Sink or swim.
Those were the only two options when rookie Parker Berge was thrown into the deep end earlier this season due to a rash of injuries on the Regina Pats’ blue-line.
Veterans Jake Johnson, Tom Cadieux and Makai Mitchell all went down relatively early in Regina’s schedule, joined by rookies Layton Feist and Jacob Dewitt.
Although Cadieux and Feist have both returned, the Pats are still relying on Berge to play key minutes — 15 to 17 per game — while partnered with 20-year-old vet Kyle Walker.
“Obviously it’s just nice to be here,” Berge said prior to Friday’s game against the Brandon Wheat Kings. “All the injuries are unfortunate but it has given me tons of opportunity on the ice to gain the coaches’ trust. I feel I’ve done a good job of doing that so far. It’s nice to be able to get some confidence on the ice and put that towards my game.”
Regina opened the season with nine healthy defencemen but that number has dwindled to as little as five in recent games.
As a result, Berge and fellow rookie Marcus Taylor haven’t had the luxury of getting their feet wet at a more deliberate rate.
“Coming onto a new team, it’s hard to try to get into a place where you’re being relied on heavily,” said Berge, who turned 18 on Jan. 13. “(When injuries happen) you get to find your place on the team very quickly. For me it has obviously been a big factor in how I’m playing and how structurally I’ve gotten better with the team and their systems. It has definitely surpassed what I thought was going to happen for my first year.”
Pats head coach Dave Struch is pleased with the steady improvement of Berge, an eighth-round pick in the 2018 bantam draft. The biggest challenge is learning to make decisive plays, especially when your time and space is limited against high-end opponents.
“He tends to make soft plays with the puck that in midget you can do and get away with,” Struch explained. “When you’re playing in the Western Hockey League, you have to make hard plays. That’s one thing that Parker and all of our young guys are learning how to do. We’ve seen them do it. They just have to do it more consistently. Parker is a great example. He wants to learn. He wants to do it. There are definitely growing pains but that’s to be expected (for all the youngsters). They’ve taken some big steps.”
Although Berge’s strength is the defensive side of the game, his confidence with the puck has continued to grow as well. After sitting out Regina’s first game of the season, he dressed for each of the next 13, compiling one goal and three assists.
Berge scored his first WHL goal Monday in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Moose Jaw Warriors. He’s one of six players on the team to do so this season, the others being Feist, Connor Bedard, Colby Wotton, Easton Armstrong and Braxton Whitehead.
In Berge’s case, the excitement of his milestone was accompanied by a sense of “relief.” Now that his first goal is in the books, he can just focus on “moving forward and getting better.”
“Obviously whenever you score a goal it’s a big thing,” said the 6-foot-0, 175-pounder. “Being a defenceman, it doesn’t happen very often. But it’s definitely something you like to have (happen) once in a while.”
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