Photo: Courtesy of Larry Beckner, Great Falls Tribune Photographer
By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
February 28, 2014
Just last July, Aaron McInnis had virtually hung up his skates and was working in a pro shop at a hockey rink in Alaska.
McInnis, who grew up in Alaska, had given up the game competitively after not making the Kenai River Brown Bears’ roster, a tier II Junior hockey team, in 2012.
He didn’t skate for three months following the news. After that, he played in men’s league a couple times a month.
It was in July that Jeff Heimel, the Great Falls Americans’ head coach, helped revitalize his career. There for a Brown Bears summer camp, Heimel walked into the shop where McInnis was conveniently working and asked what McInnis was up to.
They had met a few years earlier but hadn’t kept in contact since. Heimel was only in town for a few more days. They sat down and had a discussion, and McInnis went home and talked it over with his parents.
Now, several months later, McInnis is starring for the Americans and was recently named the Most Valuable Player — voted by the coaches — in the American West Hockey League.
“I landed in Great Falls and I couldn’t be happier,” says McInnis, who was also named to the AWHL’s first team and the league’s best forward. “I knew I wanted to get back into it. I knew it was my last year, and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t go, which is true. I’m glad I came.”
In his final year of eligibility for junior hockey, McInnis has scored 27 goals and handed out 37 assists for an Americans team that is 33-8-3 on the season. He sports a team-best +46, a stat usually held by a defenseman – and he has six game-winning goals, also tops on the team.
“He is just a special player,” says Heimel, who was recently named the Coach of the Year in the AWHL. “Very special player. He just creates a ton of offense for us and it shows in his statistics.”
About a month ago, McInnis was sent up a league to the same team, the Kenai River Bears, which cut him nearly two years ago. He played a few games – “It wasn’t the greatest fit,” says McInnis – but returned to the Americans days later.
“It’s my last year (of eligibility) being (born) in (1993),” says McInnis. “I just wanted to play as much as I could, so I figured playing here is where I would get the most playing time.”
It’s McInnis’ first year outside the state of Alaska, away from his parents and friends.
“I’m used to the snow and the cold weather,” says McInnis, who says he is looking at several Division III schools for hockey in the fall. “But it’s pretty windy here. But, no, it’s been nice. It’s a little smaller than my home town, Anchorage. But it’s still been a fun experience to be here.”
It’s been a fun experience for every Americans player this season, as they have racked up 33 wins on the season. Great Falls is entering the final regular season stretch – four more games — before the playoffs. Four of the top seven teams in the league receive the right to play in the playoffs. The first seed will play the fourth seed, and the second will play the third.
The Helena Bighorns, which has occupied the top spot for most of the year, boasts a 42-1-1 record on the season and will face either Billings or Glacier in the first round.
The Americans, which secured a playoff spot weeks ago, have been firmly slotted in that No. 2 position for much of the season and already have a matchup set with the Gillette Wild in round one. The higher seeded team will travel on the road for the first two games and finish the final three of the five-game series in their own building.
The Americans’ first playoff game against the Wild is on March 11.
“I really like where we are at,” says Heimel. “I think it’s nice that we don’t have a crazy schedule the next couple weeks … We definitely needed to tune a few things up. (We’ve) been doing a lot of team building to get the guys together. I feel good. I feel like we are peaking at the right time.”
Heimel’s team is definitely peaking, winners of its last four games going into Sunday’s matchup with Billings, which is at 4 p.m. at the IcePlex.
Even more, besides McInnis and Heimel taking home MVP and Coach of the Year honors, respectively, captain Donovan Mattfeldt was named to the first team, and Lucas Lomax and goaltender Erik Powell were named to the AWHL’s second team.
“Things are starting to come together,” says Heimel. “I’m just excited to get going. We want to have that energy at the right time, and I feel like we’re getting it. You know, just listening to the guys in the locker room, you can tell before practice, they are just into it, you know? And I think you want that obviously.”
Aaron McInnis didn’t know what he wanted from the game of hockey not too long ago, sitting in that Alaska pro shop, lacing his skates up only now and then.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
“If I didn’t see Jeff that weekend, I probably wouldn’t even be here,” says McInnis.
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: AWHL Hockey: McInnis leads Americans into final stretch (February 28, 2014)