by ACAC Sports Writer Curtis J. Phillips
Gael-Mukeba Lubwele's father and mother, Didier and Angel, knew little, if anything, about ice hockey when they moved to Canada from the Congo.
"They left the Congo and came to Canada because they wanted a better life and at that time they had a lot of war over there," said Lubwele, a first-year student/athlete for the Portage College Voyageurs men's hockey team.
But with four boys in the family, and hockey the main interest, the sport soon became a family affair for the Montreal-based unit.
"At the beginning, my dad did not know anything about hockey but then as we started playing as kids, he started loving it and then started learning the rules," said Lubwele, who in 2013 was drafted Round 4 72nd overall by the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League entry draft.
Dabbling in hoops and soccer outside of school, Lubwele said he "fell in love" with hockey at a young age: "I had the passion for hockey and all of my brothers were playing and my mom and dad were cheering us on. I was following in my brothers' footsteps."
Playing seven games for the Remparts in 2013-2014, the 5-foot-10 right wing would spend two years in the Quebec Junior Hockey League, recording 49 goals, 54 assists and 261 penalty minutes for the St. Agathe Montagnards.
Prior to that he had played three seasons (2011-2014) with the Laval-Montreal Rousseau Royal, 2012-2013 champions of the Ligue de hockey Midget AAA du Québec.
For the 2016-2017 campaign he headed south of the border to join the Springfield Express of the Western States Hockey League.
"I left Quebec because I wanted to see somewhere else and play in another country and see the different caliber of hockey," recalled Lubwele, who was named team captain for the Missouri-based franchise, where in 46 contests he would tally an impressive 35 goals, 41 assists along with 154 penalty minutes.
"It was a more physical and faster league," admits Lubwele, of the step up. "It was a great experience and something new for me. I liked the travel and having the opportunity to visit other places. We played in Dallas (Snipers), Oklahoma City (Jr. Blazers), Wichita (Jr. Thunder) and El Paso (Rhinos). They were long bus rides.
"In Springfield we had around 500 to 1,000 fans and it was really loud (Mediacom Ice Park, capacity 2,000). The people were crazy about physical games and it was nice to live that experience."
Relocating to Lac la Biche and the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) is also a new experience for Lubwele.
"One of my former (and current) teammates Max Robitaille (also from Montreal) called me in mid-August and asked me where I was playing and at that time. I did not know where. He told me about how good Portage was and a lot of good stuff about the team and the program and the coach (Nate Bedford). Everything was so quick.
"It has been interesting to play in a good league (ACAC) where the players are definitely more-skilled and smarter and all the guys are older."
Lubwele, 21, added, "At first it was hard getting used to the speed of the ACAC but now I have that rhythm."
In eight ACAC regular season games, Lubwele has four goals and an assist while leading the team in penalty minutes with 36.
Enrolled in Business Admin, he said that he would like to be an accountant.
"My dad is an accountant and when I was young, once a year they would have Bring Your Kid to Work Day and I would help him out at the office. I loved it. My dad has always been a role model for me and I wanted to be like him."
Asked to describe what sort of hockey player he is, Lubwele replied: "I am a physical player who likes the physical game. I have a good shot and I have good patience. I can score and block shots and I am out there playing for my teammates."
Of the cultural change to northern Alberta: "I would love to meet someone else from the Congo. We have another black guy on the team (Alseny Bangoura) but he is not from the Congo but he is still from Africa."
Lubwele concluded that one day he would like to visit the Congo where his grandfather lives.
"He has seen me play only on video. He knows nothing about hockey but he still cheers for us. He is happy for me."