On a face-freezing night last winter, Missoula's Glacier Ice Rink bloomed with light, an oasis in the darkness that drives locals half crazy for six months each year.
Not that the rink's floodlights calmed the braying mob at the edge of the ice, held at bay only by a chainlink fence. No, that would have taken a water cannon loaded with liquid Thorazine. The University of Montana Fightin' Griz hockey squad was up against Washington State, and this crowd wanted blood on the ice.
By the time the second period started, the hour was late and the mood surly. As players crashed near the crowd, a pretty blonde girl wrapped in polar fleece rattled the chainlink. "Kill him!" she shrieked. "Kill him, you pussy!"
Meanwhile, the Griz were roughing up Wazzu's boys pretty good. "Jesus," a WSU parent could be heard to complain. "It looks like Slapshot out there."
Yes, hockey does unnatural things to people and (comparisons to cinema's legendary Hanson Brothers aside) the Fightin' Griz whipped up a good buzz for themselves last year, the first in which the club had home ice to call its own.
This weekend, a new season opens with two matches against Montana State. That's right. The Bobcats. Scum of the earth.
"This is our first meeting. We'd like it to be a big rivalry between the two schools, as big as football," says Justin Clausen, UM defenseman. "But I guess you don't know how big it'll be until you play."
This year, the Griz join the Rocky Mountain Conference, part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association. For a club that's never been affiliated with the school's athletic department, that means, for the first time, a set list of rivals and a chance for post season glory.
"We're trying to get away from the 'club' label," Clausen says. "We're going to be a little more organized this year, and we're looking to go out there and show 'em that this is for real and there's no more of this 'club' mumbo jumbo.
"Now that we're nationally recognized, we hope people will be able to get into it a little more. Before, most people on campus didn't even realize there was a hockey team."
As for last year's physical play, Clausen acknowledges that the club has some big boys who like to smack people. This year, though, he says the addition of some faster, slicker players should provide a little more style.
"We're going to have a variety of styles of hockey out there this year," he promises. "We've got the big boys out there to hit people, and the fast guys to be the showboaters."
At a practice late Tuesday night, November 3, the new finesse shows. Marshalled by coach Eric Penn, wave after wave of players sprint through attack drills at one end of the ice while a goalie parries slap shots at the other end. It's almost midnight-these guys have school and jobs, not scholarships-but the passing's crisp and there's no shortage of hard-hitting, profane spirit.
The chainlink fence has been replaced by Plexiglas, but the random assortment of bleachers and the chill of a winter night insure that Grizzly hockey will remain a hardy, no-frills affair this year for fans and players alike.
And of course, there's the small matter of the cross-state battle to look forward to.
"Finally," says team captain R.J. Portman as practice winds down. "A really physical Cat/Griz game. Football just doesn't have enough hitting." Zach Dundas
The UM Griz hockey team takes on the Bobcats of Montana State at the Glacier Ice Rink on Friday, November 6, at 9:30 p.m. and Saturday, November 7, at 7:30 p.m. The rink is located at the west end of the Western Montana Fairgrounds. $4.