MISSOULA — Despite the smoke descending over Missoula, the objective was crystal clear inside the Glacier Ice Rink on Friday.
More than an estimated 500 people came out for an exhibition game between the Missoula Jr. Bruins and Helena Bighorns to raise funds for Jr. Bruins co-owner Jason DiMatteo, who has spent the past six months in the hospital fighting an abdominal and liver infection.
DiMatteo, who started the Jr. Bruins with wife Liz DiMatteo last year, had big news earlier in the day when he moved to a physical rehab center.
“It’s incredible,” Liz said of the crowd. “It just speaks volumes to the support of the hockey community and the Missoula community that they rally for the people they care about. I know that the community was very vocal that we were able to step in and help keep junior hockey in Missoula. I never could have expected that we would be leaning on them as much as we have over the past six months, but it’s like we’ve known them forever.”
The Jr. Bruins decided to host an exhibition game as a fundraiser because of DiMatteo’s love of hockey and the support for him from the hockey community, said Ted Moody, who runs the Jr. Bruins booster club. He said Helena paid its own way to travel to Missoula for the game.
“We’re just happy we could do this,” Moody said. “There’s so many people that came together to make this happen. We’re appreciative of the community pulling together to help Jason get better.”
All proceeds from the fundraiser went to DiMatteo’s family to help with medical expenses.
DiMatteo has become a fixture in the Missoula hockey community although he and Liz moved to the Garden City from Great Falls just three years ago.
He grew up with hockey in Alaska, played at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minnesota, coached with the Billings Bulls and worked with the Great Falls Americans. In Missoula, he’s coached youth hockey and played forward in the Glacier Hockey League (GHL), an area recreational league for adults, where he was teammates with Moody.
He and Liz kept Junior A hockey in Missoula after the Maulers disbanded in the spring of 2016. They started the Jr. Bruins in the fall of 2016, and DiMatteo hired Marcus Baxter, who played with him in the GHL, as the Bruins' head coach and general manager.
The Bruins play in the NA3HL, which is an American Tier III junior ice hockey league for players 16 to 20 years old.
DiMatteo has been able to do some work from the hospital. Baxter is mostly running the day-to-day operations.
Liz does some work with the Jr. Bruins in addition to working full time at U.S. Bank. She’s also raising five kids from ages 2 to 12.
“There’s no such thing as a normal day for me,” she said. “It’s like take it as it comes and just try to survive.”
Moody and Baxter have been impressed with what they've seen from Liz.
“She is super tough,” Moody said. “She can pretty much accomplish anything. I don’t know how she’s holding it together this whole time … and how she does it, to be honest with you. She’s doing it well. And that’s why we’re here. As much as we can help her out, maybe take some of the burden off of her.”
Added Baxter: “I think she’s obviously kept it together and handled the hockey side and work side and family side. She’s obviously a very strong person.”
Liz credited the people of the community with helping her survive the past six months.
“I’ve had incredible support from some very dear friends that are family now,” she said. “I can’t ever look at the people who have helped us as anything other than family now.”
Earlier in the day, DiMatteo was transferred to an acute inpatient rehab unit at the Denver-based hospital where he’s located. He still has drains in his abdomen and remains in Denver, but it’s the next step forward in him fighting his way back.
He’s been able to ride a stationary bike and walk on his own the past few weeks as he regains muscle after dropping from 195 pounds to 137 pounds, Liz said. He’s back up to 144 pounds. He used to have to use a walker, going slowly and tiring quickly, she said.
“He’s now going to the cafeteria instead of waiting for food to come to his room,” Liz said. “My three sons and I were down there last weekend. We went outside to eat and went in the sunshine. There’s actual sunshine there.
“It’s nice to see him get up and make his own way around. He still gets worn out, but it’s getting better.”
DiMatteo originally went into the hospital in late March with an abdominal and liver infection. Multiple surgeries were required, and he was placed in a medically induced coma while at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.
“It’s been a long summer for him,” said Baxter, who said the two talk regularly. “I know he’s anxious to get home and be with his family and be with the team.
“We’re excited to get Jason back up here and play in front of him. We’re excited that he took the next step in his recovery. I know it’s going to be a good year, and we’re excited to play for him tonight.”
Donations can be made to the DiMatteo family on their GoFundMe webpage.