Minor League Sports

A year without Cedar Rapids RoughRiders hockey

Former players adjust to new USHL teams, coaches/organization in full gear rebuilding for next season

Severe damage is seen to the corner of the ImOn Ice Arena in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Ga
Severe damage is seen to the corner of the ImOn Ice Arena in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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There still is a part of all of them that remains in Cedar Rapids.

Kids like Max Sasson, Justin Hryckowian and Bennett Zmolek are playing elsewhere this season in the United States Hockey League. They had no choice.

The derecho that blasted the city in August made the ImOn Ice Arena uninhabitable. Multi-million dollar repairs are ongoing.

Because of that, the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders announced early in the fall they had to opt out of the 2020-21 season. Much like their rink, they would rebuild and come back next season.

Their players were made available via a league dispersal draft. Sasson is with the rival Waterloo Black Hawks now, Hryckowian the Sioux City Musketeers and Zmolek the Youngstown Phantoms.

One of his teammates is Nate Hanley, also a teammate in Cedar Rapids. Fourteen 2019-20 RoughRiders aren’t RoughRiders this season.

Though in a weird way, they still are. They have a bond, and it’s a strong one.

“Our group chat goes pretty much all day still,” Sasson said. ”We had a pretty tight team both of my years there. That the team I was on last year and year before still talks just speaks to the culture you have in Cedar Rapids. A lot of kids I know never talk to their old teammates ... The guys are keeping in touch.”

It’s part “how are you doing?,” part smack talk.

“Yeah, our old group chat from last year is always getting fired up,” Hryckowian said. “People making jokes about going up against each other. Me and Sass have gone at it a good amount of times already this year. We’ve played each other four times, so it’s classic to line up for a faceoff against him.

“Good times against my old teammates.”

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The team Zoom call in mid-September with Coach/General Manager/President Mark Carlson was out of the blue and a gut punch. This was going to be a very strong club, no doubt, potentially one of the better ones in Carlson’s 22 years.

Tryout camp had just been completed in Minnesota. Everyone was excited.

“Really unexpected,” Zmolek said.

“Honestly devastating,” Hryckowian said. “I knew how good we could have been. We were so tight as a group, with the guys returning from last year, and we had a lot of guys coming in from the draft. For me, personally, not being able to play much last season because of injury, I really wanted to come back and give back to the team that drafted me and to the community that embraced me. I was excited to go back there, be healthy and try to win a Clark Cup at The Stable. It was definitely so sad.”

But they have carried on and adjusted to their new cities, their new clubs, their new coaches, their new teammates. It’s been good, they all say.

As good as it can be playing during a worldwide pandemic.

“It was really weird at the start,” said Zmolek, whose brothers, Riese and Will, also played with the RoughRiders before moving on to college hockey. “You’re used to Carlson, and all of his tactics and what he wants to do ... I was only three hours away from home (being from Rochester, Minn.), now this is 12 hours away from home. Way longer than what I expected going into this year. You’ve just got to learn a new coaching staff, how they feel about the defensive zone, the offensive zone, the neutral zone, all that stuff. It’s not really hard to pick up. It’s just different than what you were used to.”

“I definitely couldn’t have ended up in a better spot. I like it a lot here,” Sasson said. “But everything, from all the coaches, to the way we load the bus, to the way we get to the rink, just everything is just a little bit different. Not crazy different, but there are things that are unique.

“Obviously Cedar Rapids has its little kinks on how it does things, and Waterloo does, too. So it’s just learning the ins and outs of the organization, and what they want from you.”

Sasson has had the benefit of playing for two historic USHL coaches in Carlson and Waterloo’s P.K. O’Handley. That isn’t lost on him.

But he says he still hasn’t totally gotten used to Young Arena being his home rink and may never.

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“When I walk out on the ice for practice or a game, it still feels weird not to go to the visitor bench,” he said. “That will always be strange.”

Despite not being their coach anymore, Carlson remains a part of all of their lives. He communicates regularly with most of them, seeing how they are doing, if their billet families are good, asking if they might need anything.

They are not his boys anymore in one sense, but they always will be in another.

“They’re all doing very, very well in the league,” Carlson said. “They have all been positive contributors to the success of the teams they are on. Those are their teams now, right? Those are their organizations. We are being respectful of that, for sure, but still staying in touch with guys because we can. It’s important to root them on and be there for them if they ever need someone to bounce something off.”

“He was a great coach for me, but also a great man to speak to, with everything he’s done for me,” Hryckowian said. “Just hockey related, if I ever have any questions or anything I think he can help me with, I’ll shoot him a text. He’s always checking in on me.”

Or having them over to visit.

“I went over to his house a couple of weeks ago and had dinner with him and (wife) Tammy,” Sasson said. “We’ve been keeping close contact. He cares about the former players and the spots they are in now ... I miss him. I think he misses us, too.”

That much is for sure. This is the first time since he was a very little boy that hockey has not been part of Mark Carlson’s life in the winter.

He built the RoughRiders from scratch into a consistent winner. They are his baby, why he has remained in Eastern Iowa despite lots of overtures from college programs and professional teams.

He and others in the organization are out on the road scouting a ton right now. There is a May draft they are preparing for, and they are going to be ready.

They want this to be a reloading situation.

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“I’ve tried to look at it as a positive from the beginning,” Carlson said. “Especially in our community, with the cornonavirus and then the derecho on top of it, there are a ton of people going through a difficult time. So we are just trying to look at it as a positive, that we’re fortunate to have an opportunity to rebuild our organization. To get out and scout, do research and also follow all of our affiliate players, watch the progress of all of our guys who are dispersed and doing really well in the league.

“Being able to do all of those things, I do feel fortunate to be a part of it. That has been our approach since day one. Be positive and take on the challenge.”

The challenge includes trying to keep the community engaged and the sponsors and advertisers on board. The RoughRiders — who are owned by Colorado businessman Tony Sdao — recently completed a “12 Days of Giving” promotion sponsored by ModernCompanies, Inc., over the holidays, in which people could win daily prizes (gift certificates, etc.) from local restaurants and businesses.

Fleet Farm sponsored a daily “Plinko” contest, in which fans could win prizes from it. Tammy Carlson is the club’s Community Outreach Director and Director of Sales and has worked diligently to keep relationships.

She said she is encouraged by the responses the RoughRiders have gotten from their sponsors.

“Something good will come out of the bad. This is an opportunity for us to be more creative,” she said. “Everything has been positive on my part. It really has. There are four of five (advertisers) already paid in full for next year. Hopefully, I think with COVID and all that, we’ll be in a more normal place by next year.”

That’s everyone’s hope. Back to normal, back to The Stable, back to RoughRiders hockey.

“As an organization, we have been able to look at a lot of things we have done over the years,” Mark Carlson said. “What have we done well, and what things can we improve on? How can we learn, how can we get better? Those are all positives. Definitely miss a group of young men to work with every day. That is the thing that is most difficult. But the challenge of taking this on, the rebuilding, has taken over front and center for us.”

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LAST SEASON’S ROUGHRIDERS IN THE USHL

— Zach Faremouth (Des Moines Buccaneers): Through Friday, forward has six goals and eight points in 19 games.

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— Alex Gagne (Muskegon Lumberjacks): Stellar season for defenseman thus far, with two goals, 12 points and a plus-minus rating of plus-12 in 16 games.

— Nate Hanley (Youngstown Phantoms): Would have been third season with C.R. Has goal and two assists in 10 games.

— Justin Hryckowian (Sioux City Musketeers): Forward has been terrific, as expected, with four goals and 10 points in 11 games.

— Nikolai Mayorov (Lincoln Stars): Last season’s leading goal scorer began with Tri-City but was traded. Has a goal and three assists in 13 games overall.

— Derek Mullahy (Des Moines Buccaneers): Has become D.M.’s primary goalie, with 6-4-1 record in 11 games, a 2.60 goals against average and .894 save percentage.

— Jack O’Leary (Lincoln Stars): Left Cornell University to return to USHL because Ivy League canceled winter sports. Has three goals and four assists in eight games.

— Michael Posma (Tri-City Storm): Has a plus-minus rating of plus-four in just seven games. Has a goal and two assists.

— Tyler Rollwagen (Fargo Force): Forward has seven goals in 17 games. Also has three assists and a plus-minus rating of plus-seven.

— Max Sasson (Waterloo Black Hawks): In 14 games, forward has three goals and six assists.

— T.J. Schweighardt (Omaha Lancers): Defenseman has played in 12 games and has two assists.

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— Michael Suda (Fargo Force): Defenseman has just two assists in 17 games, but boasts a stellar plus-minus rating of plus-10.

— Garrett Sundquist (Sioux Falls Stampede): Defenseman has played in 11 games and has an assist.

— Bennett Zmolek (Youngstown Phantoms): Defenseman has been hampered by a knee injury. Has played in five games and has two goals.

— NOTE: Defenseman Grant Hindman (Youngstown Phantoms) and forwards Adam Flammang (Sioux Falls Stampede), Kyle Bettens (Omaha Lancers), Michael Citara (Sioux Falls Stampede) and Doug Grimes (Sioux City Musketeers) were on Cedar Rapids’ roster and taken in the USHL Dispersal Draft. They did not play last season with the RoughRiders.

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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