MISSOULA — The Missoula Bruins high school boys hockey team has persevered through adversity and is now shooting for a championship at the state tournament from Friday to Sunday in Bozeman.
The Bruins head to state with the No. 2 seed and a 15-5 record. That’s a respectable mark, especially given that they’ve played all their games on the road this season because of group size limits imposed by the Missoula City-County Health Department.
“We had a lot of quiet moments at the beginning of the year where you could tell they were processing how to get through it and where they’re going to find motivation,” said Joren Johnson, who returned to coach the team this year after being away for a couple years.
“They found their motivation that even if we didn’t get home games we might still get a state tournament. They’ve been good trying to get as much as they can out of what we do have.”
It’s been an especially frustrating season for the six seniors on the 20-player roster. None of them have gotten to play at home in their final year because the county limited gathering sizes to 25 people before relaxing that to 50 two weeks ago.
The seniors were supposed to have their final state tournament in Missoula, but the county hasn’t allowed tournaments of any kind, even shutting down a Missoula Mavericks baseball tourney over the summer. Fortunately, they got a senior night when the Helena team shared their senior night with Missoula.
While there’s disappointment about being the only team in the state without a home game, the players' time as road warriors has helped them mature on the ice and strengthen their bonds as teammates after they were limited to virtual meetings at the start of the year.
“It’s weird to say this, but when we go on the road, it’s not just about playing these hockey games, it’s about the guys coming together at the hotel or the pool,” said senior defenseman Daniel Jackson, a two-year team captain who attends Sentinel. “That’s another aspect of the whole bonding is how we came together on these trips. I think that helped.”
The Bruins were limited to 20 games instead of their normal 60. They didn’t travel out of the state, an organizational decision, and have had to shut down twice for two positive COVID cases on the team, Johnson said.
Missoula has also had to practice at 5:30 a.m. two times a week and 6:30 p.m. once a week because of the large amount of groups that want to use the rink and the thorough cleaning that has to be done in between.
With the myriad of challenges, that's where Jackson and fellow captain Zach Hangas can make an impact. As seniors — along with Alex Kirkhus, Gabe Miller, Kevin Moore and Logan Stabnau — they’re looked to as leaders for the young team that has nine sophomores but has been developing a deeper bench.
“I think our success is because of the commitment we’ve had to have to be able to deal with everything thrown at us this year,” said Hangas, a center who attends Sentinel and won state titles in football and golf in the fall.
“With the coronavirus and everything, it’s been us coming together as a team and knowing we have one goal, and that goal is to be the state champs. The best part is we’re having fun with what we’re doing right now.”
At state, the second-seeded Bruins are in the blue pool, which includes the No. 3 Bozeman Icedogs, the No. 5 Billings Bulls and the No. 6 Butte Copper City Kings. The red pool features the No. 1 Flathead Fusion, the No. 4 Helena Bighorns and the No. 7 Glasgow Ice Dawgs.
Hangas and Jackson were both on the team that won the 2019 state title. A championship this year may be even more special.
“It would be amazing, especially in a year like this, if we can come out with something super positive,” Jackson said.
Mavs pitcher commits
The past few months have been busy for Hangas, who made his college baseball commitment two weeks ago during the hockey season.
The Sentinel senior who plays American Legion baseball for the Missoula Mavericks committed to Cayuga Community College in Auburn, New York. He’ll be playing at the junior college for two years with the hope that the experience there will allow him to get a Division II or D-I opportunity.
“The big thing I liked about it was it was the right level for me with the JUCO level being a development level,” Hangas said. “They’re a younger program with opportunities to play, I liked what they’re doing, and they welcomed me in.”
Hangas knew he wanted to try to play baseball in college by his junior year, making it his primary focus while still succeeding in football, golf and hockey. He’s mainly a pitcher but has also played first base for the Mavs when he’s not pitching.
Hangas got the opportunity with Cayuga after going to a showcase camp in Arizona in the middle of January. He also used recruiting websites to share videos of himself and draw other interest.
“Being a pitcher, I like to control the pace of the game, and I like the team aspect of it,” Hangas said of why he chose to pursue baseball in college. “Baseball, you can’t get away with individual success. It’s more of a team sport. Just growing up, baseball’s been one of those things I’ve always loved to do.”
The state swimming meets are this weekend, just five weeks after the abbreviated swim season started in Missoula.
The State AA meet is Friday in Great Falls. The State A-B meet is Saturday in Polson.