Ice in Paradise Skating Strong

Goleta Rink Hosts S.B. Kings Games; Plus UCSB Big Basketball Man Ami Lakoju

<strong>GOOD LAND GOALS:</strong> Eric Valois (left) of the Santa Barbara Kings fires the puck past a UCSB defender during Adult Hockey League action at Ice in Paradise.
Paul Wellman

Since its opening last October, Ice in Paradise has been a cold-bed of activity. From morning until late at night, people practice all kinds of ice skating at the Goleta facility. On Tuesday nights, an exceptionally devoted clan plays in the Advanced Adult Hockey League.

Meet Michael Kenney. At age 6, he started playing street hockey with his feet after The Mighty Ducks movie came out. He helped start an ice hockey team at Westlake High, and after a hiatus, he took up the sport again in his twenties, playing at rinks in Oxnard and Simi Valley for teams named the Chiefs (homage to Slap Shot) and Eh! (homage to Canada). A Santa Barbara resident who works at the Four Seasons, he took it upon himself to form a hockey team at Ice in Paradise: the Santa Barbara Kings.

The L.A. Kings are Kenney’s favorite professional team. “They preach humility and work as a team,” he said. “They scored nine goals by nine different players the other night. Drew Doughty is the most passionate player I’ve ever seen.” Kenney outfitted his Kings with gray-and-black uniforms and a logo that appears like the NHL team’s but is altered to avoid copyright issues.

By reaching out to friends and spreading the word, Kenney assembled a team of a dozen capable players. They include two UCSB graduate students, Eric Valois (molecular biology) and Kelsey Bisson (oceanography). Bisson, a Cleveland native, played for Ohio State’s women’s hockey club and has no fear about mixing it up with the guys.

Last week, the Kings were matched against UCSB’s entry in the Adult League. With some of Bisson’s friends “oohing” and “aahing” in the gallery at their first ice hockey game, the teams went back and forth. Action was nonstop, as there was only a one-minute break between each period. Late in the third, the UCSB team had an 8-7 lead, and the Kings pulled their goalie, only to give up an empty-net score with 44 seconds remaining. Valois slotted a shot from 15 yards out to make it 9-8, and that’s how it ended, but only after the Kings got off another shot that hit the post.

The winning team had a ringer in Kyle de Laurell, a 27-year-old analyst at Vandenberg Air Force Base. He played top-level college hockey at the Air Force Academy, and it showed, as he scored five goals.

Both squads made the final-four play-offs out of the six-team league, and another season will start up shortly thereafter.

NEW LIFE: Ami Lakoju is either a blissful old soul or a cheerful young face on the UCSB basketball team.

“I have two birthdays,” Lakoju said. The first was November 22, 1995. He spent most of his growing-up years in the heart of Harlem, New York City, at 134th Street and Lenox Avenue. “I did the classic fire-hydrant thing in the summer when I was smaller,” he said.

He got bigger, a lot bigger. He played basketball on the streets, then in high school, the last two years at a prep school in Connecticut. After a scholarship offer from Fairfield University did not work out, he was considering other schools when UCSB assistant Ryan Madry reached him through Twitter. “I researched the school, came here, and loved it,” Lakoju said. He enrolled as a Gaucho in the fall of 2014.

At almost 6’9” and 265 pounds, Lakoju saw a mirror image of himself in Alan “Big Al” Williams, a senior who would become the nation’s leading rebounder. “My biggest attraction to the school was Big Al,” he said. “I wanted to emulate him as much as I could.”

Lakoju’s second birthday was December 21, 2014. The Gauchos were going through a practice at the University of Oregon, a day before playing the Ducks. Without warning, Lakoju collapsed to the floor. Katie Susskind, on her fifth day on the job as a UCSB athletic trainer, rushed to his aid. “He was unresponsive,” she said. “It’s the first time I dealt with CPR in real life.”

While the trainer worked to resuscitate him, a manager at the Oregon arena provided an automatic defibrillator. “It was on him within two minutes,” Susskind said. “His heartbeat came back, and paramedics responded quickly.”

“I woke up on a gurney in the ambulance going to the hospital,” Lakoju recalled. “I’m so thankful I was able to come out of this situation. I’m lucky to be alive.” To prevent a recurrence, doctors in Oregon put an implantable defibrillator in his chest. If his heart goes haywire again, the device will shock it back into a normal rhythm.

“I can feel it,” Lakoju said, displaying a bulge under his collarbone. “It’s a box. I didn’t like it, but I got over it. It’s a bigger mental issue than it is physically.”

Lakoju has been cleared to play this season without restrictions. “I’m ready to do the dirty work,” he said at the start of the season. But he has played only sparingly behind senior center Sam Beeler, and when he gets out on the floor, he picks up fouls at the rate of one every three minutes.

He did have a highlight play against the biggest man in college basketball, swatting away a shot attempt by UC Irvine’s 7’6” Mamadou Ndiaye. “It was a David-Goliath type thing, and I was David,” he said. “I’m not used to being the smaller guy.”

Lakoju has an easygoing personality and is popular with his teammates. “They call me BAM — Big Ass Man,” he said. Williams had the same asset and put it to good use. Lakoju still has things to learn. If he succeeds in becoming a starter before the end of his Gaucho career, count it as a third birthday.

The Gaucho men are in the stretch drive of this season, and a top-four seed in the Big West Tournament is in their reach. They are at UC Riverside on Thursday night, February 18, and home against UC Davis at 7 p.m. Saturday. Their next win will be the 300th in head coach Bob Williams’s tenure at UCSB.


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