GREAT FALLS — Ricards Bernhards led the Americans in scoring a year ago with 29 goals in 2015-16. At six feet, four inches the big forward drew the attention of scouts in the NAHL and signed with the Springfield Junior Blues. His talent landed him a spot on the Latvian junior national team and he saw the ice at the prestigious IIHF World Junior Championships.
But as is often the case in minor league sports, things don’t always work out as planned.
“I went to Junior Worlds and then came back (to Springfield) and played one game,” Bernhards said. “And then I had a talk with coach, and he said I’m not giving my best to the team – so he released me. There were just three days left until the international deadline, so I was trying to get a new team.”
Springfield’s loss was Great Falls’ gain.
“I texted (Americans) coach (Jeff) Heimel, he said he wants me here so I came here,” Bernhards continued. “It’s a great place to be, come back and meet old friends. And the team is good.”
After joining the team in mid-January, Bernhards has picked up where he left off a year ago. The 19-year old Latvian has tallied three goals and two assists in just four games worth of work with the Americans who are currently riding an 11-game win streak.
“He’s big,” Heimel said of his star forward. “We’ve been a little bit smaller up front this year and he’s made his presence recognized already.”
“In Springfield I was playing like third or fourth line so my ice time wasn’t that big,” Bernhards said of his role. “I came here and it’s huge here.”
The experience at the World Junior Championships doesn’t hurt either.
“He’s definitely a better player than he was last year,” Heimel said. “You’re playing against NHL draft picks and pretty high end players from Russia, Canada and the United States. Their division was very, very good. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t take anything out of that experience.”
Bernhards plans to continue climbing the ladder of junior hockey – but for now, he and his team are focused on one thing.
“I just want to give my best to this team and try to win a championship,” Bernhards smiled. “And after that I will try and find something else.”
The Americans (29-3-2-3) will host the Helena Bighorns (11-25-1-0) on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and then hit the road to the Capital city for a road tilt with the Bighorns.