A new sheet of ice covering a lake. The powdery snow shoveled off in clumps to the sides. A brisk chill hovering in the air. If you are lucky, a hot drink waiting for you at the end of the day.
Well, hockey is in the air. Even if the Helena Bighorns play their home games at the 1,600-seat Helena Ice Arena – not in frozen outdoor surroundings – the chill of fall feels like the right moment to call attention to the dropping of pucks and sharpening of skates.
For those unacquainted, the Helena Bighorns are a Tier III Junior A ice hockey team in the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL), comprised of teams from Montana and Wyoming. They won the league championship in 2013-14 and put together a solid campaign last year – nearly winning a division title. Six players from last year’s squad advanced to college hockey, including the NA3HL’s Most Valuable Player, Brandt M iller, who committed to play NCAA hockey.
“I think there were a lot of good things about last year,” said coach Jon Jonasson. “But first and foremost, we were proud of our player advancement and commitments. We met our number one goal of moving players up, and when you can move them to college hockey, it’s a good feeling. We have all the tools to be successful in player development and success in Helena – along with the best fan base in the NA3HL.”
The Bighorns are owned by Oren Koules, president of Evolution Entertainment and former part-owner of the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning. A native of Chicago, Illinois, Koules played minor league hockey in his hometown and later in the Western Hockey League. (Koules produced the hit TV show, “Two & a Half Men,” which at one time starred Charlie Sheen.)
Koules said that he has wanted to acquire a Junior A hockey team since his Junior A playing days in Los Angeles.
“I have a passion for the game,” said Koules. “I wanted to give something back to the game that gave to me for so many years. Seeing these young men progress and develop is one of the most rewarding experiences anyone can have. We have had teams in both the AWHL and NAHL and as we enter a new era in hockey in Helena, we are sure that the new season will bring the most rewarding experience yet for both the players and ourselves. I can’t wait for it to start.”
Helena Bighorn players must be within the ages of 16-20, with the majority 16 to 18 years old; athletes come from many different parts of Montana (including Helena) and the United States.
Kyle Hayter, a multi-sport athlete from Capital High, prepares for his next challenge when plays in his first season for the Helena Bighorns (opening night is September 19).
“It’s exciting, and I’m glad to be a part of it, especially having grown up here,” said Hayter, a former pole vaulter. “My dad and I would come to the Bighorns games all the time. I’d come and watch and just try to learn as much as I could.”
Hayter is a native Wisconsinite, but moved to Helena when he was 7-years old. He’d learned to skate already, but it was in the Capital City that he took up competitive hockey. Starting at that young age, he in due course worked his way onto the high school team, which this past season earned the state championship.
Hockey is obviously a sport of self-sacrifice: you must endure being throttled into the boards and having an open ice check come in your direction while at center ice. You have to be willing to put your body in front of fast moving pucks to block shots and accept that you could lose teeth or end up with broken bones as a result. Such circumstances do not rattle Hayter.
“(Hockey) is really different from a lot of other sports,” said Hayter. “Growing up, I wanted to play football and basketball and stuff, too. But hockey is just so much different. There’s nothing like it. And not a lot of people in Montana can say they can skate well and play hockey. So it’s just unique, and not like everything else out there.”
Coach Jon Jonasson enters his second season with the Helena Bighorns. In his first season, Jonasson rebuilt the program with only four returning players and reached the Frontier Division Finals, posting a regular season record of 34-10-3. The Bighorns finished just 1 point out of the wild card spot in the Silver Cup playoffs completing the season with the 5th most points in the NA3HL.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Jonasson lives in Helena year-round with his wife Kellie, and two daughters Charlie, and Skylar.
“I am very excited to be in Helena for my second season and continue building a championship caliber program here,” said Jonasson. “Nothing beats competing in a playoff game in front of more than 1,500 fans. I look forward to continuing the development and advancement of players in Helena. This is a great place for it with the facility and staff in place. We are fortunate enough to operate at a high level here, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to have a hockey program than Helena.”
No other sport mirrors hockey in terms of speed. Everything about it is fast-paced: the slap shots, the game pace, and, of course, the players. Other sports lumber at a glacial pace in comparison to it. Games are divided into three 20-minute periods. Although the game has its own designations of stoppages (icing, off-sides, penalty calls) the periods generally unwind with end to end action. Athletes race up ice with blazing speed and raging reflexes, firing shots often clocked at 100 miles an hour.
The 16 veterans returning are expected to give the Helena Bighorns a competitive edge. Important pieces include forward Brandon Mills, who tallied 40 points last season, and forwards Johnny Bonta (37 points), Kyler Chartier (41 points) and Blake Babineau (25 points). Offense should be a team strength. Helena is also fortunate to return two veteran goalies in Grant Martens and Adam Ranck. Martens was the NA3HL Frontier Division Goalie of the Year last season; he notched a league-high six shutouts and ranked second in the league with a 93.8% save percentage.
No matter where your seats are located, you will be able to follow the flow and view the puck. Bighorns games are professional, quickly-paced and kid-friendly. Players must possess strong talents to even make the cut –so expect a slick mixture of skating, passing, finesse, and grit. Tickets may be purchased in advance at helenabighorns.com or at the gate. Adult tickets cost $9 and seniors and kids ages 5 to 13 pay $6. Children under age 5 are free. Opening night is September 19.
Seven teams make up the NA3HL in 2014-15: Billings Bulls (Billings, MT), Bozeman IceDogs (Bozeman, MT), Gillette Wild (Gillette, WY), Glacier Nationals (Whitefish, MT), Great Falls Americans (Great Falls, MT), Helena Bighorns (Helena, MT) and Yellowstone Quake (Cody, WY).
The Bighorns have an especially strong rivalry with the nearby Missoula and Great Falls teams and those contests may elicit a bit more intensity. Concession stands offer a standard selection of sporting event fare: hot dogs, sodas, frozen pizzas, snacks, and peanuts. It’s a little chilly in the arena, so make sure to dress accordingly. Follow the team on Facebook for season updates.