“I was super fortunate to play at the U18 Worlds, to play on the international stage and to be able to represent my country and do my best for USA Hockey,” the 18-year-old Mbereko recalled. “They’re the best 17- and 18-year-old players in the world, so I was just trying to compete and get better every day. It’s the same in the USHL. It’s the best junior hockey league in America, and you have to compete every night. In Red Deer, I had a little bit of a different role, but every role is important. I just want to be able to contribute and help our team achieve its goal, which is gold.”
Mbereko was joined in Red Deer by Drew Commesso, who was the team’s third goalie a year ago and didn’t play at the 2021 U20, and Dylan Silverstein, a 17-year-old who was with that same USNTDP. “I’m an underage goalie, and that was my first time at the tournament,” Mbereko continued of last winter’s World Juniors. “It was the same for all three of us. Coming in, I just wanted to do whatever the coach wanted me to do and be ready for the opportunity to play. I knew I’m not going to play every game. And Drew was such a great goalie. He’s a little bit older and definitely had more experience than me. My biggest goal was to compete and do everything I could to help the team and give the guys a chance to do well. We were just trying to win the tournament.”
Mbereko earned his invite to the team the honest way – through success. He played in three games at the 2021 U18, winning the first in a shootout against the Czechs, winning a hard-fought game against the Finns, and then playing the first part of the quarter-finals against Sweden before being pulled. He wasn’t drafted in the summer of 2021, his first year of eligibility, or this past draft, but he doesn’t seem adversely affected by that unfortunate turn of events.
“I wasn’t really disappointed,” he said. “Going in to the 2021 draft, it was Covid and I hadn’t played a lot of games. I was just hoping for the best. There’s a plan for everybody, and honestly it doesn’t matter if you’re drafted in your first year or second year or third. The ultimate goal is just to make it to the NHL. Not being drafted gave me extra motivation to do my best this year. I’m working as hard as I can.”
To that end, he chose the USHL as a place where he could play a lot and prepare for the fall of 2022 when he intends to go to Colorado College.
“After my time with the national team, I hadn’t played a lot of games because of Covid, and I needed to play before going off to college, get some games under my belt, help with my development, so I decided to play in the USHL. At this time, I’m doing the cliché hockey player thing and thinking about majoring in business, but I’d really like to explore, see what interests me, try to figure out what I want to do away from hockey.”
Like so many teens over the last couple of years, Mbereko was forced to cope with a world fraught with the dangers of a pandemic and not being able to do what he loves whenever he wants to. “It’s a little bit frustrating not playing and having to do a lot of waiting, but you only control what you can control. I think everything happens for a reason. It’s made a lot of people stronger, especially me. I appreciate so much more what I have.”
The world of goalies used to be populated by the short and chunky, but the modern goalie is tall, lean, and as flexible as string. At “only” 5’11”, Mbereko is considered undersized, but that term doesn’t faze or intimidate him.
“I don’t see any disadvantages to being 5’11”. I mean, if you can play, you can play. In terms of development, you have to be consistent, stop pucks, work on things you can control. And for that, it doesn’t matter if you’re 5’11” or 6’4”. If you look at this tournament, there are often quite a few undersized goalies at the World Juniors.”
The shortest goalie last Christmas was Kevin Pasche of Switzerland, who was listed as 5’10”, and there were five other goalies at 5’11”. But the remaining 24 were all at least 6’ tall, topping out at 6’6” with Canada’s Sebastian Cossa. Still, for Mbereko, training is training and learning is learning. There are no height requirements for that.
“My goalie coach does a great job teaching us the basics of technique,” Mbereko explained. “You use it to your advantage, no matter how tall you are. He just wants to make sure we have as many tools in the toolbox as possible. He never tailors any drills or work to one size of goalie; he just wants to make sure we have the material. We can use it or we don’t.”
If there is a goalie who has provided a model and inspiration for Mbereko, it has been Marc-Andre Fleury, long of the Pittsburgh Penguins and more recently Vegas, Chicago, and Minnesota.
“Growing up, I was a huge Fleury fan, seeing how athletic he is, how well he moves, his technique, when to be aggressive, when not to be aggressive. I tried to model my game after his. I’m physically active, trying to learn when to hold onto pucks and when not to.”
For now, Mbereko is one of the 63 players (including seven goalies) invited to participate in USA’s national junior evaluation camp in Plymouth these days, and he hopes to finish what he didn’t start. He didn’t play last year but hopes to have developed enough to earn some quality ice time in goal in August back in Edmonton. A make-up tournament and, for Mbereko, making up for lost time.