Missoula's Not-So-Secret Society 3

Fastest Game on Earth Quickly Attracts Players From Every Walk of Life

 

Missoulians who aren’t regulars at the Glacier Ice Rink refer to hockey as an underground group. As if they hold secret meetings with mysterious rituals and clothing. Well, they’re not wrong. What they don’t know is that they most likely spoke to or worked alongside a hockey player at some point in their day. Every day. Hockey may be a mysterious, unconventional activity west of the Mississippi, but don’t call it Missoula’s “best kept secret.” Hockey players are everywhere, and they play for the love of the sport and the love of the culture.

Picture a humid, stinky locker room at midnight, glaring fluorescent lights, tacky rubber flooring, men and women in various stages of putting on and taking off pads and skates, groaning as they bend over to lace/unlace skates, the sound of tape and Velcro ripping. This scenario exists every night of the week, every week, from September through June. These men and women, in this harsh environment, are sharing a laugh, a beer, some advice about a home remodel project or discussing the new taproom downtown, and oftentimes their game has been over for hours. And still they sit in their sweaty t-shirts.

The endearing and infectious thing about Missoula hockey is that it welcomes everybody. From 73 to 3, there’s a league for everyone. There’s 25-year-old former Division I player Montana Hemling to newbie Californian Michael Burks, owner of the Missoula Maulers Junior A hockey team.

“I could barely stand and sure as heck could not stop to save my life,” Burks says, but he was hooked and promptly established a Junior A hockey program with fellow skater Corey Miller. Nine years later, his Missoula Maulers are the top ticket-selling team in their league and routinely draw 1,500 fans for a weeknight game. Burks’s passion for the sport is palpable, and credit lies in the culture of Missoula hockey: “The support of the city has been a mind blower.”

Dr. Janice Givler eagerly laces up her skates in the wee hours of the night despite her busy on-call schedule and parenting three active kids.

“I’ve been able to meet such an amazing variety of people. I’ll never be better than novice, and I don’t care and my teammates don’t care,” she says. “It’s just so fun to spend time with all these individuals I never would have interacted with at all, from so many different walks of life.”

That sense of community isn’t uncommon in recreational sports, but the remarkable element about Missoula hockey is its ability to draw in and retain players of all abilities. As frustrating as it is, teetering on ¼” of steel in 12-degree weather, paying hundreds of dollars for gear and registration, and preparing for 11:45 p.m. game times, the participation in adult and youth hockey has grown at a rate above the national average. Despite all the hurdles hockey presents, it’s still fun when you’re terrible.

From more than 500 participants, the youth hockey program regularly sends its best and most promising young players on to college, junior leagues or private schools geared to hockey development. And while proud of these local products, the youth hockey community still has hundreds of young people playing just because they love the sport, their teams and the culture. Which is exactly what every adult player would say as well.

Sean Morris started from scratch 15 years ago at the encouragement of some friends. He quickly took advantage of the variety of opportunities available for player development to become the hard-skating defenseman he is today.

“I started going to public skates and then stick and puck sessions. Later, I started going to pickups. I skated about every opportunity I could and, to get even more opportunities to skate, I qualified to be a referee,” says Morris, now a volunteer member of the Glacier Ice Rink Board of Directors and the Montana Amateur Hockey Association Board of Directors.

Hockey in Missoula draws people in, gives them something to smile about and encourages them to pass that on. What more could be asked of a sweaty, smelly, frozen barn of a building?