Riese Gaber, the young star from Gilbert Plains, Man., and Kyle Connor, the scoring sensation of the Winnipeg Jets now have something in common.
Gaber, 20, the leading scorer with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, became the 23rd player in the 73-year history of the United States Hockey League to win both Forward of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season. Connor, 23, won both awards in 2014-15 when he played for the Youngstown Phantoms.
Gaber, the former member of the Parkland Rangers’ Provincial Bantam and Midget Triple A teams as well as the MJHL’s Dauphin Kings and Steinbach Pistons had one of the best seasons in the history of the USHL in 2019-20. He led the league with 34 goals, finished with 55 points in 47 games, had four game-winning goals to go with a solid plus-18 mark and led his team to a 33-13-2 mark, second best in the Eastern Conference.
Despite all of that, when he got the call from the league at his home in Gilbert Plains to tell him that he’s won both awards, Gaber admitted that he was still a little shocked.
“It was really surprising for me and something that I wasn’t expecting,” said Gaber, who will play next season at the University of North Dakota. “The caliber of the league is very high, every match up we have is tough and every team is loaded with talent. It’s definitely an honour for me.”
Gaber set a Dubuque Tier I record for franchise goals with 56 in two seasons with the Club. The talented goal scorer found the back of the net in 26 different games this season as well as only being held scoreless in back-to-back games six times. Gaber registered a four-game goal streak from January 31 to February 8 (6-2-8). It was the first time a player from Dubuque had ever been named Player of the Year.
The 23 players who have been named both Player of the Year and Forward of the Year in the same season, constitute a group with a combined 2,302 NHL games played, five NCAA First Team All-Americans, two NHL Stanley Cups, three AHL Calder Cups, four NCAA Championships, one Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy and 11 selections in the NHL Draft.
Interestingly, other than during the 2017-18 season when Gaber had 26 goals in 51 games for Dauphin and Steinbach, Gaber has never been a big, league-leading goal scorer. This year, however, all that changed.
“It’s always something I’ve worked on,” he said. “I think it would be fair to call me a late bloomer. Over the last couple of years with a lot of work and focus on trying to score a little more, I think I’ve found my game.”
When he signed his commitment letter to the University of North Dakota, it was clear that Fighting Saints were thrilled with Gaber’s development. The 5-foot-8, 160-pounde speedster, plays a lot bigger than his stature.
“He plays so hard and he’s really fast,” said Dubuque general manager Kalle Larsson. “Those are the two big attributes he brings. He’s a true heart-and-soul player. We can use him in any situation – to kill penalties, to play on the power play, he’s great anywhere five-on-five. He’s a great kid, too. Extremely unassuming. He plays exactly the way we want to play in Dubuque – fast, hard and skilled.”
Gaber had offers from a number of different schools, but eventually settled on UND. The kid who grew up on the family farm just 15 minutes west of Dauphin, actually committed first to Andy Murray’s Western Michigan University Broncos. However, in his second year in the MJHL, he was traded from his hometown Dauphin Kings to the Steinbach Pistons and his offence improved dramatically. Gaber determined that he would no longer attend Western Michigan, and re-enter the game as a college free agent, in hopes of playing somewhere a touch closer to home.
“I got listed by the Wheat Kings in my second year of midget and went to their camp,” Gaber explained. “I debated it back and forth, but being a smaller guy and knowing I needed more time to develop, I knew the college hockey route was definitely the best choice for me. I committed to the Broncos, but in the end, it didn’t feel like it was the right decision. Luckily things seemed to work out.”
In December of 2018, Gaber made a visit to the University of North Dakota campus, where he officially signed his letter of intent to play for the UND Fighting Hawks, beginning in the 2020-21 season – something he never even dreamed possible.
“It was absolutely unbelievable,” Gaber told Game On Magazine last fall. “When I made the choice to leave Western Michigan and become a free agent again, UND was one of the first teams that contacted me. I never even thought that they would be an option. When we were down there, we were presented with an offer. I didn’t even have to think twice. It was an easy decision, especially being a dream school. Growing up in Manitoba, if you hear about UND, it’s super cool. Now I’ll have a chance to go play there. It’s beyond exciting.”
Based on history, Gaber is taking the correct route to pro hockey. Many players who have been successful in the USHL and then played later at UND, have enjoyed amazing professional success.
“The USHL is such a great league, it’s definitely a grind, but in a good way,” Gaber said. “It’s exactly what you’re expecting if you want to get to higher levels. Obviously, the league is super competitive. It’s tough to score and put up numbers in that league, but I think overall, going down to play in the USHL is a really good stepping stone if your goal is to play college hockey.”
Hockey runs high on the Gaber family tree. Riese’s father Mike, played for the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Humboldt Broncos in the late 1980s, before going on to play professionally in Germany.
This summer, Riese will do pretty much what he’s always done during his off-seasons from hockey – he’ll work at the Gilbert Plains Golf Club and play as much golf as he can.
“Being from Gilbert Plains, there really isn’t too much to do in town,” he said. “The pride and joy is the golf course. It’s a beautiful golf course and it’s always been my second home. It’s only a few minutes from my home and I’ll start work there in a week and then hopefully, I can get to UND to start workouts in July and August.
“There are always things you can improve on so I know I still have a lot of work I can do on my game. I’m moving up into a league with bigger, stronger, older players so this summer I want to put on a little weight and work on my strength training. Next year, the goal is to be more explosive. UND was my dream school and it’s an exciting time.”