By Lee Vernoy, Tribune Sports Writer
March 18, 2018
Jeff Cunniff has seen a lot of ice hockey over his years in Great Falls, both on and off the ice.
So has former Great Falls Americans’ player Charles (Dylan) Garton and sports official Gary Geiger.
All three were on hand to take in the NA3HL Frontier Division first-round playoff between the Americans and the Helena Bighorns Friday at the IcePlex. All three, as well as the better part of 752 paying customers, left disappointed as the Bighorns won the opening game of the best-of-three game series 4-3 on Gavin Cline’s unassisted goal nearly eight minutes into overtime.
Game two is Saturday night at 7:05 at the Helena Ice Arena. A winner-take-all third game, if needed, will be back at the IcePlex Sunday night at 7.
Cunniff, who has put two sons through the local youth hockey program as well as the old Great Falls Electrics Legion Baseball squad, dates his experience with area hockey back to the middle of the 20th Century.
“With the senior skaters, we go back into the late ’40s; we had several teams here,” Cunniff, a retired financial advisor, said. “The VFW Club eventually became the Great Falls Americans; they didn’t get that name until about 1954.
“Those were the days when they were skating in the Civic Center. It was not the regulation 200-foot ice, it was short ice, so the Canadians would come into town and come roaring down the ice, and all of a sudden, there is the blue line. They didn’t expect it to come at them so quickly.”
Then came hockey at what is now the Pacific Steel and Recycling Four Seasons Arena. Cunniff was one of the major cogs in getting Americans’ hockey back in town once the ice at Four Seasons opened.
The year was 1992. “We were a Junior B team playing is what was called the International Hockey League up in Canada, and we played all the Canadian teams from Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, among others,” Cunniff said. “We played about five years of that, then we became part of another league which turned into this Tier 3 league (North American Tier 3 Hockey League).
“It’s a good level for Great Falls.”
Geiger, a veteran softball umpire and volleyball official, doesn’t go back quite as far as Cunniff, but he’s seen his share of the sport.
“When I first started coming to hockey games, maybe 50 people would attend the games,” Geiger said. “This was at Four Seasons back in the late 70s and early 80s, and it just started to grow and grow and grow, and every year we got better and better.
“The first year I started coming to the games, we won one, maybe two games the whole year. And the next year they won four games. And they continued to get better and better.”
A graduate of C.M. Russell High School, Garton played one game as a 17-year-old when the Americans were in the Northern Pacific Hockey League, which became the Frontier Division of the NA3HL in 2014
“It was a great time, playing for my hometown,” the 23-year-old Garton, whose last year with the Americans was the 2014-15 season, said. “They brought (Americans head coach Jeff) Heimel in, and he’s been a big influence here.
“He brought a winning spirit, and it’s definitely been good for Great Falls.”
CLINE SCORED THE WINNING tally off a faceoff just 7:45 into the overtime period after neither team decided anything in the first 60 minutes of play.
Payton McSharry and Kyker Mack put the Americans up by two with back-to-back goals just 44 seconds apart, but Kaden Lindberg and Jerrett Scheibel made it 2-all in the final five minutes of the first frame.
Cline, who assisted on Lindberg’s goal, got his first tally of his own off feeds from Lindberg and Luc Cross just eight minutes into the second, but Matt Janke scored the equalizer with 1:14 left in the period, and both teams played a scoreless third.
Helena 2 1 0 1 – 4
Great Falls 2 1 0 0 – 3
First period – 1. GF, Payton McSharry, 2:50. 2. GF, Kyler Mack (Adam Vandenbos, Trent Cowden), 3:34 (pp). 3. HEL, Kaden Lindberg (Gavin Cline),15:12 (pp). 4. HEL, Jarrett Scheibel (Ricards Groskops, Jeremy Solko), 19:45.
Second period – 5. HEL, Cline (Lindberg, Luc Cross), 8:03. 6. GF, Matt Janke (Dustin Truex, Brandon Peterson), 18:46.
Third period – no scoring.
Overtime – 7. HEL, Cline, 7:45.
Power Play Opportunities – HEL 1-3, GF 1-2.
Shots on goal (by period) – HEL 12-16-9-4—41, GF 10-12-11-3—36.
Goalies – HEL, Nick Battaglia (W, 36 shots/33 saves). GF, Drew Scites (L, 41 shots/37 saves).
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans continue deep hockey legacy (March 18, 2018)