Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins spends his summers on the road.
An active man at heart, Eakins has a relentless desire for self-improvement. In recent years, the Ducks bank boss has made a habit of traveling to observe prominent coaching staff across multiple media outlets, hoping to learn more about how others are dealing with the challenges of overseeing a complex operation.
Last summer, one of those trips was to Tuscaloosa to spend some time studying the University of Alabama football program and legendary head coach Nick Saban.
Saban’s reign at the highest peaks of college football is well known, as is his patented snark and obsessive attention to detail. A seven-time national champion, former NFL head coach, he will surely go down in history as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport.
For Eakins, the trip was an opportunity to gain valuable insights in a place very different from home, surrounded by one of the greats of the trade. What he didn’t expect was to meet an influential figure from further afield, 30 years his junior.
In some ways, Eakins and Alex Chery are quite similar. Chery, a 16-year-old from Newport Beach, is a fitness enthusiast herself and is constantly eager to learn more about self-improvement and what drives elite athletes.
Chery, who was born with cerebral palsy, was also present in Tuscaloosa, where she spent a week interning with Alabama’s training staff. Watching training on the field one day, he was introduced to Eakins and an instant friendship was formed.
When the two met, Eakins was struck by Chery’s outlook on life. Here was a child who, despite an early prognosis that he would probably never walk, was a living embodiment of one of Eakins’ guiding principles – “Win Today.”
“I’m proud to have done my best in everything I do,” Chery said. “I want to be perfect, even though I know it’s not possible. I want to win every day. I want to win in everything I do. You can’t do that without trying your best.”
“We talk a lot about ‘Win Today’ here. We try to tick off wins all day long, not just from a hockey standpoint, but also from a life standpoint,” Eakins said. “That young man has an incredible amount of challenges, but he faces every day with an incredible attitude. Every day is a great day. He actually wins every day.”
Chery told the coach about how he’s coping with a condition that limits his mobility on his left side and prevents him from building typical leg strength, outlines his weekly workout routine, and how mental dedication gets him through the tough days.
“I might be sad I can’t walk as well as you,” Chery said. “I could be sad that I don’t have this or that, but what does that do to me? It doesn’t benefit me. It would be me sulking in something I have no control over. So you have to take what you have and work with it and build on it. Look ahead and take a step forward every day.”
So Eakins offered Chery a special opportunity, an invitation to shadow the Ducks coaches at #FlyTogether Fan Camp at Great Park Ice in September. Chery spent the day watching and learning, eager to take in as many aspects of the hockey operations and management processes as possible. He chatted with Ducks players going through morning practices, participated in a pre-practice video conference, discussed practice plans and drills with Ducks assistant coaches, and finally watched the open scrimmage in the stands next to Eakins.
“He’s an inspiring young man and someone who has inspired me,” Eakins said. “Anytime you can find inspiration and share it with your family or team, that’s important.”
“It was great to see the guys and see how they work,” Chery said. “It was great to see how they trained and how they orientate and present themselves… It was also great on the sports medicine side how the players recover and how it is different for each person. I feel like I learned a lot .”
“I saw it light up right away when we got here,” added Chery’s mother, Marissa. “Coach Eakins introduced him to all the coaches and players and took him on a tour of the place, and Alex was just so excited. When I saw him at the end of it all, his face was still all lit up.”
Now a junior at Newport Harbor High School, Chery lives his life with infectious positivity. Marissa believes that this allows him to manage his condition so well, while focusing his future plans on how best to support those around him.
“He’s a bit of an old soul and he always has been,” she said. ‘Nothing can stop him. He’s always found a way to do whatever he sets his mind to.’
Both Alex and Marissa were also quick to comment on how much Eakins’ support means, and how honored they felt to be recognized at the training camp.
“He is such an incredible person and an incredible coach,” said Marissa. “It’s great that he cares about people and gives these opportunities to interact with the team. It was such a great opportunity that he gave Alex.”
Chery wants to use some of his recent hands-on experience and further develop his talents in college, possibly in Alabama, and hopefully lay the groundwork for one day opening a commercial gym dedicated to helping people with disabilities.
“I put in the work and the time, and I want to be able to offer that opportunity to other kids like me,” Chery said. “I want to give them the opportunity where if you work on it and try, you also get stronger. I want to help them get out of a wheelchair, like I did.”
It is something that brings great joy and pride to his mother as she watches her son navigate his own challenges with a passion to help others.
“I’m just so proud of him,” she said. “He’s done so much, but the fact that he’s 16 years old and has these goals, for me as a mom, that’s what’s important.”
“He understands that he has given a lot of help along the way and he wants to give that back,” said Eakins. “Seeing someone like that just reinforces how important it is to have a positive effect and influence on others.”
Alex will rejoin his friends this weekend, giving him a boost of positivity and strength as the Ducks fight the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday.
“I’ve been able to see the science behind the sport in all the meetings, so I’m excited to see it up close,” Chery said. “I’ve seen how they play on the film, how the players move and how positions work on the ice… So I’m excited to see more hockey.”