Wranglers granted boost to Junior A hockey status

Southern Oregon's hockey presence received a shot in the arm recently, with the Rogue Valley Wranglers earning a boost to Junior A status by USA Hockey to accompany the news that the first-year franchise has locked up its first player.

In a move that had been in the works since May, USA Hockey announced Monday that it was granting the Northern Pacific Hockey League (NPHL) and each of its member teams Tier III Junior A status. The NPHL, or NorPac as it's also referred, was formed in 2000 and had been operating as Junior B franchises.

"That's a really big deal for us and a big deal for Medford, too, because there's not a lot of Junior A hockey being played out there," said Kevin Schwartz, general manager for the Rogue Valley Wranglers. "It's a pretty big jump to make without ever having to start out at the Junior B level. It's the perfect time to be coming into this league."

Beyond some criteria involving facilities and expectations to operate at a higher level, the main difference in Junior B and Junior A is the level of overall talent.

"It translates to better players, basically, and a better quality product on the ice," said Schwartz. "Therefore, you're going to have more scouts coming from different colleges to watch Junior A over Junior B. It's a much better platform to get you to the good college programs."

That's news to the ears of Bobby Reiber, who became the Wranglers' first tendered player following a recent scouting camp in Las Vegas.

"I am very excited about all of it, obviously," said Reiber, 17. "It's pretty cool that I'm going to be the first player in the history for this team. The fact that it's Junior A now is pretty cool, too."

The senior-to-be from Minnesota had lived in Medford until moving east about five years ago. The move corresponded with a job opportunity for his father Richard, but came as a bonus for someone hoping to develop a hockey career but unsure that could be accomplished in the Rogue Valley.

But after 41/2 years of youth league hockey in Minnesota, the 5-foot-10, 160-pound center will bring things full circle.

"That's where he first put on skates and started skating," said Anna Reiber of her son. "It's going to be kinda fun for him to come back there."

Anna Reiber said the entire family will be returning to the area, with her husband, son and 14-year-old daughter Alanna back in time for the Wranglers' main team camp at the RRRink slated Aug. 10-12.

"We knew we wanted to come back eventually," said Anna Reiber, "this is probably just three or four years before we thought that would happen. But this is good, too."

Reiber, who previously attended Hoover Elementary and St. Mary's High, led his Red Wing High School team in Red Wing, Minn., with 17 assists and added nine goals last season. He said he hadn't received much attention at the Las Vegas camp until Schwartz approached him, but just prior to that had vowed to relax and not put too much pressure on himself when on the ice.

"I just went out there and did my best with no pressure and everything just clicked for some reason," Reiber said of a pivotal match that drew Schwartz's attention. "After that he pulled me out of the locker room and talked about the new team they were starting in Medford. I was just excited that somebody talked to me at least, but as soon as I found out it was my hometown, that just added to it."

As a tendered player, Reiber is guaranteed a spot on the roster. What he does after that will be up to him, but Schwartz has plenty of faith in the offensive-minded player.

"I watched a lot of hockey games and a lot of hockey players (at the 240-player camp)," said Schwartz, "and really what drew me to him was his drive and how you could tell he's the kind of player whose out there working hard and definitely determined. You can see it in his play."

"He's a strong offensive player so we're hoping he'll be able to produce some points for us," added the GM, "but he's also the type of player a coach would love to coach because he wants to learn, he wants to try hard and is dedicated to his team."

Playing in a hockey hotbed like Minnesota helped polish Reiber's overall skills, but he added that he's nowhere near the player he hopes to become.

"After every game I talk with my dad to pick something to work on in the next practice or next game," he said. "I'm always just trying to keep myself well-rounded and get better."

In spite of his love of playing hockey in Minnesota — his school lets out if the hockey team goes to state — Reiber said there's really only one hiccup in returning to the Rogue Valley. But even that hiccup comes with an asterisk showing the kind of dedication he has to the sport.

"I've got a very long relationship with a girl out here, but that's probably the hardest part about leaving," he said. "If I wasn't with her, I'd probably already be out there practicing."

Schwartz said the Wranglers will look to add a couple more players to the list of tenders in the coming days. The team already has about 20 registrations for their main camp next month, but anticipates a crop of about 60 players age 15-20 will be vying for a spot on the roster. The Wranglers field a roster of 25, but can only dress 21 per game during a season that runs from October through February.

The update to Junior A status will certainly help bring in the prospects, said Schwartz, adding that the Rogue Valley itself has already provided a solid foundation for recruiting.

"As an expansion team, a lot of people are skeptical at first," he said, "but the fact that we're Junior A now and players are having confidence in us and saying it's going to be a great organization to play in is exciting."

The NPHL is a United States-based junior hockey league that features up-and-coming players age 16-20. All players are unpaid to retain their eligibility, and are typically housed with local host families that receive a small stipend from the player to offset some expenses.

Schwartz said the Wranglers will be hosting a get-together at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the RRRink for families interested in hosting players for the coming season.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

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