By Scott Mansch, Tribune Sports Writer
March 19, 2016
When Connor Barta started playing hockey for the Great Falls Junior A team four years ago, smiles were as scarce as victories.
“It wasn’t good at all,” Barta said. “I think we had three coaches and won only one game. It wasn’t fun.”
In 2012, Barta was a 17-year-old junior at C.M. Russell High with aspirations of playing college hockey. He was talented enough to be the youngest member of the Americans, and optimistic enough to believe that abundant success at the Tier II Junior A level would soon follow.
The Americans won only one of 48 games that winter. What does Barta remember about that unsuccessful season?
“I try to forget about it,” he said. “Actually, I just remember having Logan Schermele and Donovan Mattfeldt treat me so good. I was the youngest guy and they kind of took me under their wing.”
His hockey dreams seemed like a longshot.
“I didn’t really think there was anything better that I could get because of that season,” Barta said. “But those guys taught me the lessons of sticking with it. And that if I did, things would get better.”
Sage advice for sure.
Team owner Jim Keough hired Jeff Heimel to coach the Americans following that 1-47 debacle. Barta signed up for another year, too.
The Americans won 16 games three winters ago in what was Barta’s senior year at CMR.
The remarkable resurgence continued in 2014 as Heimel’s club won 36 games, qualifying for the division championship series. Then last year the team won the Frontier Division of the NA3HL and earned a spot in the league championship tournament in Chicago.
This winter, with Barta the team’s elder statesman and captain, has been another glorious campaign for Heimel’s skaters. The Americans finished second in the Frontier Division regular-season standings and Friday night dispatched Bozeman in a best-of-three first-round playoff series.
The Americans won the opener of that series in double-overtime on Thursday at the IcePlex. Another best-of-three competition starts later this week, with the winner headed back to Chicago and the NA3HL tournament.
“It’s awesome,” Barta said. “Absolutely it’s our best team.”
Since Saturday was a rare day off for the team, Barta and a bunch of pals were hanging out together. He said that’s not unusual.
“A lot of times, teams get annoyed with each other this time of year,” said Barta. “But ours is really coming together as one unit. Really a lot of fun.”
Barta is a defenseman, a 6-foot-2, 180-pounder who is more concerned with stopping opponents’ scoring opportunities than seizing them himself.
“We’ve got enough talent,” he said. “We don’t need me to score.”
The fact he’s a Great Falls athlete has added to the Americans’ local appeal, certainly, but Heimel has said Barta would be a tremendous team captain no matter when he’s from.
Barta set the team record for games played at 117 a few years ago. He’s now at 230-some, he said.
Why the lengthy commitment?
“I just really feed off the competition,” he said. “And always battling for a spot keeps me coming back. Of course, these last three years, making it to the division finals — the fact we’re developing a winning tradition — that keeps me coming back, too.”
The college hockey dream is still there.
“I have three colleges looking at me,” he said, before chuckling a moment.
“I need to get away from home, so I can grow up,” he said.
The Americans have a big playoff series looming, then perhaps a return trip to the league tournament in Chicago. Whenever the season ends, so too will Barta’s career with the team. There is an age limit, and he’s reached it.
“Officially this is my last season,” he said.
And how will Connor Barta remember his five years of playing hometown hockey?
“I’ll look back and know I accomplished a lot, to play as many games as I did,” he said. “I’ll look back and just be happy with all the lifelong friends I made. Pretty special.”
And to go a one-victory season to what might be a second straight division championship?
“That,” said Barta, “would be very special.”
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans hockey: Barta leaves lasting legacy with team (March 19, 2016)