GF Tribune: A long road back for the Americans

Photo: Courtesy of Rion Sanders, Tribune Photographer

By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer

March 18, 2015

It’s nearly 1,500 miles from Great Falls to Geneva, Ill.

That’s a long road.

It’s fitting, the trip across the country for the Great Falls Americans, who are traveling to the Midwest for the 2015 North American 3 Hockey League Silver Cup Tournament, which starts Thursday.

After businessman Jim Keough bought the team back in 2010, the Great Falls Americans opened their first season in 2011 after an eight-year layoff with a 1-47 campaign.

“It was the worst (junior team) in America,” Keough said.

The Americans were young, the owner explained.

“It was kind of like a nightmare,” he said. “Like a bad dream.”

It’s been a long road back from that one win season, but the Americans (38-10-3) are now riding on all cylinders.

They just swept the Helena Bighorns last weekend to win the Frontier Playoffs and, if they finish as one of the top two teams this week in the six-team field, they will travel even farther, to Simsbury, Conn., for the Tier III National Tournament.

Keough says he takes pride in bringing the Americans, and hockey, back to Great Falls. He knew it was a good program, and he knew it would be good for the community. Jeff Cunniff, a Great Falls resident and longtime hockey advocate, bothered him for several years to buy the team, Keough said.

“It was an opportunity to stay in sports,” he said. “I never played hockey in my life. I know the marketing side of it very well. And my son-in-law is a hockey player, so he was excited about it. So that’s kind of how I got involved in it. I would have never dreamt that I would have a hockey team at this age.”

The turnaround has been remarkable. From that one win team to 16 wins the next year. Then the league finals in the third year and a championship trophy in the fourth.

Jeff Heimel, the American West Hockey League Coach of the Year last season, has been a big part of it. Heimel, in his third year, wasn’t around for that one-win season, though.

“We had quite a few applicants when we interviewed Jeff,” Keough said. “And we felt, as an ownership, that he was someone that we wanted, that we could build (with). We kind of had a three-year goal to get where we wanted to. And then basically three years in, we won the championship. He’s done a fantastic job of not only recruiting but really being a mentor to the young kids that we have.”

Keough remembers last season, as the president of the league, being on the ice and handing the trophy to Helena after it swept Great Falls in the finals. He said that was one of the worst moments he’s experienced, seeing his team skate off the ice in defeat as he hands their rival a trophy.

“So this year, it was such sweet revenge that we beat Helena in their own barn. It was fantastic,” he said.

The trip this week adds up to $10,000-15,000. But that’s part of the business, he explained.

To remember where they were to where they are now, it’s well worth it.

“I really appreciate all of the fans that stuck with us through the first year and all of the sponsors,” he said. “ … They stuck by us and that meant a lot to us as a program.”

Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune (March 18, 2015)