Colorado native Kaidan Mbereko isn't the biggest goaltender but he's earned his playing time with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Michigan. Photos by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey’s NTDP
Go ahead, take your best shot at Kaidan Mbereko, who was born in Colorado and is part of the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) in Plymouth, Michigan.
Wrister, snapper, slapper. It won’t matter. You will not knock the smile off the NTDP goaltender’s face as he spreads holiday cheer all year long.
“Kaidan has an infectious personality, he’s always smiling,” said David Lassonde, the U.S. National Junior Team’s goaltending coach who is a former assistant coach at the University of Denver among other NCAA Division I outposts. “He has an attitude of gratitude.
“The tough thing about being a goalie is some nights you don’t play. How he supports all of his teammates is exemplary. He is a pleasure to work with.”
Not only does this nice guy not finish last, but he’s ascended to the USA’s hothouse of hockey development via the Rocky Mountains — Aspen to be specific. His hockey journey came full circle on Dec. 12-13, 2020 when the NTDP’s U18 team played a pair of exhibition games at the Air Force Academy. Mbereko, who was born in 2003, played a large role in a 3-1 victory by allowing just one goal on 27 shots.
“It was my first time at the Air Force Academy, and the first time I’ve played against a Division I team,” Mbereko said. “It was a special moment. With the snow in Colorado that weekend it reminded me of home in Aspen.”
Mbereko is a testament to the axiom that if at first you don’t succeed at (or like) hockey, try again. He tried out skating, didn’t like it and decided to swim and play football among other sports. He tried rugby — the sport his father Isaac played well enough to make Zimbabwe’s national team and then enjoy a pro career — but said thanks, but no thanks.
His brother Zak, who is two years older, attended hockey nights with his friends, and Kaidan went along one more time. A goalie was born at age 6.
“I was attracted to the pads, the designs of the equipment,” he recalled. “Thankfully my parents let me play again. I fell in love with playing it.”
Kaidan Mbereko was at Air Force Academy on Dec. 12-13, 2020. He played in an exhibition matchup for the NTDP’s U18 team against the Cadets and won.
Over the next few years, he played with the Rocky Mountain Snow Kings, a tournament team sponsored by Jeff Soffer that consisted mainly of Colorado and Michigan players that primarily competed in AA-level tournaments. Mbereko said the Snow Kings included at various times future NTDP teammates Sasha Pastujov, Dylan Duke and Ty Gallagher.
Mbereko brings rare athleticism, even by today’s standards, to the net. Much of that, he says, is a by-product of training with his father.
“He’s my personal trainer and conditioning coach, and he works on what my mentality has to be outside of sports as well as on the ice,” Mbereko said. “He’s a life coach as much as anything. But the drills we do have helped my agility and my power, my overall athleticism.”
Lassonde, who has worked with a who’s who of Division I goaltenders during his 30-plus years of coaching, said that athleticism is what allows Mbereko to make up for a relative lack of height. In a sea of Sequoias the 5-foot-11 Mbereko is a bit of a sapling.
“He’s not that prototypical 6-2, 6-3 or taller guy, but he makes up for that with his athleticism, a high compete level and an excellent hockey IQ,” Lassonde said. “He reads plays and figures out what teams are doing strategically.
“He has a very high battle level.”
The battle was half won when Mbereko played at Air Force, he said.
“The biggest thing was recognizing that I belong there,” Mbereko said. “I earned being able to play against a college team. I respected them, but I didn’t fear them.”
Attitude and athleticism have combined with a studiousness to elevate Mbereko’s game. Just as explosiveness and agility are built through repetition so can be the ability to dissect an opponent.
“I watch the game, a lot. I want to be a student of the game — pros, college teams, even our junior opponents,” he said. “I’ve learned that being able to read plays is what can separate a good goalie from a great one.”
What does he watch for?
“Their line rushes, their breakouts, what type of forecheck they have. A goalie has to be a step ahead, and we talk about that a lot in our film sessions with coach Lassonde,” Mbereko said. “Let’s just say I’ve been watching a lot of hockey.”
Where Mbereko goes from here is anyone’s guess. He’s one of three regulars out of the 23 on the U18 team who has not made a college commitment. The NCAA’s decision to grant an extra season of eligibility to seniors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a bit of a logjam, and given there are so few goalie jobs to begin with and the NCAA extended the “dead period” for recruiting until April, it may take a while. Still, it’s not something that concerns Mbereko.
“If I know Kaidan and his family, they’re going to wait for the right fit,” Lassonde said. “Sometimes it’s hard to be patient when 95% of your teammates are committed.
“It’s different for a goalie — there’s only one in the net at a time.
“Academics are very important to Kaidan and his family, and it’s clear that his development as a person, as well as a player, is what they’re concerned with.”
Mbereko takes it all in stride, focusing on getting better every day. And he does it with a smile.
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