CEDAR RAPIDS — This is the 20th season of Cedar Rapids RoughRiders hockey, and it’s amazing how much hasn’t changed from day one.
Head coach and general manager Mark Carlson remains here as head coach, winning games and molding hockey players and young men. He’s the rock of this franchise.
There are still the same purple, blue and white seats interspersed around the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. Though it’s nice to see the original carpeting in the Riders locker room finally was replaced over the summer.
Bobby Goepfert is back. The club’s first great goaltender has returned to town as a first-year assistant coach.
Then there’s the team itself. If you listened to everyone during RoughRiders media day Wednesday, the 2018-19 edition is a throwback.
“What I would say about this group right here is that we’ve had a lot of different teams over the years, been fortunate to have a lot of good ones, but this team is going to remind our fans of some of their favorite teams,” Carlson said. “Certainly I like our talent level, but we’ve got a lot of grit ... We’ve got a lot of guys who are willing to stick up for themselves and actually enjoy it. So I think people are going to see a real blue-collar, hard-working, gritty, tough team that has the balance of the skill and the goaltending and some finesse to go in there as well.”
Cedar Rapids takes a 3-0-1 record into its home opener Saturday night at 7:05 against Sioux City. The blemish is an overtime loss to defending Clark Cup champ Fargo two weeks ago at the USHL Fall Classic in Pittsburgh.
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The team bus got stuck pulling off the road for a spell en route to Pennsylvania. Perhaps that was a sign of good luck?
“We learned what happens when the bus pulls over to the sidewalk and gets stuck in Austintown, Ohio,” Carlson said, with a smile. “We learned how to call a tow truck, bring the tow truck in, and how to find a breakfast place for 26 people that we didn’t really have scheduled. That was a heck of a day for us.”
This club has been buoyed early by the play of second-year goaltender Blake Pietila, who has allowed just six goals in four games and posted a shutout. Offensively, nine guys already have goals and 15 have points.
It’s an interesting mix, with 11 players who have at least a bit of United States Hockey League experience (including fourth-year forward Liam Walsh and third-year forward Jason Polin), players like defenseman Dmitri Deryabin (who played briefly last season in Russia’s professional Kontinental Hockey League) and high-end newcomers such as Will Francis and Andrei Bakanov.
Francis and fellow forward Grant Silianoff are on NHL Central Scouting’s initial list of potential draft picks this coming summer. Second-year forward Nathan Smith was a third-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets this past summer, while second-year forward Marek Valach played at Boston Bruins prospect camp before deciding to come back to Cedar Rapids.
The talent is there. Apparently so are the intangibles.
“It’s just the beginning of the season, and all of us are so close,” Polin said. “Obviously, if we see one guy get cheap-shotted, there is no second. We’re going to be in there to protect our teammates, because we all care about each other. That’s a key why we’re winning. We stick up for each other.”
“Just the mix of personalities we have in the room, they’ve come together really well,” Walsh said. “Having guys like us (he and Polin), who have been around and who have seen different teams and how they jell and stuff, we’re doing some things off the ice to kind of help that process. We’ve been around, we’ve seen it, so we can kind of help that.”
The thing is Valach and second-year defenseman Kyle Looft haven’t even played, yet, because of injury. Neither has rookie forward Aidan McDonough.
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First-year forward Jordan Tonelli (son of former long-time NHLer John Tonelli) won’t play this weekend after being injured in a game last weekend against Chicago. He incurred the injury sticking up for teammate Walsh, who showed off two gnarly looking cuts on his face Wednesday, complete with stitches.
Back to that grit thing.
“It definitely was an emphasis for us,” Carlson said, when asked the importance of adding toughness to his club this season. “We have been fortunate to have some good teams here. Me as the GM and the coach, and our staff, too, we kind of addressed it, felt that we needed to have some more grit and some more pushback. There is absolutely no question that we have that. Along with the speed and the skill, I think our fans are going to enjoy that pushback.
“Some of the most popular players who have ever been here have had that pushback. We felt it was important to add that back to our team.”
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