BOWLING GREEN — College teams don’t have the luxury of making a trade to add players for a playoff run.
So you can imagine the excitement surrounding the Bowling Green hockey team as it adds defenseman Ralfs Freibergs to the lineup Saturday. Freibergs, a freshman who ranked among the top scoring defensemen in the United States Hockey League last season, played for the Latvian U-18 and U-20 national teams.
While BG coach Chris Bergeron said he’s excited to add a quality player to his defensive unit, he’s even more excited for Freibergs.
“He has worked really hard for this,” Bergeron said of Freibergs. “He moved away from home — and he didn’t move from Perrysburg, he moved from Latvia — to come here with the thought of playing U.S. hockey.
“He’s been through a roller-coaster ride, and now he’s getting an opportunity to play.”
Freibergs’ time on the Latvian national team included contests against professional teams in his home country. Last summer the NCAA ruled that Freibergs would be suspended for one game for every contest he played against those pros, meaning he wasn’t eligible to play in BG’s first 33 games. The 7 p.m. contest today against Northern Michigan at the BGSU Ice Arena is the Falcons’ 33rd game this season, making him eligible to return Saturday.
“I’ve been waiting for seven months, so I’m excited [to play],” Freibergs said. “At the same time I’m a little scared and nervous.
“I don’t know what to expect from the game because I haven’t played college hockey.”
Bergeron said he’s excited by the boost Freibergs can give to the team, especially its struggling power play.
“We’re adding a really good defenseman, and I’m OK with that,” Bergeron said with a smile. “We’re adding a guy who has led his last two leagues in scoring for defensemen, and he can help our power play.
“But also give the credit to Ralfs. He didn’t take the last four months off. This kid has showed up every day just like everyone else. But everyone else was fighting to play. This kid knew he wasn’t going to play. So I’m happy for him — and I’m happy for us.”
Freibergs said he tried to stay sharp and improve his game while he waited to return to action.
“I’ve tried to do extra workouts with our strength coach, Kenny Goodrich,” Freibergs said. “On Fridays and Saturdays I would do extra skating since we didn’t have practice. I think I’m in pretty good shape, and I’m ready to go.
“Also, my one-timer wasn’t very good last year, so I’m trying to work on that shot.”
Freibergs may play as few as five games this season, but he said redshirting to preserve a year of eligibility wasn’t a choice.
“I think four years is enough,” he said. “I know I’m not ready for professional hockey, but in four years I can develop and get bigger and stronger and faster. I don’t think five years will change that.
“If I’m not ready for pro hockey after four years, I’ll never be ready.”
While Bergeron is excited to add Freibergs, he cautioned that the Falcons weren’t adding Nicklas Lidstrom to the lineup.
“He’s a great person, and he’s a good hockey player who deserves this opportunity,” Bergeron said of Freibergs. “But we’re not going to jump into first place just because he’s playing Saturday night. …
“He’s a freshman who hasn’t played in a game in a while. But there’s a maturity level to his game that most freshmen don’t have. And he’s very comfortable with the puck [on his stick].”
While adding Freibergs is a big change for the Falcons, it may not be the biggest this weekend. Senior goalie Andrew Hammond, who has missed the past four games with a knee injury, stayed off the ice for a full week before returning to practice Wednesday.
Bergeron said Thursday that Hammond is still considered as day-to-day but will not play today against Northern Michigan. Hammond will be re-evaluated Saturday to see if he will be able to play in BG’s final home regular-season game this season.
“We feel he’s in great condition, so having him go on the ice and tweak it to take a step back doesn’t make any sense,” Bergeron said. “Senior Night is Saturday, and it sure would be nice to have him that night.
“But we can’t sacrifice the playoffs for one Senior Night game.”
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.