Bryn Chyzyk was in his second year of law school at UND.
Just two-and-a-half years removed from serving as an alternate captain on UND's eighth NCAA national championship team, Chyzyk still spent plenty of time around Ralph Engelstad Arena. During his free time, he'd sometimes swing into the coaching staff's offices.
In December 2018, Chyzyk was making a routine drop-in between classes. The coaching staff was discussing potential recruits they were planning to bring to campus for visits. One of them was a prospect from Manitoba, Chyzyk's home province.
"Hey Chyz," one of the coaching staff members said, "have you ever heard of this Riese Gaber kid?"
"My jaw just dropped to the floor," Chyzyk said. "No. Way."
Yes, Chyzyk knew Gaber.
But he did not know him as a top college hockey prospect or from scouting circles. Chyzyk knew Gaber as a 10-year-old super fan of a junior hockey team in a small western Manitoba town, where the two met and formed an unlikely friendship nearly a decade earlier.
"Yeah, I know him really well," Chyzyk answered. "Why? Are you guys looking at him?"
Back in Dauphin
Gaber grew up in Gilbert Plains, Man., about 15 minutes west of Dauphin, which was home to the Dauphin Kings of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. There were no NHL teams in the province at the time. The Dauphin Kings were Gaber's favorite.
He attended every home game with his family. They had season tickets and sat in the same spot, right beside the Kings' bench. They'd get there early enough to watch warmups every night.
Sometimes, they'd even travel to nearby road games.
The 10-year-old Gaber picked out a favorite player every year. He took that job seriously, too. He studied up on the players and did his homework. He scoured the web for midget hockey statistics, so he knew about the incoming players. Then, he'd watch to see how they played the game on the ice. After that, he'd pick his favorite.
In 2010, that player was Chyzyk.
"I was always a big stats guy, and I knew he had a lot of success in midget hockey," Gaber said. "I knew he was kind of a highly touted player. After I watched him a lot, I really liked his style on the ice. He had a really good year that year. He kind of became my favorite player that year. I was a really big fan."
Gaber got to know the Kings players and vice versa.
About three to five times a year, the team held a 'Skate With The Kings' event, where fans could join the team on the ice after a game. They'd skate around and take pictures.
"Riese was always the first one on the ice," Chyzyk said. "He'd be buzzing around, playing tag, just flying around the ice. That was my first experience with junior hockey. Coming from AAA hockey, where it's just your parents at games, junior hockey was the first time you really had fans. It was cool to build relationships with some of them.
"Riese was the one who I built the biggest relationship with."
At the skate-with-the-team event, players usually started filtering off the ice after about 30 minutes, but Chyzyk was always among the last to leave.
"He was always so good with the kids," Gaber said. "He was always one of the last guys off the ice. I always appreciated that. It was something I always kept in my mind during my junior career: Give the kids attention at those events, even if we lost the game, because I know how that made me feel as a young kid looking up to Bryn."
They continued to build a friendship off the ice. Gaber, with the help of his mother, Krista, sent Chyzyk supportive messages on Facebook.
Any time Gaber had a chance to choose a hockey jersey number, he'd pick "21," the number Chyzyk wore in Dauphin.
Gaber filled his bedroom wall with photos and posters of Chyzyk. One of them was signed by Chyzyk: "To Riese, #1 fan."
Chyzyk finished as the second-leading scorer that year, playing on a line with Providence-bound Shane Luke. The next year, Chyzyk made the roster for the Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League, an exciting step in his hockey career.
But that meant he was leaving his friend.
"I remember Riese was sad about that," Chyzyk said. "I think he was confused why I was leaving and he didn't understand what league I was going to, which is now pretty ironic and funny because he ended up being the player of the year in that league."
Gaber continued following Chyzyk's career with the Fargo Force. He was excited when he heard Chyzyk committed to UND, the only college hockey program Gaber knew about growing up.
Chyzyk joined UND's team in the fall of 2012 and became a regular for the perennial powerhouse program. He went to the NCAA Frozen Four as a sophomore, junior and senior, winning the title his final season.
During his senior year, Chyzyk was going through hockey statistics online and he pulled up scoring leaders for a midget league in Manitoba. The second name on the list was Riese Gaber.
Yes, the small kid that hung around the rink in Dauphin was turning into a good hockey player himself.
Gaber followed in Chyzyk's footsteps and played for the Dauphin Kings. No. 21 was already taken, so Gaber chose No. 12. After his first year in the MJHL, Gaber started gaining college attention.
He talked to Western Michigan, Brown and Colgate.
Gaber had a couple of connections with Western Michigan. Its head coach, Andy Murray, was a Manitoban. Gaber grew up going to Murray's hockey school. Then-Western Michigan assistant coach Dave Shyiak was a junior hockey teammate of Gaber's dad, Mike, when they played for the Humboldt Broncos. And Western Michigan's star players at the time were Manitobans, Wade Allison and Colt Conrad.
So, Gaber committed to the Broncos.
"I saw he got the commitment to Western Michigan and I was so happy for him," Chyzyk said. "I thought that was so cool."
Gaber played a second year in the MJHL before following in Chyzyk's footsteps and going to the USHL. He joined the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
"I knew he was going to be a good D-I player once I saw him jump to the USHL," Chyzyk said. "But even at that point, I didn't realize how big his ceiling was and how good he was going to be and how big of a prospect he was going to be. He just kept climbing and climbing and climbing."
A change up
During his first few months in the USHL, Gaber decided he wanted to go to college closer to home, so he de-committed. At the time, his stats were solid, but not outrageous, and he didn't exactly know who would be interested.
"I never thought UND would be an option," he said. "I still remember the morning I woke up in my billet house in Dubuque and saw a text from my advisor that said North Dakota looked into my National Letter of Intent, that it's now void, and they're planning to give me a call. Brad (Berry) was the first one to give me a call once I became a free agent.
"After that, that was my goal. I was set on it. I made sure I told other teams that reached out to me."
That's about the time Chyzyk wandered into the coaching staff's office and heard Gaber's name again.
"It was just funny how things went full circle," Chyzyk said. "Here I was, standing there, listening to the coaches talk about how bad they wanted this little kid who I remember flying around fan skates in Dauphin, Manitoba."
Gaber committed to UND once he was offered.
Gaber's game really took off his second season in Dubuque. He led the USHL in goals with 34, set Dubuque's all-time goals record and was named the league's MVP.
Although he still lacks size at 5-foot-8, 161 pounds, NHL scouts were virtually unanimous this summer in saying Gaber would have been drafted had he been eligible. But he had aged out already.
On Dec. 2, Gaber made his UND hockey debut. Playing against Miami in the NCHC Pod, Gaber was electric. He had a game-high six shots. He scored a pretty goal in the third period and led UND to a 2-0 win.
Chyzyk sent Gaber a text after it.
Their friendship had officially come full circle.
"I was watching as a fan, seeing how great he looked," Chyzyk said. "It was different, but very cool.
"Now I'm the super fan, sending him messages after games. I think it's time for me to get a Gaber jersey."