From Aspen to Michigan to Nebraska, and back to Colorado, Mbereko living the hockey dream
Kaidan Mbereko is currently in Western Canada with the United States National Junior Team, representing his country at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship.
And while he’s one of the top junior hockey goaltenders in the U.S. right now, it’s imperative to realize that his journey started in Aspen, then took him across the country to Michigan before heading to Lincoln, Neb., this season and returning to Colorado next season.
Mbereko is enjoying his rookie season with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars, the team the drafted him sixth overall in Phase II of the USHL Draft this past May. He also went into the season with his NCAA Division I commitment in place, having decided on Colorado College over the summer.
“The USHL West Division is just a different breed of games, but I love it,” said Mbereko. “In general, the USHL is great competition. Every game is hard and there is so much detail that goes into trying to win a game. I think that’s what our team is really trying to figure out through our practices during the week leading up to Friday night. I think our team is progressing in the right direction and we just want to strive to get better each week and put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs and play for the Clark Cup.”
Off the ice, Mbereko is seeing his game blossom with the Stars.
“I think I’ve done a great job, especially with this being my first time away from home,” Mbereko said. “My parents moved with me to Michigan, so I never got the billet experience, but over here in Lincoln, I’ve kind of had to mature and be a pro and do the things I need to do to prepare for Friday and Saturday. With the NTDP, I learned how to do that, so the adjustment wasn’t too hard or too difficult, and I went into it knowing what to expect. This is all about the process and not the results, and I think I’ve done well so far. I have to give credit to my teammates. They’ve made my job a little easier.”
On draft day on May 27, Mbereko knew he would wind up getting taken but nothing was certain.
“I had talked to a couple teams, and it was like an hour before the draft that Lincoln called and said they were really interested and wanted to pick me,” said Mbereko. “They even considered trading up, but luckily I was able to still be there and go at No. 6, and it all worked out. Regardless of what team picked me, I was going to play this year in the USHL.”
Prior to arriving in Lincoln, Mbereko saw a milestone and dream come to reality with his commitment to the Tigers for the 2022-23 season.
“The opportunity actually came up after the World Under-18 Championship and my goalie coach at the time said that a lot of teams were calling and that Kris Mayotte, the new coach at CC, was very interested,” Mbereko said. “Colorado Springs is about three and a half hours away from Aspen and I was very excited to know that one of the teams from my home state wanted to recruit me. Before my visit, I was kind of leaning toward CC, but after the visit, I kind of locked it in. Seeing the new rink (Ed Robson Arena) and all they had to offer academically and athletically, I just knew I wanted to go there and go back home and help rebuild that program.
“I’m very happy and excited for the future there.”
One of Colorado College’s assistant coaches is Peter Mannino, a former University of Denver goalie who was part of the Pioneers’ national championship team in 2005. Another assistant coach, Mark Stuart, played at CC from 2002-05 and also played 634 NHL games with the Boston Bruins, Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets from 2005-17.
Off the ice, Mbereko said he is undecided on a major, noting, “The typical answer is Business, but after talking to the team’s academic advisor, she says that a lot of the guys like to go there and try a lot of different majors and classes and see what they’re really interested in.”
“That’s what the players like, the process, and I don’t have any set plans yet, so I think just going in there and having an open mind to try and find what I really want to do after college and after hockey is kind of my goal,” Mbereko said.
Before being officially named to the U.S. World Junior roster, Mbereko was one of four goalies on the preliminary roster.
“It’s definitely a huge honor,” said Mbereko. “Any time you get to wear the jersey is seriously something you should be really proud of. It means you get to represent your family and country and for me, the Lincoln Stars. I’m very grateful for the opportunity and to know that those guys believe in me and that I can help them win a gold medal. I know this is something bigger than myself.”
And while the World Junior tournament is not his first time wearing the U.S. jersey, Mbereko first learned the ropes in Plymouth, Mich., with USA Hockey’s NTDP.
“I was hurt my 16U year for Little Caesars and couldn’t go to the USA Hockey camps in Buffalo, but my coach, Kris Draper, and a few other Red Wings guys, were super supportive and helped me get the tryout with the NTDP,” Mbereko said. “I went in there with confidence, and everything worked out and I was able to play the last two years there and really developed like I wanted to.”
After leaving Colorado when he was barely in double digits, Mbereko spent four years playing AAA hockey in the Detroit area for Belle Tire, then one each with Compuware and Little Caesars.
“It was kind of weird how I came up in hockey,” said Mbereko. “I played for the Aspen Jr. Leafs, a AA program, and one of my teammates, his dad kind of wanted to take things over and wound up building the Rocky Mountain Snow Kings, and we traveled all across the country. We were 10-12 years old, playing AAA teams in tournaments and getting so much experience playing teams from Detroit, Minnesota, Vermont, Massachusetts, you name it. One of our coaches was Craig Furstenau, and he was one of my first coaches and one of my biggest influences. He was really able to share his knowledge and give us all the tools we needed to compete. He got me on my journey to where I’m at now, and he’s definitely one of my favorite coaches and our families are still really close.”
Truth be told, Mbereko became a goalie out of spite. It’s actually worked out well for the 2003 birth year who will be eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft after not being taken in 2021.
“I started out as a skater, and absolutely hated it,” laughed Mbereko. “All the skating and stickhandling, I quit for about a year. One day, I was at lunch with one of my good buddies, and he was a goalie, and he was showing me some custom pads that just came out from Brian’s, and I was like, ‘Wow, you can really do that with pads?’ So then I asked my parents if I could try goalie and they looked at me like I was a little crazy, but after about two weeks, I fell in love with it and it was something I wanted to pursue, and I’m still going at it still.”
Still only 18, Mbereko knows his future is what he makes it, and he fully intends to keep working hard.
“The long-term goal this year is to win the Clark Cup, and I think we are all capable of that,” Mbereko said. “I just want to do all I can with sleep, diet, everything to help put us in a position to be there at the end. Just want to be my best self each day. Away from the rink, I want to read like 2-3 books every three months. With this gap year before I go to college, I want to keep my mind sharp.
“Another long-term goal is to play in the NHL. That’s been something I’ve thought about for a long time. My dad played professional rugby and has always been a huge supporter of mine, letting me know how hard the journey is, but if I really want to do it, I can do it.”
— Matt Mackinder
(December 23, 2021)