Des Moines' Joe Gramer comes home, faces former Moorhead teammate in Force's victory over Bucs
Gramer and Fargo Force forward Harper Bentz have limited chances to go toe-to-toe on the ice but both say decision to play juniors this year was the right one.
FARGO -- Joe Gramer says he missed an opportunity. The former Moorhead Spuds player, in town for a three-game series with the Des Moines Buccaneers, wanted to send a friendly hello to his former teammate Thursday night at Scheels Arena.
“I was waiting to trip him,” the Bucs defenseman said about Harper Bentz , his former Spuds teammate now lined up on the other side of the ice with the Fargo Force.
“Was he?” Bentz said, when told of Gramer’s intentions.
The two ex-Spuds were enjoying the moment for sure, though Bentz and the Force came away with a 6-3 victory in front of 2,864 fans in the second meeting of these two teams this season.
Gramer only had a chance or two to face Bentz on Thursday.
“It’s pretty special, obviously,” Gramer said of the matchup. “You’ve got lots of people texting and stuff, saying they’re coming to your game tonight. So it's pretty cool. It’s a little weird being on the road here and staying in the hotel and whatnot being so close to home, but no, it's pretty cool to just see the support from all the Moorhead people coming out to watch. It's a pretty special thing we got going on up here.”
“Obviously he's one of my good buddies I played with last year,” Bentz said. “You know, it's always fun to play against, you know, former teammates.”
Gramer and Bentz played two seasons together for Moorhead before jumping to junior hockey. Thursday wasn't the first meeting in the USHL between these former Spuds. On Nov. 11, Des Moines won 4-3 in a shootout on their home ice.
“You don’t really think about it too much when you’re playing,” Gramer said of looking out for Bentz, “but I remember the last time we played we had a couple battles.”
One of Gramer’s main d-line assignments on Thursday was against Fargo’s top line of Mac Swanson , Cole Knuble and Bret Link most of the night.
“We shut them down pretty good,” said Gramer, who finished a game-high plus-3.
Joe Palodichuk had two goals while Swanson and Kyle Smolen each had a goal and two assists for Fargo, which improved to 17-5-0 on the season. Des Moines, meanwhile, fell to 11-10-3 after this battle of Western Conference teams.
Both Gramer and Bentz would’ve been seniors this year with the Spuds if they had chosen to return to the high school level, and chasing -- once again -- Moorhead's first state title. That run ended prematurely again last winter. Bentz scored Moorhead’s only goal in a 2-1 double-overtime loss to eventual state champion Andover in the quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
“Obviously all of us alumni would love for them to win a state title,” Bentz said. “But it was hard decision obviously.”
Gramer jumped to the USHL following last year’s high school season, playing seven games with the Bucs and finishing with a minus-5 in the plus/minus department. For Bentz and another former Spud, Cedar Rapids defenseman Joe Schiller , this is their first USHL season.
“I felt this was better for me and I think Gramer and Schiller felt the same way and they made the right decision,” Bentz said.
“It was a tough one for me and Harp and Schiller," Gramer said. "It was kind of more of a collective thing. We all just kind of felt this was the league where we could develop and take our next step to up our game a bit. So, it was a really tough decision for all of us and this was just kind of what's best for us.”
With Thursday’s helper, Gramer, a Nebraska-Omaha commit, now has four assists on the season. Bentz, meanwhile, has two goals and six assists with the Force.
Force head coach Nick Oliver said he’s been impressed with Bentz’s transition to junior hockey, crediting his work ethic and his improvement playing away from the puck.
“Sometimes that takes high school players a little bit of time to figure out, but Harper had those small details in his game from day one, which is a credit to obviously the Spuds program and just how he's been developed.
“You know what I think as he's gotten into it, he's gained a little more confidence with the puck. He's definitely creating scoring chances, and usually when that happens, goals, assists and everything else kind of takes care of itself over time.”
Speaking of time, Des Moines is a seven-hour drive from Fargo and for Bentz, he’s got a 15-minute drive from his house to Scheels Arena.
“I still get to live at home,” Bentz said. “I get home-cooked meals. I got my own bed. It's hard to beat.”