It's tough enough to become a member of the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks hockey team, one of the most highly-regarded programs in all of college hockey. Former Estevan Bruin Josh Rieger has accomplished that part, but making the team is only half the battle.
Rieger, who suited up for 17 games for one of the NCAA's most storied teams in 2017-18, has played just three games this season as he fights to crack a lineup littered with NHL draft picks. But the 22-year-old Regina native knows he's just one injury away from another chance to prove himself.
"The team is starting to peak upward before Christmas," Rieger said. "I've just got to keep working every day and the opportunity will come."
For Rieger, who ate minutes in his final season in Estevan, not playing has been a bit of an adjustment. Still, it was one he knew he would have to make coming into his NCAA career.
"It's different, that's for sure," he said. "To go from being one of the top guys to having to fight every night just to get in the lineup is different but it's a challenge I like to take on every day and I like to keep pushing."
Rieger endeared himself to Fighting Hawks fans last year with a hard-hitting style that Bruins fans were well familiar with. In his very first game in a fighting Hawks sweater, he laid out a member of his opposition with a hit he's immortalized on his Twitter profile.
"That was probably one of my first hits in college," Rieger said with a grin. "The puck came up the wall and the guy had his head down. He turned right into me and it was a good shoulder-to-shoulder hit."
"I love it," he said of the physical play. "It's what I based my game off of all the way growing up and it's what I stick to still."
Playing in front of one of the NCAA's most passionate fanbases and in a building that puts many an NHL arena to shame took a bit of adjusting as well. Rieger has learned to keep the crowd noise out of his thoughts.
"It's a pretty surreal feeling," Rieger said. "You kind of try to zone it out and stick to the game. You have to worry about what's on the ice and go from there. Once you're in the moment it's easy to focus up."
For Rieger, the next step is to work his way into the lineup on a more permanent basis, whether that means playing forward as he did at times last season or sticking in his usual defensive spot.
Casting his mind back, Rieger has fond memories of his time in Estevan. He's still in contact with many of his former teammates, and his old billet family, Mel and Burt Pierson.
"I still stay in pretty good contact with them," he said. "It's nice to hear their names again and I hope they're doing well."