Photo by Brandon Anderson
Fans may have noticed over the past two weeks a new team sporting flashy silver helmets at both the USHL Fall Classic East and West. EC Red Bull Salzburg, an Austrian U20 junior club that will play in the newly formed Alps Hockey League beginning this season, traveled thousands of miles to face the best junior competition in the United States.
2016 marked the second consecutive season that Red Bull began its season against USHL teams. The club’s developmental success has spilled over into the USHL. Recent tendered forward Sampo Ranta (Sioux City Musketeers) and first round pick Ryan Savage (Fargo Force) both came directly from the Red Bull program.
The club’s Fall Classic experience was as much a learning experience off the ice as it is on heading into the new season.
“Having the opportunity to play against elite talent in North America is a great experience for our guys,” Red Bull head coach Matt Curley stated. “I think anytime you have a chance to see what else is out there, especially coming from Central Europe to the US, it is an eye opening experiences and gives you better insight to what else is out there. We often say that your ‘competition’ isn’t just domestic, it’s global. It’s one thing to say it but another to have the chance to actually see it and live it. It sets the bar for the guys to continue to strive for.”
One of the Red Bull players was already accustomed to USHL competition. Former Dubuque Fighting Saints and Green Bay Gamblers goaltender Kevin Reich not only enjoyed the time off the ice bonding with teammates, but stopped an impressive 149 shots to accompany three wins.
"It was nice seeing the old guys again and playing against them,” said Reich, the native of Germany who appeared in 68 USHL between Dubuque and Green Bay from 2013-16.
Curley also has hockey roots tied to the USHL. He served as the bench boss of the Indiana Ice for the 2012-13 season, and he said the opportunity to have his team take on some of the best competition in the world is extremely important for his players.
Having both a coach and player who were previously in the league proved to be valuable for Red Bull, who were competitive in every game they played and finished with a win in Pittsburgh over the Youngstown Phantoms. Reich mentioned that because he is a former USHL goaltender, his teammates relied on his advance before playing in the Fall Classic.
“We watched a lot of video,” Reich said. “I talked to the guys and tried to help them out wherever I could.”
As for Curley, being a former coach in the league gave him some idea of the USHL and the league’s style of play. He said he was very impressed with the level of talent in the league and that it was a great experience for his players to face such a high level of competition.
“Having coached in the league and recruited it while in college I have tremendous respect for the caliber of players in this league,” he said. “All these teams are well coached and have a lot of talented kids that will have great careers coming out of this league. I am glad that our players had a chance to compete against some of them and I know that came away with a better understanding of how good the league is.”
“It was a great experience for our players to play against high end competition in a highly professional environment.,” Curley continued. “Between the level of play, the facilities in which we played, the exposure they received and the overall experience of the two weekends, I know that that our team took a lot away from the trip.”
Both Curley and Reich said that they had a wonderful time participating in both the Omaha and Pittsburgh Fall Classics. The team had additional experiences staying at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, MI in addition to attending a Detroit Tigers game. Both believe the trip will pay huge dividends for the success of the club this season.
“Perhaps the best moment of our time here was after our first game in Omaha,” the Red Bull bench boss said. “Sitting in the locker room after that game we came away with a valuable lesson in regards to the challenge that was laid out for us. Coming out of that game, I think they played with more confidence and a better understanding of what they needed to do to have success. It was a great eye opener and a moment to turn the corner and play like we could. I am very proud of the way they responded the rest of the way and am happy with the way they competed.”
Reich echoed Omaha as the turning point, and noted that it set the tone for the rest of the trip.
“The high pace and the work ethic from the beginning in Omaha to the end in Pittsburgh,” Reich noted as the biggest takeaway. “We really grew together as a team. Overall, our biggest highlight was the win against Youngstown."
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 15th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2016-17. 30 or more players from the USHL have been selected in four consecutive NHL Drafts, and more than 400 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.