KALAMAZOO, Mich. — When he skates out onto the ice, Rhett Kingston looks just like any other player on the Western Michigan men's hockey roster.
With good speed, tenacity and a 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame, the Alberta, Canada native is the prototypical college hockey forward.
But inside his Bauer hockey glove is proof his journey to NCAA Division I athletics was anything but ordinary.
Kingston was born with three fingers on his right hand and required several surgeries shortly after birth, including one to reposition his thumb, allowing him to grip and pinch.
To this day, Rhett's mother, Leah Kingston, has never received a diagnosis or explanation for her son's lack of two fingers or why he's missing some knuckles in his three right digits.
What she does know is it never stopped her and her husband, Mike, from encouraging Rhett to pursue his dreams on the rink or off.
"We never even gave it a moment's thought that he couldn't do whatever it is he wanted to do," Leah said. "We live in a small town (Black Diamond, Alberta) with a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains and cold weather many months of the year. It has great hockey community, so we put him on skates, and he took off.
"He had to learn to write left-handed, and he learned to play hockey left-handed, but it certainly has not slowed him down."
Now 21 years old, Rhett is a freshman on an 8-6 Western Michigan team ranked No. 15 on the PairWise rankings, which are a good reflection of which squads will make the 16-team NCAA tournament.
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The fact that Kingston has taken his career to the highest level of college hockey is a testament to his determination and his family's unwavering support along the way.
"I'm sure people had their doubts, but no one ever said them to me," Kingston said. "Everyone was super supportive of me. My parents were unbelievably supportive of it, but I'm sure many players I've played with and many people had their doubts, thinking, 'Well, this will be his last year,' but I've kept going."
Kingston began playing the sport at age 3 and showed enough early skill that his parents agreed to let him move away 10 years later to a boarding school in the neighboring province of Saskatchewan, where he'd have the opportunity to play with and against other elite players.
"When I was younger, I was always one of the better players in my town, but that was kind of a big fish in a small pond, and then I moved away and started playing hockey in Saskatchewan, and my first couple years there were tough, but by the time I hit grade 11 and grade 12, I started to realize, 'OK, maybe I can make a run at this,'" Rhett said. "That was the age where I decided to crank things up a bit and take it more seriously. I rolled with junior (hockey), and now I'm here and having a great time."
Fitting in at the ice rink has always come naturally for Kingston.
When he scored his first college goal on a snipe from between the faceoff circles against Niagara on Nov. 30, the few people in Lawson Ice Arena that knew of his condition were confined to the Broncos' bench.
Three thousand miles west in Black Diamond, parents Leah and Mike watched the goal live and were overcome by emotion when their son made it a 2-0 game midway through the first period.
"It's very emotional," Leah said. "We're just very, very proud of him. When you think of the work and resilience, he certainly has that in his character, and he works very hard at it, maybe harder than most due to that fact.
"The irony of hockey is that people don't even know that it's a challenge for him because his skill and his play speak for themselves."
As a youngster, Kingston's right hockey glove was a way to mask the fact that he was different from the other kids on the ice, and it helped him fall in love with the sport.
"When I stepped on the ice, it was always like a release from what was going on, so I think that's why I have such a passion for hockey because when I got out there, it didn't matter if I had 10 fingers or not," Kingston said. "As long as I played well, I got the respect from everyone.
"Stepping out on that ice and putting the gloves on, it was always just kind of release if I had any problems going on off the ice."
But when he stepped into the postgame handshake line or stepped out of the arena, there was no place to hide his hand,
"It's my right hand, so when I shake people's hands, it's the first thing they notice. Growing up, obviously, I took my fair share of bullying, but I learned to kind of deal with it in a way where I didn't take offense to it any more," he said. "Growing up, I took it to heart a little bit, but as a kid, you can't blame them; they don't know any better."
Kingston still takes some good-natured ribbing from his WMU teammates, but he's learned to give it right back, and he knows at the end of the day, the other guys in the locker room have his back.
Always have; always will.
"Rhett has kept a lot of the negativity and cruel encounters from us, but I truly believe that it's his teammates that have rallied behind him, and that speaks to the beauty in the friendship of sport," Leah said. "We're very thankful to all the teammates that he's had over the years, and I think the camaraderie of this sport has been very supportive of him.
"If kids have any challenges in their lives, sport brings out the best in them and reveals character.
"When he received the opportunity to come to Western Michigan, we were very grateful to the coaches and the staff and the community for embracing him."
Congrats to the Broncos! https://t.co/fliPlbvK9w— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) November 18, 2018
As much of an impact as Kingston is having in his first year with the Broncos, it was a bit of fate that brought him across North America to Kalamazoo.
After four years of junior hockey in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Kingston played two years in the British Columbia Hockey League, including the 2017-18 campaign, in which he was the fifth-oldest of 38 skaters for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
Kingston enjoyed a strong showing in his only year with the Silverbacks, scoring a team-best 24 goals and 26 assists in 54 games, but without a scholarship offer, he thought his days of hockey were numbered.
But Salmon Arm assistant coach David Killip, a WMU hockey alum and former director of player development with the Broncos, thought Kingston would be a good fit at his alma mater.
He called current WMU coach Andy Murray, who used to own the Salmon Arm franchise before coming to Kalamazoo, and told him about the unique and gifted player on the Silverbacks' roster.
"(David) mentioned Rhett to us, and we started the process and got talking to him," Murray said. "He wanted to play in the best league he could, which is the NCHC (National Collegiate Hockey Conference), and David obviously told him what a great place Western is academically and from a hockey perspective. We liked his speed and tenacity, and it led to him being recruited and committing here.
"He was a great leader for their team. He wasn't the captain, but they probably felt like they should've named him captain. He was only there one year, but he was their leading scorer, was one of their hardest workers in practice, and he brought a lot of ingredients that are part of our culture here at Western."
Suddenly, Kingston's dreams of competing at the next level were realized.
"I remember him telling me that he was lying in bed in January of this year without a scholarship, thinking his days of hockey are done, and here we are less than a year later, and he's scoring goals for the Broncos," Mike Kingston said. "I'm so proud of the guy. He's worked so hard to get to that level.
"Not only did he have to persevere with his hand over all those years, but he had to persevere through junior hockey.
"It came down to the last minute in getting a scholarship, and they were the only school that gave him an offer."
Kingston has played in five games for the Broncos, including the last two on a line with standout upperclassmen Colt Conrad and Wade Allison. He has two goals and an assist in that span and is a plus-3 during his time on the ice.
"It's always tough for freshmen because they have to get used to the pace and have to learn how hard you have to work every practice," Murray said. "In college, every puck is important, and you have to practice with intensity every day."
A left-handed shooter, Kingston frequently switches the hand that controls the top of the stick when he's going for a poke-check or trying to maneuver his lumber with one arm.
It might look a little strange to a hockey fan, but it's second nature for Kingston.
"I switch my hands a lot," he said. "A lot of times you'll see me out there, and my left hand will be at the top of my stick. It looks a little unorthodox out there. We've watched some clips of me blocking a shot, and I had my left hand on top and did a complete glove save -- just something you'd never see otherwise.
"I've had to adapt, but I've never known any different. I was born with it; I didn't lose them somewhere along the way, so for the most part, it's just been natural for me to play that way, but I have had to adapt a little bit."
Kingston isn't the only one who has needed to show some adaptability with regard to his condition.
Shortly after Rhett was born, Mike Kingston had a chance to meet Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott, who, despite being born without a right hand, went on to play for the University of Michigan and 10 seasons of pro ball.
This week's Plays of the Week are coming in 🔥🔥🔥! pic.twitter.com/yFgpLsNWe2— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) December 4, 2018
When Abbott trying to make a comeback with the Calgary Cannons minor league team, Mike called the club's general manager and arranged a meeting between himself, his 1-year-old son and the former all-star.
Former Major League Baseball player Jim Abbott, left, holds a 1-year-old Rhett Kingston at Foothills Stadium in Calgary. (Courtesy Mike Kingston) Courtesy Mike Kingston
"We talked about what it was like for Jim growing up and asked him the typical questions about getting teased and how it impacted his athletic career," Mike said. "He said, 'I don't know what you guys are so worried about; this kid's got three more fingers than I ever had.'
"If we were ever feeling sad or bad about the whole situation, here's a guy who played Major League Baseball and pitched in the All-Star game.
"I thought it was a pretty profound statement by Jim, so we thanked him and raised Rhett with that in mind."
Kingston's parents never raised their son to feel sorry for himself or sulk about having fewer fingers than the average person, and his young WMU career is proof that he can do more with eight than most can do with 10.
He realizes he has to do things a little differently, but it's something that he embraces and believes has turned him into the player and person he is today.
"I think it made me work that much harder on the ice shooting pucks and stickhandling because I just needed to keep up with everybody," he said. "It just made me work harder, and obviously, I have to work a little bit differently, but (strength and conditioning coach) Tim (Herrmann) in the gym is great, and he helps me out with whatever I need.
"It's definitely shaped me as a hockey player. It's made me work way harder than I probably ever would've with 10 fingers, and I'd say it's shaped the person I am today."
This article is written by Patrick Nothaft | firstname.lastname@example.org from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.