116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CORALVILLE — This was all so incredibly déjà vu.
Here was Mark Carlson on Thursday morning at the ice rink at Coral Ridge Mall orchestrating practice for his Cedar Rapids RoughRiders hockey club. It’s a team player-wise that basically has had to be built from complete scratch.
The reason the RoughRiders were skating at Coral Ridge was because their home rink, at least on the NHL side, is temporarily unavailable. All sounds eerily familiar, right?
The Riders’ inaugural season of 1999-2000 worked exactly the same way: a team coached by Carlson with so few guys with United States Hockey League experience, practicing 25 miles down the road, waiting for the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena (now ImOn Ice) to be fully constructed.
“It’s been interesting,” Carlson said. “It’s been good to be back here, though. A lot of memories, a lot of great memories. As far as building a team, it’s been a lot of fun. For the first time in our history, including the first year, we’ve played exhibition games with zero players who have ever played for the RoughRiders. And we’ve done that twice already. But it’s been fun. It’s a good opportunity for everybody.”
The RoughRiders went on sabbatical last USHL season after a derecho did heavy damage to ImOn Ice and made it uninhabitable.
The building has been repaired, with the NHL side’s unavailability due to the original scoreboard being taken down and replaced with a brand new scoreboard/video board. Once that work is done, ice will be put down, and everything will be good to go.
When the 2020-21 season officially was banged late last summer/early fall, Cedar Rapids players were made available to other USHL clubs via a dispersal draft. Their USHL rights were returned to Cedar Rapids for this season.
But there aren’t many of those guys: only forwards Nate Hanley and Ryan Taylor, defenseman T.J. Schweighardt and goaltender Geno Pichora have played before for the RoughRiders. In Pichora’s case, that’s just six games.
“It was tough to see the season end last year because we were going to have a really good team. That was a disappointment,” said Hanley, a University of Connecticut commit.
Hanley played the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons with the Riders and split last season between Youngstown and Green Bay.
“It’s definitely good to be back,” he said.
Schweighardt agreed with him. He played last season with the Omaha Lancers.
“To be honest, I thought I was going to be staying in Omaha. That’s what it looked like,” he said. “But I’m super happy to be back. I wanted to come back to C.R. Just the culture and the family here is what I want to be a part of my last year (of junior hockey). So it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Cedar Rapids has lost all three of its exhibition games, with another on tap Friday night at Dubuque. Preseason doesn’t mean much, though, and the RoughRiders have played a lot of guys.
There were 35 of them who practiced Thursday, with another couple out with injuries. Spots on the regular-season roster are very much up for grabs in many cases.
That includes goalie, where Pichora (a University of Minnesota commit) is battling with Bruno Bruveris (a 2021 Riders draft pick from Latvia) and Connor Hasley (an older kid of 20 who has experience at the North American Hockey League junior level).
At forward, 18-year-old Robert Flinton is a Dartmouth commit who was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh round of the 2021 NHL Draft.
“I like our depth,” Carlson said. “We like our goaltending. I think we’ll be able to play the game any way you want to play it. We’ll be more physical than we have been in a long, long time. I like our strength over the puck. We’ve got some positives, for sure.”
The regular season begins next week with the USHL’s Fall Classic in Pittsburgh. Every USHL team participates, playing two games apiece.
Cedar Rapids plays Omaha on Thursday, Sept. 23 and Lincoln on Friday, Sept. 24. The home opener isn’t until Oct. 16 against Des Moines.
“I wouldn’t say we’re inexperienced,” Schweighardt said. “I mean, obviously, we have a lot of guys who haven’t played in the league, yet. But they’re adjusting really well. Our first couple of preseason games didn’t go the greatest, but we have made so much improvement over these last three games. It’s exciting for me … I’m excited to see how we do in Pittsburgh and then just roll from there. I’m excited with what we have.”
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