On Wednesday, December 2, Manitoba’s Riese Gaber became the 367th player to score a goal for the University of North Dakota’s men’s hockey program. His marker, coming just moments into the final frame, helped the Fighting Hawks seal the deal in a 2-0 victory over Miami University in the Omaha, Nebraska bubble. Wednesday’s game was the first of the abbreviated 2020-21 season schedule for each club, while also serving as Gaber’s NCAA debut.
“It was a moment I’ll never forget,” Gaber told Game On. “We executed our play off the draw perfectly, and it led to a great breakout. (Shane) Pinto and I made a bit of a give-and-go, and he gave me a good pass. As soon as I felt the puck on my tape in that position, I knew it was going in. I’ve practiced that exact shot hundreds and hundreds of times, and it felt good to pot that one. Now we just have to keep rolling and hopefully there will be many more of those to come.”
Officially committing to the University of North Dakota hockey program in late-2018, the Gilbert Plains product has earned his place within the team’s top-six forward group, despite an uber-talented roster. Crediting much of his success to his time spent within both the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and the United States Hockey League, Gaber still has a difficult time comprehending his current reality.
“When I look at it from an outside perspective and see that I’m a university student playing hockey at UND, it’s like, ‘holy crap, I made it, that’s crazy!’” Gaber reflected. “I really never thought that this would ever be an option for me. And now that I’m here it’s just an incredible spot and I absolutely love it. I have to remember the platform I am on and the opportunity I have at hand, so I am working hard every day to make the most of it and follow the footsteps of so many incredible players that have come through here and have been a part of the North Dakota culture.”
Clearly, the USHL’s 2019-20 leading goal scorer (34 goals in 47 games), Forward of the Year and Player of the Year has done something right. Gaber joined current Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Connor last season as just the 23rd player in the league’s 73-year history to accomplish that feat, as he helped his Dubuque Fighting Saints to a 33-13-2, second-place finish. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all USHL postseason play. But as a true student of the game, Gaber used his down time as a period of personal growth, reflection and renewal.
“The last few months have really allowed me to take some really big steps towards improving myself as both a player and a person,” the 5-foot-8, 165-pound forward said. “The biggest thing for me this year has been learning more about myself and the habits that I need to implement every day to remain successful. Working on things both on and off the ice is important for me. I know that what you put in is what you’re going to get out of it; some of the success that I found last year kind of goes to show how hard I worked and just the amount of work that I put in. For me, it’s important to keep doing those things and sticking with what works in order to have that success.”
After seeing his stellar 2019-20 USHL season come to an early close last spring, Gaber travelled back home to Manitoba where he stayed until UND came knocking.
“Once our season was officially cancelled, I was supposed to come down to North Dakota on July 6, but because of the border and travel restrictions I wasn’t actually allowed to get across until July 30. I spent a good amount of time in Grand Forks training and skating with the guys until we left for Omaha this past week.”
On November 29, Gaber and Co. made the seven-hour trek south to Nebraska by way of two stage coach buses. Travelling to the ‘NCHC Pod’ in Omaha, the No. 1 ranked North Dakota hockey program has set up shop in a local hotel, where it will do battle 10 times in a span of 19 days from December 2 to 20. Oh wait, there’s more. The players making up the Fighting Hawks are currently amid the final two weeks of their fall semester, meaning exams are ongoing.
“It’s been a tough balancing act with the amount of games that we’re going to be having in a short period of time,” Gaber admitted. “We’re going to have less time to do our school work, especially with finals week happening right now. It’s not too bad considering everything is kind of online, so that transition hasn’t been the worst. We have our laptops and just work online, and obviously our professors have been pretty good at knowing the situation we’re in, which has been helpful. I’ve still got a couple weeks left here, but it will be nice once this semester has wrapped up and we can just fully focus on hockey for the last few games.”
Incredibly, just hours after his game-clinching tally, Gaber sat down and wrote a biology exam – the course he deems the most difficult within his first semester lineup. Although balancing a vigorous hockey schedule with his school work, the kinesiology major says that the accommodations offered at his team’s hotel have been top-notch.
“We all have a room to ourselves here. We have a really nice hotel and a good spot in the lobby where we eat – it’s actually all blocked off just for us,” he laughed. “All the personnel here have done a really good job getting everything ready and prepared for us. I know it’s only been a few days, but so far it’s gone over quite well. When we look back on this it’s going to be something that we think of as a cool experience, so we just have to take it in and make the most of it.”
Making the most of things has clearly served the former AAA Parkland Ranger well, as he has now experienced two years of Canadian Junior ‘A’ hockey, two more seasons within the United States’ top amateur junior hockey league and has since set himself up nicely for a long-lasting NCAA career. And according to Gaber, this process took significant thought.
“You often see kids going in to college early and maybe it doesn’t work out for them,” he said. “A lot of those guys just end up going back to junior. Obviously everyone has their own path, but I think the big thing is just making sure you are ready. I believe last season I could have played college hockey, but I wouldn’t have been in this big of a role, or maybe have the confidence and success that I’ve already had. Making sure that you’re really ready is super important; there’s never a rush. You can always go in too early, but you really can’t go in too late. Having that experience is huge, and for me it’s been a big help. Why rush?”
Although situated in the Omaha-based NCHC Pod with online exams running steadily through December 17, Gaber remains focused on the remaining nine games leading up to December 20, when he and his teammates return back to campus for a brief Christmas break.
“Even with everything going on right now, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I wasn’t already looking forward to our next game here against Denver on Friday,” Gaber chuckled. “Just getting the opportunity to go out and showcase myself and play with the teammates that I have while wearing that North Dakota jersey is pretty cool. That opportunity is something that I’m extremely grateful for and I don’t want to take any part of it for granted. Just getting to be a part of this team is something that I am extremely excited about every single day.”