Skip Archibald’s been there from the start.
And the voice of the Helena Bighorns has got a story or two about the good ol’ days.
“The Billings coach, Bliss Litler, he was an instigator. He told me one night when we were playing Bozeman … he says make sure to say, ‘The more you roar, the more they score,’ as much as you possibly can.
“So we scored like our eighth goal against them, and I said, ‘The more you roar the more they score!’ And all of a sudden this Igloo cooler went flying across from me. It was the coach from Bozeman that threw it at me. And Bliss was over there just howling. Course they kicked the Bozeman coach off the ice because of what he did, but … awesome. Awesome times.”
That was hockey then.
From the NHL all the way down through the junior ranks, the game was a physical, fight-filled, watch-for-flying-objects affair.
In 1994, that game came to Helena. And, for one night, the Capital City’s current hockey club will pay homage to its roots, as the Bighorns transform back into the city’s first hockey love, the Helena Ice Pirates.
“I think we’ve got the right guy on the bench, we’ve got the right guy in the crowd, we’ve got the right guy behind the scenes,” said marketing director Brad Ouldhouse. “If ever there was a perfect time to do Ice Pirates, it’s definitely now.”
The big night is set for Friday, as Helena plays host to rival Great Falls at the Helena Ice Arena, with players donning the throwback purple, black and white Ice Pirates sweaters. Fans will also be able to get their hands on some Pirate gear, available through a silent auction.
The event has been officially set for a handful of weeks. But, in a sense, it has also been years in the making, as fans have routinely asked about the team that was.
Often, the point man for those conversations would be Archibald, the club’s longtime announcer.
“When I was wearing this,” he said, looking down at his old Ice Pirates jacket, “or the hat, the people in the audience: ‘Is it for sale?’ That’s the way it is. ‘Do you know anybody that has jerseys?’ I mean, it’s incredible the amount of interest in the old Ice Pirates stuff that’s out there.
“Those guys, it was so much fun to announce. They were so much a part of the community, and it was exciting.”
Talk to anyone around when the Queen City Ice Palace sprung up in Helena, or anyone who attended games in those first few seasons, and it isn’t hard to see why the city quickly embraced their new team and sport. But just getting the program off the ground took a bit of doing.
AN EAST COAST DREAM
In 1993, Mike Avon, Connecticut business man, moved to Helena with the intent of bringing hockey to Montana’s capital city.
In order to do that, though, they’d first need somewhere to play.
Stan Senechal, owner of SMD Engineering, contracted with Avon to design and install the mechanical and electrical components of the ice rink.
“The idea of junior hockey and having our own ice rink, I thought, was huge for the community. I went from doing my engineering designs to giving the man well over $100,000 to build the place, and I became a stockholder in it,” Senechal said. “I was extremely interested in the team part of it. It was exciting. What he presented was exciting. We didn’t have Google and online at that time to go check out what the league was all about. But I made a few phone calls. The Billings Bulls had been in the league the year before, very successful, did real well. So I told Mike that I would get involved, but I wanted to be involved on the team side. I became pretty much the general manager of the Ice Pirates.”
The Queen City Ice Palace was completed in the spring of 1994. And, after a naming contest, it became home to the Ice Pirates.
The team was unexpectedly successful in that first season, even winning two of three games in a tournament in New York.
The team wasn’t, though, much about high-scoring flash and speed. It settled into a different role.
“The team started coming in, and we got a coach by the name of Geoff Cook. Goeff came in and was a great guy. Everybody loved Geoff Cook; he was the big teddy bear,” Senechal said. “Everybody loved him … until he put his skates on. Then he became the toughest hombre that I’ve ever met on the face of the planet. The first practice, I come over and he blows the whistle. Everybody on the ice grabs somebody by the jersey to fight them, and they just start going at it. That’s the first practice! I said, ‘Oh, my God, are we going to be able to skate? We’re gonna be able to fight. This is gonna be good – but we need to skate, too.’
The team brought in another coach and did, indeed, skate.
It skated so well, in fact, that it reached the postseason in Year 1.
As the fourth seed, the Pirates were matched up with Vail, Colorado’s Avalanche – the top-seeded team – in the AWHL playoffs. But the Vail owner was low on money, and offered a deal. For $4,000, the Ice Pirates could host every game in the best-of-seven series.
Senechal took the deal, gambling that he might break even.
“We were down three games to none, and the boys stepped on for the fourth game and I don’t know what happened, I don’t know what was said, but we ended up winning the fourth game,” he said. “We came back and won another game. Then we won the sixth game. It went to all seven games, and we won four straight, knocked off the No. 1 seeded team, and we weren’t even supposed to be there. It was unbelievable. And the hockey bug hit Helena like you wouldn’t believe after that.”
A QUICK CONVERT
That bug also bit Archibald.
Helena had the building, the ice and the team.
It still needed a voice.
That’s where Archibald comes in.
“I was there that first year,” he said. “Stan called me up and said, ‘I know you do radio. Could you announce hockey.’ I said ‘I’ve never even been to a hockey game!’
“But I went to my first game and I fell in love with it. It was such a physical, swarm-type thing to watch. It was so fast, it was so quick, the guys were athletic, strong and they played well.”
The man behind the mic remembers that playoff series against Vail well.
“The attendance grew every single night. And the last night it was standing room only,” he said. “When they won that game, I thought the roof was gonna come off of that place. It was unbelievable.”
The following season, even more people decided to head to The Palace, intent on finding out just who these Ice Pirates were.
That’s when Archibald decided to make a move.
Spending his first season between the benches, in the area of the penalty box, we went cordless.
“I felt that my job was to get the crowd going,” he said. “And I enjoy that. I really enjoy that. I enjoy getting the crowd fired up; I enjoy getting them fired up before the team comes out on the ice. Because I think if I do my job, they do their job.”
In doing that job, Archibald fell into his catchphrase – that very same sentence that induced a grown man to throw a cooler.
The more you roar, the more they score!
“I can remember when Skip coined the phrase,” Senechal said. “I thought the bleachers were going to collapse. I mean, the place went nuts! I was expecting to see bolts flying out of bleachers! They started stomping their feet, and he kept going, ‘The more you roar, the more they score!’ And it got worse – it didn’t get any better! It was unbelievable.”
A SINKING SHIP
Despite early on-ice success, Avon was out of money.
In the spring of 1997, he announced that he was leaving Helena “to pursue other opportunities” and he moved to California. Operation of the arena went to his ex-wife and Senechal.
But in 1999, bankruptcy put the Ice Palace on the auction block. With his name on all the loans and most of the paperwork for the building and business, Senechal decided to purchase the rink.
That time of transition spelled the end of the Ice Pirates, and the Ice Palace.
What rose up was the Rocky Mountain Sports Arena and, for one season, the Gold Rush.
But Helena then went a year without the sport it had fallen in love with. Ice was taken out of the arena. Hopes it would return were slim.
Those hopes were buoyed when a buy-sell agreement to purchase the arena and team was signed by Spokane businessman Mike Sherman. The city was awarded a hockey franchise by the America West Hockey League, and the Helena Harleys were born.
Sherman was never able to raise the money to fulfill the agreement, the sale fell through and the Harleys never touched the ice.
Helena would, for another year, be without hockey.
AWHL Commissioner Steve Nelson, however, made one last-gasp effort for the Capital City.
He contacted a pair of businessmen in Los Angeles that had previously expressed interest in owning a Junior A team in Montana, Oren Koules and Mike Butters. The pair had made a bid to buy the Billings Bulls earlier in the year.
They flew to Helena, researched the franchise’s history and within the week decided to buy it all. Rink, team, bus, pro shop, the works.
The building changed names once again, to the Helena Ice Arena. The Harleys became the Bighorns. And, for a time, they were joined on the ice by another Junior team, the Cutthroats.
But it was the Bighorns that survived, having played every season since 2001.
In the final years of the Ice Pirates, a young skater named Bob Richards arrived to play in Helena.
And, in keeping with the team’s identity, the Bighorns’ first-year coach was, in his playing days, willing to drop his gloves if the need arose. At least, that’s how he tells it. But a tussle here and there doesn’t generally get you a nickname.
“He was,” Archibald said, “one of the Bruise Brothers.”
“Yeah, I mean, I always preferred to think of myself as a goal scorer,” Richards said with a grin. A comment to which Senechal couldn’t let go.
“When you weren’t in the penalty box, of course you were,” he said.
Richards, though, was far from the only one in the penalty box.
“We had eight guys over 200 pounds on our team, which is pretty unheard of,” Richards said. “Billings was very skilled … we weren’t the skilled team. We were the physical team. We kind of had that reputation. It was pretty hard-nosed hockey back then for us.
“We were the villains, if you want to call it that. People didn’t like to play us. We weren’t goons by any stretch of the imagination, but we played harder physically than any other team. We weren’t looking to score seven goals and win. We were looking to score two goals and win.”
Hard-hitting hockey is what put the Ice Pirates on the Junior map, and it was the calling card for the team that would take the ice to Darth Vader’s theme, The Imperial March, when on the road.
The club embraced the persona.
“We spent an enormous amount of time in the penalty box,” Senechal said. “We definitely played Canadian hockey. I mean, we were rough. We hit and we hit hard. We went to the box a lot for roughing.”
The fans, too, embraced both the game and the players.
Richards remembers during one game hearing a pounding on the glass during warmups.
“I turn around and there’s three guys with their faces painted, their shirts are off, and one of them has (painted) No. 12, the other one says Richards and the other one says Rules.”
Richards, who played under legendary coach Scott Cunningham, doesn’t exactly preach the same style now as he played then. There was, he remarks, thankfully no YouTube at that time.
But he does preach hard, physical, go-to-the-end hockey. And while his first season as bench boss has been a difficult one so far, he believes his team still puts on a good show for fans.
The team is excited to turn back the clocks for one night, he said, and hopefully show some of the Ice Pirate fans of long ago that there’s still good hockey being played in Helena.
“They were a classy group – they really were,” Archibald said of Helena’s first hockey players. “Not necessarily on the ice, but off the ice, they were a classy group. It’s the guys that put those jerseys on that made that team. And I think that’s why the community fell in love with them, too, was because of how they showed themselves off the ice.
“I’d just like to see all those people come back. Because I think that this could be just as big as what it was.”
Follow IR sports editor Troy Shockley on Twitter @IR_TroyShockley.