As soon as Missoula native Wyatt Mathews hit the ice at 4 years old, hockey had him hooked. "I just like the tempo," says Wyatt, now 14 and the captain of the Missoula Bantam Bruins hockey team.
Wyatt first experienced the sport watching his dad play among friends. His brother, Brett Mathews, is now a Missoula Maulers standout. As for Wyatt, he's well on the way to making a name for himself.
The Bantam Team is composed of kids 13, 14 and 15 years old. It's one of seven Missoula Bruin teams hosted by Glacier Ice Rink and through the nonprofit Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association. Kids between 4 and 18 are classified by age bracket and segregated into teams with names like the "peewees," "squirts" and "mites."
The Youth Hockey Association has grown in numbers and enthusiasm since 1996. In the beginning, Glacier Ice Rink was simply a slab of ice with chicken wire around it. Steady fundraising and volunteer efforts are paying off. Glacier Ice Rink is now fully enclosed, with heated locker areas and a concession stand. The program at first drew about 50 kids. Today, 340 local youngsters are signed up for the sport, Youth Hockey Director Gary Jahrig says.
Rather than wiling away winter evenings playing video games, youth hockey players like Wyatt and his teammates practice four nights a week. The teams also stay busy with weekend games. "My life kind of revolves around hockey," Wyatt says.
Missoula's increasing support and enthusiasm for youth hockey is helping the Bantam Bruins to become the first Missoula youth team to compete in the USA Hockey National Tournament. "It's definitely uncharted territory," says Bantam Bruins Coach Jacob Housman.
The team flies to New Jersey for nationals March 28-April 1. They're working to raise money for airfare costs. For more information, go to the Youth Hockey Association website and click on "Bantam Travel."