There’s been some shuffling of roles with the Helena Bighorns over the last several weeks, but one thing remains constant -- the team is focused on adding to a long list of championships.
While Jon Jonasson will continue to work with the Bighorns in achieving that goal, he will no longer be doing so from behind the bench.
“I’m going to be stepping down as head coach and will be working as just the general manager the rest of the year,” Jonasson told the Independent Record on Friday.
The decision isn’t one made lightly, nor did it come as a result of any kind of managerial clashes. It is simply, Jonasson said, a personal decision and one that is best for both his family and the team. The second-year Helena coach met with team owner Oren Koules to discuss his position, and the discussion lead to the decision to have him step down and concentrate more on the Bighorns’ off-ice duties.
“I’m still going to be here in a full-time capacity, running hockey operations behind the scenes and making sure our players get to college and those kinds of things.
“It’s definitely for the betterment of the team at this moment.”
Taking over coaching duties will be interim head coach Blake Mendenhall, along with Craig Reinhardt. Both have been assistants under Jonasson through the 2015-16 season, and began taking over leadership of the team two weeks ago.
“They’re both very knowledgeable, and the three of us work together very well,” Jonasson said. “I think that it’s a really good combination we have right now, and the players are in good hands the rest of the year.”
Both Mendenhall and Reinhardt were already heavily involved in coaching the team already, and handled a lot of in-game decisions as well. And, with that familiarity, there hasn't been any kind of struggle to adapt to the change, veteran Brandon Mills said.
"The transition has been pretty smooth," he said. "The boys are just looking toward one game at a time and what we have control over, which is our play on the ice.
"Blake brings a great intensity to the table, and also he won national championships at this level as a player so he knows what it takes to get us to where we want to be."
Helena, which hosts Billings again at 7 p.m. Saturday, has gone 2-1 since the coaching switch. And with the knowledge that last year’s group missed a spot in the NA3HL Silver Cup Championship Tournament by a single point, every shift and every shot now holds even more importance.
"The standings are so close right now in our division, and I'm really excited to see where everything pans out," said Mills, "especially with our team trending upward at the moment. I'm pretty excited where we are headed as a team into playoffs."
The Bighorns (20-11-0) are in the final stretch of the regular season, sitting in fourth place in the Frontier Division standings with 40 points, eight up on fifth-place Gillette. Great Falls still leads the pack with 52, but second-place Bozeman is only two game up on Helena at 44, while Yellowstone is third at 43.
Worth noting is that Great Falls has played more games than any other team in the division. With 16 games remaining, Helena has three games in-hand on the Americans, and also has one on Bozeman.
Further helping matters, 10 of the remaining 16 games for the Bighorns are at home, including six of the next eight.
That said, nine of the remaining games are against one of the top three teams, and another four are against Gillette -- which is chasing the Capital City squad for the last playoff spot.
“Realistically, anyone could end up in first place at the end of the year at this point,” Jonasson said. “That’s our goal. Our goal is always to win the divisional championship. And it’s attainable for us.
“This is probably the best this division has ever been, and finally there’s a lot of parity within the division. It makes it competitive and it makes the players better as well.”