The University of Montana Hockey Club’s first official game in seven years made a statement, drawing the largest crowd in the history of the program and ending with a Griz victory of 4-2 over Montana State. The packed game, held Oct. 2, showed just what the new UM Hockey Club is capable of.
“We plan on bringing in another seven bleachers down here,” said Ron Swanson, who works for Glacier Ice Rink. With this many attending the first game, hopes are high for the rest of the season.
The first game of the 2021 season outsold anything ever put on by the Junior Bruins, the previous junior league hockey team in Missoula, and far exceeded the attendance of previous University hockey games.
It was nearly sold out. If the team and rink went by bleacher seats it would have been, but the informal nature of the venue and the upstart team left much open to interpretation, including capacity. A free shuttle for UM students from the University helped add to the crowd at the Glacier Ice Rink.
The game brought fans of all ages, demographics and affiliations. The bleachers were packed with Griz gear, flannel and camo. A lively chorus of hometown cheers and regular hockey heckling filled the air.
“I printed 800 tickets,” Tucker Sargent, the general manager of the UM Hockey Club, said. “When we got through those and then people just started squeezing through, that’s when I realized this was going to be a lot.”
The Grizzlies started off sloppy, like a team still shaking off the dust of a seven-year hiatus. The first few minutes of the game were a jumbled mess of uncoordinated passes and long shots. But eventually UM calmed down and beat its in-state rivals 4-2 in a dominant opening game.
“As we get used to a big crowd, we’ll get better,” coach Mike Anderson said.
In true hockey fashion, the match was marked by more penalties than goals, and both teams dished it out. During each break, a message from a sponsor was announced — many of them for physical therapists and hospitals.
“We took too many penalties,” Sargent said. “Community Hospital got their money’s worth.”
After each game period, the zamboni resurfaced the ice and UM’s hockey cheerleading duo came out to perform. Figure skaters Carly Dahms and Sydney Kosiak jumped at the idea of being cheerleaders on ice. Cheerleaders aren’t a normal addition to hockey, but their graceful dancing was a welcomed addition.
Between plays, the announcer interjected to declare that this had in fact been the “most-attended game in the history of Griz Hockey.” A cheer roared from the crowd and the glass barriers shook from fans pounding their fists against them in applause. The final count was 1,100.
The room went dark and colored spotlights circled around the ice. Pink and blue, maroon and white. Glacier Rink installed party lights years ago, but according to Sargent, nobody at the rink knew how to operate them. He found a theatre production major and paid them cash to do lights for the game.
“I just told them to make it look cool,” Sargent said.
Hockey has its cult following, and for some reason it’s often hard to sell Americans on it. But all the little frills on this game paid off. Sargent did everything he could to get attention.
“You’re selling basically an idea, and telling them it’s gonna be cool,” Sargent said. “This is something people care about.”
Sargent laughed when asked if the team had a PR rep. He said the team doesn’t have much staff in general. He spent most of the game standing in as a ticket seller himself, and most of the operational funds come from donations and sponsorships.
“We’ve got a booster club set up,” Sargent said. “We’re going to work on corporate sponsors too.”
Most of the program was pulled together by Sargent, who has been working with the University as a lacrosse club coach and club sports organizer for years. As an avid hockey fan, he saw the void of a college team and wanted to see it filled. He went from donor to donor, made connections with the sports community and built relationships.
“Missoula has seen a couple of those people come and go,” said Timothy Dougherty, who was one of the founding members of Missoula’s Flying Mules in the 1980s. “But I think that the nature of the game is now well entrenched. And I think it will live to breathe another day, especially with the University of Montana backing it.”
“This was a full-on university effort. That’s good and it showed really well,” Dougherty said.
When he started the Mules he convinced the school to invest, but its contribution was much smaller then.
“They loaned us a van once or twice, and we abused that privilege,” Dougherty said with a laugh. “We abused it tremendously.”
This team has been a long time coming. The game itself is a “rink of dreams” moment: Sargent did build it and they did come.
COVID-19 proved strangely fortuitous for Montana hockey. The Junior Bruins weren’t able to play, and after a year of non-activity, the team folded. Sargent saw the collapse of the junior league team as a chance to rebuild the college one. He reenlisted the players and convinced them to play for the Griz. Those players were all too happy to come back to Missoula.
“Missoula is good people,” Kyler Fullerton, a defenseman, said. “It’s a good place with good people and like, as soon as it was announced, I had an outpour of support, and I was 1000 miles away, so it was unreal.”
Fullerton played for the Junior Bruins and went home to Kansas after the closure. He enrolled at Missoula College to play for the new club team.
After the first game of the season was already the most attended Missoula hockey game in history, Fullerton expects to keep winning.
After beating its rival Montana State, the UM hockey team kept Fullerton’s expectation, winning its next two games. The two wins were against Gonzaga on the road on Oct. 9. The first one ended 6-0 while the second ended 7-2. The Griz will play MSU again on Oct. 15 and 16.
“We’re brand new to this division,” Anderson said. “Every day is a new discovery.”