Two months ago, playing for the same team was the last thing on the mind of Thunder affiliates Marko Reifenberger and Bram Scheerer. However, following their trips to Bloomington that’s exactly what they found. Two players who just competed for Minnesota state section titles would now be wearing the same jersey for a team in a whole different kind of playoff hunt.
Their first action would come against the Under-18s of Team USA on Friday, March 4 for Bloomington’s second annual Chicago Blackhawks Night. The prospects awaited that tap on the shoulder and their chance to step on the Coliseum ice. Finally the call came and both affiliates jumped into their first United States Hockey League opportunity.
“I was pretty nervous (getting on the ice), but as soon as I touched the puck it all went away. Everything felt natural,” said Scheerer on his first shift. “Every single thing about the play in the USHL is a lot faster.”
The two have been familiar with one another in the past. In their youth, they played against one another and were even teammates on occasions for select teams. Sheerer and Reifenberger commented on their relationship as a rivalry turned friendship off the ice before setting foot in Illinois. Playing for rival schools, Edina and Hill-Murray, the heated game separated the adversaries until it finished, but went back to friendship quickly with the final buzzer. This year, they battled in a pair of games around the New Year and traded points for their respective teams. The Minnesota based players were deep in the heart of their seasons when the two out of conference opponents met up.
“Bram and I are pretty good friends so it’s cool to play in a different league for the same team,” commented Reifenberger. They then began to reminisce on their season with thoughts on teams, players, and of course, the tournament. “We talked about some of the Minnesota guys we know back home a little bit and then we made our predictions on who would win state,” he chuckled.
Scheerer had the last laugh in the games as his team, Edina High School, won the first meeting before tying the second. He also had a two-goal night, including the game winner on the power play in the third period. However, Reifenberger posted a two-point night in both games, matching Scheerer’s four points over the set.
Both forwards were among the top scorers for their programs with 30 points each in their junior year. With Reifenberger and Scheerer making their United States Hockey League debut’s, the Thunder began the final stretch to the post season. It also becomes the start of unveiling their prospects for seasons to come. Finalist for Mr. Hockey Mitchell Mattson (University of North Dakota) and now rookie forward Vlad Dzhioshvili (Cornell University) tried their hand at the USHL at the end of the 2014-15 season. The two accounted for 12 points (5g, 7a) over 13 games to finish the year. Another Mr. Hockey Finalist, Tyler Jette, made his USHL debut earlier this season after being selected in Phase II of the 2014 USHL Draft.
For Reifenberger his time in Bloomington has been a chance to truly meet the Thunder staff and team. That’s something he has been excited and happy to do only a week into his stay in Central Illinois.
“The coaching staff has been great with us and new guys coming in. They are really easy to get to know and have been very helpful for me getting to know the systems and team,” said the Thunder’s first round Phase I pick from 2015.
“I was really excited and nervous not knowing what to expect,” said Scheerer who spent the weekend in Bloomington for a taste of the USHL and to learn everything he could about junior hockey. “Having Marko there for his first time too, knowing he is in the same boat as me, made it fun for both of us.”
Before Saturday night’s game both affiliate players stepped on the ice for a small pregame skate to work on skills and systems. Some of the players off the ice marveled and even commented on the young men with comments like, “these guys are good.” Off the ice, the feelings were reciprocated by both players who mentioned the hospitality and welcome from the Thunder players and billets as first class.
“They made me feel like a part of the team,” commented Scheerer. “Even though I was just down for the weekend, it felt like I had been there for the whole year.”
In game play, the two contributed with ice time and physicality, but were not on the ice trying to go coast to coast in their first shift. “It was a big step for me coming out of high school and hopping right in against the 18’s,” said Reifenberger. “I think we were more nervous about keeping up with the pace, making a few plays, and not too worried about getting points.
“(The USHL) is definitely a step up from high school and is going to help me develop my game and to reach my goals,” he continued.
Now that the first step of getting the butterflies out, the work can begin. The affiliates joining the Thunder are able to see first-hand the pace and skill of the USHL, but also witness a dogfight for the post season. In their second year, the Thunder have already excelled in developing their prospects into USHL talent. Now Reifenberger and Scheerer have become part of the next wave of prospects hoping to take the Thunder to a championship season.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.