By TROY SHCOKLEY, Independent Record- For more than a decade, Scott Cunningham regularly turned out some of the toughest, hardest-playing hockey teams in the league.
The Helena Bighorns, however, will have to carry on their traditions without him next season. Cunningham has resigned his position as head coach; he and his family will soon head back to his native Canada, where Cunningham will serve as an assistant coach/assistant GM with the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“I had a couple of offers a few seasons ago,” Cunningham said. “They were good offers in good places but, to be honest, my kids were a little bit younger and we just weren’t prepared to move. This one became available, I pursued it and it feels right and I think we’re ready.”
Brooks, a Tier II program, is about two hours east of Calgary and about five hours from where Cunningham grew up. It’s a step up, but leaving Helena was a tough decision.
“I’ve worked full-time for 10 years with the Department of Military Affairs with the National Guard, too,” he said. “It was a huge decision. I’ve got a really good job out there and have a lot of friends out there. And, of course, with the program here, being here that long and being so successful, it wasn’t a decision we took lightly or made in a couple of hours.
“People, from time to time, would ask me, ‘Are you ever going to leave, do you ever get tired of it?’ I kind of said to myself that when I start losing, it’s probably time for me to get out. That hasn’t happened to me yet, and hopefully it doesn’t. But it’s been pretty awesome.”
Cunningham spent four seasons with the Helena Ice Pirates, twice getting them to the Borne Cup Finals and twice to the semifinals. After a few short stints elsewhere, Cunningham was back in Helena to take over during the first year of the Junior B Queen City Cutthroats.
That team lasted just two seasons, however, and was folded into the Bighorns following the 2005-06 campaign. That’s when Helena, Billings and Bozeman pulled out of the North American Hockey League and joined the Northern Pacific Hockey League.
Cunningham was selected to coach the combined teams, and plenty of success followed. In fact, since 2005, the program has only not won a league championship in 2007 — a year in which it still won an AWHL divisional championship. In 2011, the Bighorns were the USA Hockey Tier III Junior A national champions, and two years later finished with a bronze at nationals.
There are plenty of memories, good and bad, that Cunningham will take with him to Canada. There are a few good times, though, that stick out.
“Especially the first two years, with the Cutthroats,” he said.
“Taking over a team halfway through a season and taking that team all the way to the championship? That was my first junior championship, so that was pretty special.
“Probably one of the other ones was winning the national tournament. Unfortunately, I don’t know if Helena will ever have another team that good again — and I just say that because of all the expansion going on. Even a couple of years before we won nationals, and really up until this year, we were competitive at the national level. But we just weren’t as deep as those teams that had beaten us there.”
Last year’s assistant coach, Pat Norlin, has also left the team. He’s returned home to Washington to work as an assistant coach with the Wenatchee Wild.
That leaves the bench empty for the Bighorns. Owner Oren Koules declined to comment on the coaching change itself, but did say he plans to “have a new coach within the week, or less.”
The Bighorns will open the season — their first as members of the NA3HL — at home on Sept. 19 against the Glacier Nationals.