By Scott Mansch, Tribune Sports Writer
March 12, 2016
Editor’s Note: Jeff Heimel has coached the Great Falls Americans Junior A hockey team for four seasons and has led the franchise to consistent success. The club skated to a division title last year and had the opportunity to repeat on home ice Saturday night at the IcePlex. The Americans will be a top-two seed in the NA3HL’s Frontier Division playoffs and will likely open the postseason with a home game on Thursday night. Heimel, who will be 30 in April, and his wife Megan, a Torrington, Wyo., native, live in Great Falls with their two sons, Christian, 3, and Preston, 1.
Q: Congratulations on another fine season.
A: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Q: Is this team as good or potentially better than last year’s?
A: It’s tough to compare. If you look at our forwards, we’re definitely more complete from line one through four. Our offense last year came from a select amount of guys, and (Friday night) we had six guys score goals and essentially our top three scorers didn’t score. That’s exciting. Our first line played well (Friday night) and they didn’t score. So to get offense from three lines is very exciting. And I think our defense and goaltending is on par.
Q: You’ve certainly got more depth and scoring punch this season, right?
A: Last year we won a lot of 1-nothing and 2-1 hockey games. I’m excited we have so much depth up front. That could really help us in the postseason.
Q: Who have been your main team leaders?
A: Obviously our captains, Connor Barta (of Great Falls) and Austin Krantz (of Highlands Ranch, Colo.) have done a great job. But we have a wide variety of leadership across the board. Eight or nine 1996 birth years on the team for their second year, and those guys are veterans. Then we have six 20-year-olds, too. Then you look at our rookies, two of our leading scorers (Tanner Congdon, Ricards Bernhards) are in their first year of Junior hockey. So the team has really come together internally, inside the locker room. That’s been tremendous and it’s a testament to the older guys in the room. A really good leadership core.
Q: That’s got to be gratifying as a head coach?
A: We always knew we had a talented group, but it was a matter of hey, can we all come together and have a common goal? It’s always important to have guys who not only play well, but play for each other. And we’ve had that.
Q: The support of your Great Falls fan base also has to be something you’re proud of.
A: Yes. We really appreciate the support of the fans here.
Q: Our town has a solid niche of hard-core hockey fans.
A: I see a lot of the same faces I saw the first year I was here. Whether we’re good or bad, they’re here. I’m sure winning is attractive, but we have a really nice following of core fans who have been here through thick and thin. It’s exciting to be a part of that.
Q: What is your secret, Jeff? We struggled mightily before you were hired (won only one game five years ago).
A: Well, I think retaining players from year to year and also moving players on. You want to develop them and at the same time get them out the door. We try to treat the players well and get a good group of core guys to come back. That’s been the strength of our program. We’ve also had a lot of great coaches over the years. Erik Gatson, our assistant coach this year, played for me for three years. To have that consistency with coaching staff and types of players we’ve recruited has been huge. Mike Walsh, our defenseman coach, has been a big part of that. And we have a new strength and conditioning coach, Zach Bumgarner, who runs a business here (Switchworks) and has some very unique training for our team. We’re all like-minded individuals who have common goals for our guys. That helps recruiting. The quality of player we’ve gotten has really gone up the last few years.
Q: Jim Keough (team owner) hired several coaches before you, Jeff, but I’d say he hit a home run with your hiring.
A: I don’t know. But thank you. I’d had a lot of buy-in from ownership. I came in here with a 3 to 5-year plan to have a competitive and consistent team from year to year. To have buy-in and trust from the ownership group is definitely nice. I’ve really appreciated that.
Q: I know you want to recruit great skaters, but what’s the first thing you’re always looking for?
A: Character, period. And we look for a wide variety. Hockey’s such an interesting game. You have offensive defensemen and defensive defensemen. Obviously goaltending is huge. If you look at our goaltending the past five years it’s been unreal. We’ve always had top-five goaltenders in the league and sometimes multiple top-five goaltenders. You’ve got to find offensive talent and at the same time you have to find balance. But you can always eliminate a guy very quickly if there are character flaws. We try to call coaches and do our homework, so when they do come into the community they have a positive impact.
Q: Conner Barta is a fine player and a Great Falls boy. So we’re really proud of him.
A: He’s done a great job. The Great Falls thing is awesome and a good story. But he’s be effective on this team if he was an out-of-town guy. It’s cool to have. He’s a captain because of his leadership. To have him be a Great Falls kid is a bonus. And Blake Miller as well, another local kid. To have representation from Great Falls has really been nice to see. We’re thankful for them.
Q: Which one of your players that’s moved on to a higher level are you maybe most proud of?
A: Evan Hauser, without a doubt. He’s at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. (NCAA) Division I.
Q: Do you think some of the guys from this team could have Division I hockey in their future?
A: Sure. This level has always been a stepping stone. Evan got an opportunity where he moved to a higher level of Juniors from this league and then he was picked up. A lot of these have that potential. It comes to having that good work ethic. And sometimes about catching a break, too.
Q: In the Frontier Division playoffs, you’ll have home ice.
A: Yes. In the first round, for sure. Best-of-three.
Q: The regular-season division title doesn’t mean as much as the playoff championship, right?
A: Yes. (laughs) If we win (regular-season) we’ll get a pat on the back from ownership, maybe, but it’s just for a better seed in the playoffs. It’s important and we want to get it, but we still live on for the playoffs. The winner goes to Chicago (to compete for overall NA3HL honors), with six divisional winners and two wild-card teams. We’re also in the hunt for that wild card because of our winning percentage.
Q: You want to get to Chicago and have success, right?
A: We want to win the league championship (in Chicago). That’s the goal. We want to win in Chicago. That’s the entire league championship. But to get there we have to win our division and qualify.
Q: I’m sure you’ll have opportunities to move on, but do you like it here? Could you see yourself staying here awhile?
A: We like it here, yes. It’s a year-to-year thing. It’s definitely a great place for us. Megan and I were married here and both our kids were born here. I love the community. If and when we were ever to part ways it would a sad day, because we’re so invested in the community. As of now there are no decisions. I don’t have anything else on the table. I could see our family staying here longer, absolutely. This is the last year of my two-year contract so we’ll see where we are after the season.
Q: I assume your young boys are already skating.
A: (laughs) Christian is. Preston’s not quite ready.
Q: You’ve accomplished so much here, Jeff. What would you say to your fans about the potential of this team moving into the playoffs and the next month or so?
A: Just that it’s exciting. We’re in as good a position as we’ve ever been to be successful in the postseason.
Q: Have you already started recruiting for next year, even though you don’t have a contract extension yet (laughs).
A: Yes. We have two visits scheduled (Saturday). We definitely are recruiting. I heard Nick Saban say once after he won a national championship and he said, ‘I’m a month behind recruiting.’ (laughs) To be good this time of year is awesome. But you’ve got to stay on it (recruiting). You’ve got to be a year-rounder with this. That’s what I try to do.
Q: Thanks, Jeff. Good luck to the Americans.
A: I really appreciate it, Scott.
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Sunday Conversation: Heimel helps hockey team thrive (March 12, 2016)