It appears the worm has finally turned for Helena hockey fans.
After the demise of the one-year Helena Gold Rush franchise, Helena hockey fans got to experience a year without Junior A hockey. This past April the other shoe fell when ice was removed from the Rocky Mountain Sports Arena with a strong possibility that ice would never return to that building.
At the end of spring, a group from Spokane, headed by businessman Mike Sherman, signed an agreement to buy the Helena ice rink and the group was awarded an America West Hockey League franchise. Many Helenans jumped for joy but it soon became apparent to most observers that Sherman was long on show but short on dough.
Predictably, Sherman’s bid fell through and so did any reasonable expectation of hockey at any level in Helena this season. Then it happened… a miracle. If not a miracle, then at least the break Helenans were due after six years of a hockey franchise hanging on by its fingernails.
Two Los Angeles businessmen, who had earlier this year made a bid to buy the Billings Bulls, were contacted at the last minute by AWHL commissioner Steve Nelson. They immediately flew to Helena, researched the history of the franchise, talked to dozens of people in our community, and in less than a week decided to buy the team, the rink, the whole tamale.
The new owners are Oren Koules and Mike Butters. Koules is a Hollywood producer with several major films to his credit and Butters is an accomplished actor and director. Both men have extensive hockey experience.
Butters played in the NHL for eight years as a defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings and Quebec Nordiques. He served in the front office with a roller hockey team and then back to ice hockey, helping to found the West Coast Hockey League. Koules played junior hockey in Canada before moving to minor professional hockey and attending two tryout camps with the Chicago Blackhawks.
So, not only does Helena get two successful businessmen as owners for the new Helena Bighorns Junior A franchise but they get two men who know hockey from a player’s, coach’s, and business perspective.
The initial Bighorns press conference hadn’t even concluded and Koules and Butters were talking about expansion plans for the Helena Ice Arena and local hockey programs. Most of the 40 people who attended the press conference stayed afterward to enjoy refreshments while they pinched themselves.
So, here it is Helena, just what you’ve been asking for. We now have a local hockey franchise with stable ownership, professional management and promotions, and the financial backing to provide the city with a quality product. Now it’s your turn Helena. There’s no more Mike Avon or Stan Senechal on who to blame the failure of hockey in our town. It’s time to buy season tickets. It’s time for local business to quit talking about supporting local businesses and actually get behind our newest local business. We’ve talked the talk, time for a walk.
This past weekend the Helena Bighorns held final tryouts for this season’s team. Sunday evening an “all-star” game was held. Without any advertisement, more than 200 people showed up at the Helena Ice Arena to watch Blue vs. Red.
Monday, the lineup for this season’s team was announced by head coach Nels Eckland. Eckland coached the past two seasons in the AWHL for the now defunct Kimberley Dynamiters. He said he likes his selections for this season’s team and that he doesn’t expect many changes in the months to come.
“My decisions were difficult ones this weekend,” Eckland said of this weekend’s camp. “If the players that have made this roster live up to what we think they can do, then there won’t be many changes to the roster. There’s a few players yet that may make the team but I believe in creating a team atmosphere where the players feel secure and don’t have to worry day to day about their position on the team.”
Three Helena-area players tried out for the team this weekend and the longest-shot made the team. Eckland said Helena goalie Michael Walsh made the team because he deserved it and not because he’s a local player.
“He’s got a lot of potential,” Eckland said of Walsh. “Right now he’ll be our third string goaltender. He’ll get time in practice and he’ll even see time in some games during the proper situations.”
Eckland finished Monday by saying that Helena fans can expect a quality team the during the Bighorns’ first season.
“With the quality of kids we’re bringing in this year I think Helena fans will be happy,” he said. “Not only should we have a good team on the ice but I think the city will be glad to see these gentlemen off the ice as well.”
Helena Bighorns Roster
Defensemen- Jonas Abrahamsson, Sweden; Matt Hangsleben, Minnesota; Derek Lee, Washington; Dan Lohr, Wisconsin; Blake Low, California; Frank O’Grady, British Columbia; Ricky Richenbach, New York; Michael Roley, Oregon; Sean Sheffield, California; Mike Wright, Florida.
Forwards- Jamal Baker, California; Austin Bear, California; Nick Buffington, Colorado; Bryce Dale, California; Paul Freeman, Colorado; Taylor Guay, Colorado; Mike Heindl, California; Justin Kennedy, Alaska; Billy Martin, Washington; Taylor McGillis, Alberta; Andy Mushinski, Wisconsin; Chris Wagner, Washington.
Goalies- Mike Dowers, Minnesota; Joe Shannon, Minnesota; Michael Walsh, Montana.
New Arrivals- Ben Nelson, F, Washington; Brent Boisvert, F, Alberta; Chase Decker, F, Washington; Drew Sanders, F, California; Nicklas Wiltman, G, Sweden.