As the final minutes ticked ever so slowly off the Helena Ice Arena scoreboard Friday night, the emotion on the home team’s bench was evident. Almost palpable.
The raising of yet another league championship trophy was inevitable.
And while several new faces stood along that bench, many were players here last season when the Bighorns lost teammate Wyatt Winfield to an automobile accident. The anniversary of Winfield’s death was last weekend, and the memory of their friend was as real — as motivational — this season as it was last. There’s a commemorative sign hung on the wall behind the bench, and helmet stickers and hand-drawn reminders on sticks with Winfield’s No. 15 could be seen down the line.
“Honestly, some people might think we’ve forgotten, but we’re still playing for him, each and every day,” Damon Hanson said. “I know he’s still very much on my mind and in my heart.
“This is his last year (of eligibility), so this is big. It’s special for me and it’s special for all the guys who were here last year.”
Special because, for the seventh straight season, the Bighorns are league champions. Helena won the AWHL title with a 4-0 win over Great Falls, completing a three-game sweep to give the Bighorns an incredible 52nd win against just two losses this season.
The trophy was also, the league announced Friday about the time the puck dropped, the final champion to be crowned in the AWHL. The league will be folded into the North American 3 Hockey League next season. All seven current AWHL teams will join the NA3HL as part of the league’s new Frontier Division.
The now 28-team NA3HL will be divided into five divisions and boasts a strong membership — including North Iowa, which won the USA Hockey Tier III Junior National Championship a year ago. The Frontier Division teams will compete in a 48-game schedule, with the winner of the division’s playoffs joining the winners of the four other divisions for the 2015 Silver Cup Championship Tournament.
“We have had a great run in the America West Hockey League, and in my opinion have represented the league, USA Hockey and our organization well at the national level each year,” Helena coach Scott Cunningham said. “Our team and program is ready and excited to make this move to the next level by joining the NA3HL. The opportunities for our players will become greater, and the level of professionalism and structure within the NA3HL will provide a stronger league as a whole.”
On Friday, though, it was all about winning a league title. And Great Falls (39-13-3) wasn’t going to make that easy.
It was a tight first period, with the Americans turning in a great defensive effort. But, against a team like Helena, that first mistake may be the one that costs the most — and that’s what happened with just over four minutes left in the frame when a turnover near the Americans’ zone left Sam Bratten charging in all alone. With a flick of the wrist, the Bighorns were leading 1-0.
Then, with seven minutes gone in the second period, Hanson gave the Bighorns some breathing room and put the crowd of 700-plus on its feet.
The play started when Theo Campe picked up the puck just outside the Great Falls zone and began down the near side. Hanson turned and went down the other wing, quickly calling for the puck. It was a 2-on-3 break, but Hanson had a plan.
“He made a great pass to me and I was just hoping to use my speed to get it on the guy,” he said.
Hanson took Campe’s tape-to-tape, cross-ice pass and shot down the far side of the ice, coming in at the net wide. Faking a shot as he approached, goalie Evan Houser committed down low, cutting off the angle and covering the post.
It was just what Hanson was waiting for. Just before he would have collided with Hauser, Hanson threw on the brakes, at the same time swinging back toward the center of the crease, dragging the puck along with him before flipping the puck into an open net.
“That was the only thing I had,” he said. “He took away everything else. I faked the shot and saw him freeze. So I went around and pulled back.”
Two minutes later, Logan Henne deflected an Austin Buckholtz slap shot from near the blue line, beating Hauser again to make it a 3-0 game.
Things got a bit chippy past that — Great Falls’ Lucas Stover wound up being ejected with 6:20 to play in the period — and neither team would score again until John Petersson netted a power play goal with 4:26 to play, resulting in the final margin.
Helena goalie Austin Brihn turned away all 18 shots faced to get the shutout.
“Just seeing the guys’ will and determination all night, I just knew we’d be able to do it at home,” Brihn said. “We haven’t lost at home all year, and I woke up today and just felt good about it.
“I know it might not look at it from looking at the score, but we’ve battled all year. We’ve had some really tough games, and we’ve had some adversity. This is a really great feeling. I can’t really put it into words.”
Neither could Bighorns veteran Dylan Webster, who assisted on the game’s final goal. But he was clear on one point: This win was just the next step toward a larger goal. Next up is nationals, where the team has finished third the last two seasons. Helena won the national title in 2011.
“Being a 20-year-old and this being my last year, words can’t describe how it feels to go out with a championship. I wouldn’t have wanted anything less.
“It’s been a hell of a year – but we haven’t done anything yet.”
“The job’s still not done,” echoed Hanson. “We’ve still got nationals, and we all know we’re going there for one reason.”