Sean Hays loves hockey, and it shows.
The director of the new Tehachapi Inline Hockey Club, beams from ear to ear as he watches a Thursday evening practice at the old Tehachapi Mountain Inline Hockey rink sitting alongside east Tehachapi Boulevard.
That's because while inline hockey in Tehachapi can be traced back to the mid-1990s, it’s about to begin a new chapter in its storied history, with a new club, league and an improved facility in downtown. All of which Hays hopes, will stir up some of the old enthusiasm.
By now, some may have already noticed the improvements being made to the old rink adjacent to the Monroe High School parking lot, which shortly after opening in 1996, was swarming with a few hundred players.
Since then, however, the rink has fallen into disrepair, changing hands several times.
Deemed an eyesore by the Tehachapi Unified School District, who owns the property the rink sits on, Hays and his wife Joanne convinced the district to allow them save the aging facility from the wrecking ball, and immediately went to work, establishing the Tehachapi Falcons inline hockey club in 2012.
But the couple envisioned something much more. So in 2013, the non-profit Tehachapi Inline Hockey Club was born.
Since then the club has developed into four teams consisting of around 50 players, and spans across three age divisions, which range from six to 18 years-old. And according to Hays, is not just for experienced ice hockey players. In fact, he encourages all players to participate, no matter what their skill level or experience.
"We are not just looking for rock star hockey players," he said. "Our goals is to teach and show everyone to play the game of hockey."
Presently the club only holds practices at the rink on Tehachapi Boulevard, but that's soon to change.
The rink is undergoing a major facelift, which includes freshly painted boards, the resurfacing and repainting of the skating surface, and remodeled locker room facilities. All of which Hays hopes to have completed before the club hosts its first tournament on Sept. 13-14.
Hays said the two-day event will feature six clubs, 24 teams and over 200 players from a league that includes the City of Santa Barbara, Calabassas, Burbank, Bishop and Lancaster.
Teams will play a minimum of four tournament-style games, and more if they make it to the playoff round.
Until then, the Falcons will follow up their first tournament of the 2014 season in Calabassas, with a pair of contests in Santa Barbara on Aug. 9, and Aug. 23, at Burbank.
They club will also continue to accept sign-ups, which Hays said continues to stimulate the club's growth to the tune of one to two new players every week — a steady increase that he said is fueled in part by the continued overall interest in the sport of hockey, which already has local roots in places like Bear Valley Springs.
Over the past two decades, both kids and adults have been playing inline hockey inside Bear Valley's Whiting Center, including Falcons' 14U head coach Bill Hawley.
Hawley, who has not only been playing, but coaching both inline and ice hockey for the past 40 years in Bear Valley and communities around Los Angeles, said he is thrilled about being part of the new downtown hockey movement, and the future possibilities for the club and the fledgling league.
"I do this because I love the sport of hockey," he said. "I think there is a lot of kids who want to play hockey too, and I can visualize a better rink in the future, and eventually even a high school team in Tehachapi."
Until then, Hays will continue to finance the rink's improvements by adding to his growing list of sponsors, which includes local donors, Henry's Home for Less, Marty Pay Farmers Insurance and Witts' Business Solutions.
And when asked why he is doing all of this, Hays response was simple.
"I love this sport," he said. "And the idea of giving the kids in the community another sports alternative and something else to do."