From The Billings Gazette
By Bill Speltz
MISSOULA — The first thing you need to know about the Montana men’s hockey team is that it has iced archrival Montana State in seven of eight meetings this season.
There, I knew you’d like that one. Even if you’re a Grizzly fan that has never been to a hockey game, pounding on the Cats usually perks up your ears.
It’s actually quite remarkable what Montana’s beefed-up club hockey program has accomplished in its restart season.
It could have been ugly with new players and a new coach and a deep plunge into the American College Hockey Association (ACHA). Instead, the Grizzlies (12-5-1) have drawn roughly 1,200 fans per home game and look like a good bet to reach the Mountain West League playoffs on Feb. 10-12 in Ogden, Utah.
“It’s been incredible,” said Tucker Sargent, general manager of the team. “I knew that there was a passion for hockey and people wanted this, particularly Griz hockey, but I didn’t know it would be so big so quickly.
“I have to hand it to the fans because they have been a huge part of our success in very realistic ways. We added two high-caliber players just this semester that had seen what was going on that transferred to UM because they saw how big of a deal Griz hockey was. They wanted to play here.”
The Mountain West League playoffs are as far as the Grizzlies can go this winter since it’s considered a probation year for the program. They’ll find out if they made the list for the league tourney next week. Then next winter they’re eligible for ACHA regionals and nationals.
It’s worth noting Grizzly hockey is a non-scholarship program. It’s simply a terrific way to embrace the sport and draw more students to UM. Those that put it together, including Sargent and co-head coaches Mike Anderson and Will Grossmann, are to be commended.
Kids that have never been to a hockey game are showing up for Griz hockey at Glacier Ice Rink. So many people showed up for a recent home game against Montana State that it was a little comical.
“It was definitely standing room only and there were a lot of people that were just there for the scene and I don’t think they could even see the ice,” Sargent said. “It’s really been cool.”
The popularity of the Grizzly program has highlighted the fact Glacier Ice Rink could use some upgrades to make the fan experience more enjoyable. Hockey fans are generally a hearty group, so you won’t hear a lot of complaining. But like a lot of things, it could be better with a little more cash flow.
For now, it’s nice to see so many embracing the first-year program and the Grizzlies building good rapport with the Missoula Amateur Youth Hockey Association, which owns and runs the rink.
Certainly it’s a great option for children looking for something to do on the weekends. For them, the Montana players are heroes, and you better believe the Grizzlies love the attention.
“Guys that are playing other places or playing high-level Juniors are seeing the photos and films of our games and the crowd support,” Sargent said. “That’s one of the strongest draws of guys wanting to play here, other than the university and how great Missoula is.”
Keep lighting that lamp and caging those Cats, Grizzlies.
What a great way to warm up a western Montana winter.
(Originally published at https://billingsgazette.com/sports/college/big-sky-conference/university-of-montana/bill-speltz-skating-montana-grizzlies-have-been-fan-tastic-in-first-season/article_8c156720-90ec-5a3a-aa17-5ba93e5ee0a6.html)