well growing up -- the dressing rooms, the smell of the arena -- and to be a part of a team is something powerful, and he and his wife were determined their kids would not be denied that experience.

"It's amazing," Gardner said. "I still feel a little bit kind of guilty because we're getting this help, but we're still having our problems. Our journey continues."

The Hawthorne program exists in part because the local police officers figure if kids are doing this, they're not doing something unproductive or detrimental. The program also exists because of the Goals and Dreams program, which was created by the NHLPA 15 years ago and has helped 70,000 kids in 32 countries.

A lifeline? Some might call it that.

Before the holidays, Gardner explained to his three older children that Christmas was going to be difficult, when it came to presents and holiday things. But shortly before Christmas, Sgt. Chris Cognac, one of the founders of the Hawthorne program, called Gardner and showed up at the house with a bundle of presents.

"Usually when Chris calls, you [know] something good is going to happen," Gardner said.

Other friends they met through the hockey program brought over a Christmas tree. Families from their church brought food.

"The help just keeps coming," Naomi said with a shake of her head.

For a moment in the tiny apartment where the hockey highlights are playing, both parents are in tears. Gardner has been sitting on a plastic ice chest while chatting. He produces samples of the chocolates he makes. There's one infused with lemons he picked himself. The word good doesn't come close to covering the delightful taste.

See, this is a story that might seem shot through with disappointment and misfortune, but it is not a story about hopelessness.

"You've got to take it step by step," Naomi said. "Our kids give us a lot of joy,"

"We can't think of the negative stuff, or else it changes the dynamic of the family," Gardner added.

And so they forge forward.

Gardner continues to make chocolates. He's been trying to raise money to find a new place to set up shop permanently and get back on track.

"We have wonderful products, but we can't produce them," he said.

He started a Kickstarter fund, and people responded. Just when it looked like he was going to fall short, an executive from the Los Angeles Kings topped up the needed amount of $40,000.

"We'll get to a turning point," Naomi said.

Exit the Gardners' apartment compound, turn left, and walk about 200 feet. On the corner is an old flower shop. It's where Gardner hopes to set up shop making and selling his chocolates.

There is a sign in three parts that reads: "Coming Soon" ... "Marsatta Chocolate" ... "Go Kings Go."

Maybe, if there are such things as hockey gods, it is a sign of hope for the future.