Serious hockey takes to Missoula’s ice
When Michael Burks looks out from his office in the Mountain West Bank Building he can see the Glacier Ice Rink, where he donated money to update the facility with locker rooms and bleachers, and his eyes fill with pride.
The satisfaction doesn’t stem from his financial gift, or because he laces up for the Glacier Hockey League that plays there. The delight in his eyes reflects the huge banner draped on the building to promote his pet project, a Junior A hockey team called the Missoula Maulers.
Junior A hockey serves as a proving ground for 17 to 20-year-old college prospects after high school. In hockey, unlike football and basketball, exceptional players aren’t always given scholarships when they finish high school.
“It’s so much different,” says head coach Brad Swearingen. “With hockey the colleges want the 20-year-old kid.”
So while their counterparts in other sports begin collegiate play, hockey players shuffle through amateur leagues hoping to catch the eye of recruiters from places like Boston College or Michigan State–schools with enough money to fund their education and give them a shot at the NHL.
“These kids take the sport seriously. They want to get to the next level,” Burks says. He’s hoping that Junior A hockey in Missoula achieves similar success.
“I’d like us to be as big as [University of Montana Grizzly football],” he says.
Burks has done his best to nurture that ambition by associating the Maulers’ name as closely with the Griz as possible, even getting UM mascot Monte to goof off in a series of TV commercials with Maulers’ mascot Slash.
“Obviously we can’t attract the 14,000 fans that the Griz do, but we can sell a packed house,” Burks says.
Burks, whose company, a freight logistics firm called Big Sky Specialized Carriers Inc., which has been listed as one of Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Hot 500” businesses, oversees the team’s finances and their marketing campaign, but Maulers general manager Cory Miller and coach Swearingen run the team’s daily activities.
Burks says Miller came up with the idea to start a junior hockey team in Missoula, based in part on Missoula’s proximity to other Montana hockey teams from Bozeman, Helena, Butte, Bozeman, and Billings.
“All of those cities have to pass through Missoula to play each other, so it just made sense to have a team here,” he says.
Coach Swearingen hales from Trenton, Mich., where he runs a summer hockey school that supplied 15 players to the Maulers. Swearingen knows exactly what the kids he coaches hope to accomplish, because he was once like them. Years ago he played college hockey at Ferris State University until a stray puck hit him in the left eye, effectively ending his playing career.
Since then he’s worked as a coach, most recently with the Helena Big Horns, the Butte Rough Riders, and a USA Hockey youth team.
After a few seasons of working with teams around the state, he jokes that Montana fans don’t always understand what’s going on in a hockey game, “but they like the fights.”
But thanks in part to the marketing effort of Burks, hockey has been getting more attention in Missoula. It’s a bit odd for some of the players who’ve grown up in places like Michigan where hockey has a higher profile, and serious, gifted young players aren’t all that unique.
“You play out there [in Michigan] and can’t get noticed, but out here you’re a superstar,” says Maulers player Jon Moczydlowsky, a stocky and bearded 20-year-old from Swearingen’s Trenton school.
He compares the transition from Michigan to Montana to the Russell Crowe movie Mystery, Alaska, a fictional account of a New York Rangers exhibition game against a group of small town hockey devotees who have old and outdated gear and stay warm using freshly baked potatoes.
“I’m not saying we’re like the Rangers,” Moczydlowsky says to curb the laughter of several of his roommates–six other Mauler players who live with their coach in a house just outside of town. His point, he says, is that in Trenton, where he’s from, hockey stores are everywhere. “I think Missoula has one,” he says.
Fellow teammate Zach Gargasz says the guys should be happy with Missoula’s emerging hockey scene. He moved from Michigan to Kalispell four years ago and was unimpressed with the facilities in his new home as well as on the road.
“I played [in Missoula] in an exhibition game a couple of years ago and the rink was outside,” he says.
Both Moczydlowsky and Gargasz figured their shots at hockey careers were over when they finished high school, but with the Maulers both have a chance to get some serious attention for their skills and move ahead in a sport they’re completely dedicated to playing.
Overall, the Maulers’ enthusiastic reception in Missoula has the coach amazed, especially given that the team has yet to play an actual league game.
“These guys go to the mall or something wearing the t-shirts, and they get asked all the time, ‘Oh, you play with the Maulers?’…The girls like them,” Swearingen says.
The players might be attracting affectionate fans, but the real test will be if their brand of hockey can put people in the stands. The owner, Burks, has some ideas: Small kids will like Slash, the mascot. The older crowd will enjoy the competition.
Burks promises something for the college crowd, too. “We have beer,” he says.
Oct. 12 is the Maulers’ local debut as they take on the Butte Rough Riders at 7:30 at the Glacier Ice Rink. Tickets are $6 for students, $9 for adults.