Newest Bighorns add spice to rivalry with Bozeman

If familiarity breeds contempt, expect a touch more fervor in the air when the Helena Bighorns play host to Bozeman in a NorPac game tonight (7:35 p.m.) at the Helena Ice Arena.

“It’s going to be fun,” said Bighorns forward Tom Greene, one of two former Icedogs who have joined the Bighorns in recent weeks.

Helena (36-4, 72 points) has already clinched the America West Division’s top seed as it heads to the Cascade Cup playoffs later this month. The top seed means Helena will face either Billings or Bozeman in the first round of the playoffs. Missoula and Yellowstone – which have both beaten the Bighorns twice this season – will meet in the other first-round playoff series.

Bozeman (15-27, 30 points) trails Billings (19-22, 38 points) by eight points for the final playoff spot with six games remaining, meaning that every game is now a virtual must-win. The Icedogs have endured a turbulent season which included the dismissal of several players for drug usage and a seven-game losing streak. Bozeman is 0-7 against Helena this season and has lost 11 straight to the Bighorns, including last spring’s first-round playoff series.

Greene, 18, came to Bozeman last fall after playing AA youth hockey in his hometown of Arvada, Colo. His 22 goals and 41 points still top the Icedogs’ season scoring charts. Since arriving in Helena in a Jan. 20 trade, and being paired with scoring ace Rudy Pino and Taylor Laneville, Greene has a goal and two assists in four games.

“I’ve had a blast up here,” Greene said. “You just have to open up quick, meet all the players, work hard at practice and get the connections going.”

The trade could prove beneficial to the Bighorns beyond just this season. With leading scorers Pino (73 points) and Adam Johnson (72 points) in their last season of junior eligibility, Greene could assume an even larger role next year.

“If he can play Tier II next year, that would be great,” Helena coach Scott Cunningham said. “If things don’t work out and he wants to come back, we’d definitely have him back.”

The other former Icedog now playing for Helena is 20-year-old forward Jack Kippen. Kippen scored a goal in the team’s 3-2 win over Butte last Saturday.

A self-proclaimed “ski bum” the native of Detroit Lakes, Minn., didn’t give much thought to playing hockey beyond high school. He spent a couple of years at Lake Superior College in Duluth, Minn., before doing some farm work in North Dakota. He came to Bozeman in November of 2008 to visit a friend and go skiing.

One day, he biked by the Icedogs arena, stopped in at practice and asked coach Kevin Stone for a tryout. He had three points in 18 games last season, and 16 in 36 games this season before asking for his release.

“The thing that separates him – and something we desperately needed in our locker room – was an energy guy, a guy that’s real positive and another leader,” Cunningham said.

“It wasn’t bad feelings when I left,” Kippen said. “I told them before I left I wouldn’t cheap shot them, I wouldn’t fight anybody, but I’m going to knock them on their behinds.”

And what about facing their former teammates?

“That will just make the game a little better,” Greene said.

 Notes: The Bighorns will wear pink jerseys for their Feb. 12 and 13 home games. These game worn jerseys can be purchased for $149 presale and $199 after Feb. 11. Only 30 jerseys are available.