One of the greatest things about being a hockey fan living in Oklahoma is the fraternal spirit that you share with other fans from around the state. Fully realizing that it's a limited and minute population of the sports fanbase, Oklahoma hockey fans are loyal, sincere, and proud. We few, but elated individuals are voraciously hungry for frozen sports frenzies each and every hockey season. Over the last couple of years we've seen several "of our own" break from the herd of pee wee hockey, and tap into higher levels of play. This brings a smile to many faces knowing that someone from the sweeping plains of Oklahoma has chosen a not-so-familiar sport, embraced it fully, and succeeded at the next level.
As you read these humble meanderings, four youngsters from the great state of Oklahoma have found themselves in the thick of NCAA or USHL hockey seasons. Chase Grant (Minnesota State), Chris Waterstradt (Connecticut), and Matt Donovan (University of Denver) each play for distinguished universities known for their excellent hockey programs. Another young gun, Josh Berge, known for his leadership skills and consistent pedigree is nestled in mid-America with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL. Berge was born in Oklahoma City where he began play with the Oklahoma City Youth Hockey League at the age of four. He worked his way up through the house leagues and landed himself a spot with the Tri-City Storm in 2007 where he played in 59 games had six goals and 14 assists. Josh, not known for his size, but rather his tenacity, stands at 5' 8" and nearly 160lbs. What he lacks in size he makes up in leadership, as he was named captain of the Storm almost immediately.
In December of last year, Josh was traded to in-state rivals the Lincoln Stars. A rare thing it is to see a captain traded mid-season, but it proved to be a good move for Josh. His older brother, Mick also born in Oklahoma City, played for the Stars, and eventually had a successful career at Minnesota State, and 27 games between the ECHL/CHL leagues. With a full off-season of prep work, Josh has emerged as an important piece to the Stars success of late. "We started off kind of slow, but lately we have been on a five game win streak, and we're finally feeling very good," says Berge. Feeling good indeed as that five game win streak (now six) included an 8-0 drubbing of his former Tri-City team, and also garnished Berge his fourth goal of the season in only ten games. He may not admit it, but beating his old team made for a joyous occasion. "You know, Lincoln really fits my style of play better. The coaches, the philosophy, the city, I really feel like I belong," mentions a confident Berge, "Coach Chad Johnson is an easy going guy. He's easy to talk to. Very consistent in his coaching, and that makes things easy." And what about that Lincoln Stars legacy which began with his brother? "Obviously they know my brother, so when I arrived they welcomed me with open arms which made the transition easy," says Berge. His brother paved the way by playing three strong seasons in Lincoln scoring 35 goals, and 82 assists.
The road hasn't always been easy for Berge. He suffered a tear in his knee ligaments in February which cost him the rest of his season. However, lately it's been the shoulder that's giving him some heartache, "Over the last two weeks my shoulder has improved. I finally feel like I might be 100% for the first time in a month or so," comments Berge. The Stars will need Josh healthy over the next couple of months as they scratch and claw their way through the Western Division of the USHL. "Our realistic goal is to be one of the top three teams in the league by Christmas. We realize that's a lofty goal, but it's done by getting better day-by-day in practice, and in game situations. We know we can make it," says Berge. The team is headed in the right direction, and with a great young leader in front.
Almost in perfect sync with his trade to Lincoln in December, Berge announced that he had decommited from Minnesota State where his brother had played so vigilantly for four straight seasons. "All I can say is that we didn't see eye-to-eye on some things, but I'm currently talking to a handful of teams, and I'm certainly keeping my options open," laments Berge, "I'm sure I'll make a decision soon though." With so many options for young US players, taking his time might be just what Josh needs as he focuses on staying healthy, and on strong, persistent play.
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Josh had a great hockey dad, Mark, who hailed from Grand Forks, North Dakota and played for the Fighting Sioux during the late 70's and early 80's. Mark Berge even participated in three games with the Oklahoma City Blazers of the Central League. "I started playing hockey when I was only four years old. My dad, being from North Dakota, got us involved in hockey instantly even in Oklahoma, " continues Berge, "With my brother as an example, I was right there alongside him." Shaping his path to the next level were the diligent coaches at the Oklahoma City Youth Hockey leagues, "Honestly, there are some really great coaches in Oklahoma City. They don't get enough credit, and they certainly deserve it," comments Berge, "Some of the best coaches I've ever had are from Oklahoma. They've always taught us to work hard, and that's what's gotten me through juniors, and hopefully into college."
With the newly christened Oilers AHL affiliate in town, you have to wonder if these kids who grew up watching the Central League Blazers, keep up with a quicker, sharper, more fulfilling version of the game now being played in their home town. "Yeah, every couple of weeks I check the scores and standings. I've noticed lately they are climbing a little so I'm hoping they continue to do well."
Another great story of local success from a very unlikely corner of the United States. You, the faithful readers of 'Copper & Blue' understand a thing or two about hockey and the development side of the game that makes it so much fun to follow. Add one more "kid" to your list of watchers, and remember the Oklahoma roots of on of our own, Josh Berge.
For more on Josh, and the Lincoln Stars check out the following links:
Check out the list of Oklahoma-born "up and comers" and their stats on the year:
|University of Denver
*Drafted by the New York Islanders